Caring for Old Rats

The Signs of Ageing

It happens to the best of us. We all get old, if we’re lucky! Just as humans age, so do our rattie companions. Their bodies sag and their temperament changes as do their needs (sound familiar?!)

A rat in the prime of its life should feel solid and muscular, but as age catches up with them their body will start to lose its firmness. An elderly rat when picked up feels like a rag doll, very floppy and squishy. I’m sure many of us can identify with that! Eventually, the muscles waste away to the point that the rats mobility is hampered. It is common, especially in bucks, for the back legs to become paralysed.

pet rat eating dried sweetcorn
Hard foods may be too difficult for an old rats teeth

A once voracious appetite often wanes. Old rats can be picky with their food, and types of food that were readily accepted in youth are no longer deemed palatable. This may be because your rats teeth have degraded and he cannot break the food into small enough pieces to swallow, or perhaps because the food is not nutritionally worth the energy required to eat and digest it.

Illnesses are more likely in old rats, due to a suppressed immune system. Respiratory infections are very common ailments of the elderly, as are cataracts in one or both eyes, impaired hearing and tumours.

pet rat with tumour and cataract
An elderly rat with cataract – Image courtesy of Silver Frost Rodents

As your rat gets older, he will spend more and more time sleeping. He may not react as quickly when you call him or jump when you touch him, possibly due to impaired hearing and/or sight.

Due to the lack of mobility old rats are not able to effectively clean themselves, especially on the back and rump. Their claws may also grow long, as they are no longer worn down through use.

Incontinence is also experienced in old rats and is more likely in rats that experience paralysis of the hind legs, but can also present in rats that have full use of their back legs.

Old rats are not able to effectively control their temperature, much the same as baby rats. This means that they are very prone to overheating in the hot weather and hyperthemia in cold weather.

With some consideration for his changing needs, your elderly rat can live very contentedly during the last phase of his life.

Adapting cages for old rats

Due to reduced mobility, it is advisable to change the cage layout so that everything is on one level. Climbing into a hammock may once have been a piece of cake, but is very difficult if not impossible for an old rat. A bed should be offered at ground level, with soft material for bedding.

pet rat with tumour and cataract
A suitable cage for an elderly rat, with a solid ramp and plastic sides to protect from the cold

If your cage has a wire bottom, cover it with material. Old rats do not have enough control over their footfalls to easily walk on wire surfaces and can get their legs stuck through the wire. As they will spend their time on the floor rather than in hammocks, it is important to make the floor as comfortable as possible. This will help prevent bumblefoot, which is a foot condition caused by rats walking on soiled bedding and wire floors.

Similarly, replace ladders with wide ramps with a surface that is easy for your rat to climb on. Steep ladders should be removed and levels lowered so that shallow ramps can be used instead.

It is important to keep the cage clean of soiled bedding as with reduced mobility, your rat will be spending most of his time on the floor.

Feeding old rats

pet rat drinking from a water bottle
Lower the water bottle so that your old rat does not have to stretch up to reach it

It is very important to offer high calorie foods to your old rat. Due to his decreased appetite, the more calories in the food he eats the better. It is advisable to offer mushy foods that do not have to be chewed. It takes energy to hold and chew hard food, and solids items such as uncooked pasta or rodent blocks take more energy to digest than mushed up foods.

Make sure that food is available on each level of the cage if there are multiple levels, so that your old rat does not have to travel far to find his food. The more often he happens upon food, the more he will eat. Keeping a bowl of food right next to his sleeping spots is also advisable as is lowering his water bottle so that he can reach the nozzle without having to stand on his hind legs to reach it.

Here are some ideas for high calorie foods that can help your rattie keep his energy up.

Food Type Benefit Where to buy
Ensure™


High calorie powdered drink
High calorie

Loved by even the fussiest of eaters

Can be made into a thick paste of a thin liquid depending on preference
Ensure™ is available from most pharmacies
Nutrigel™

High calorie gel
High calorie

Very palatable, even sick rats will eat it

Easy to eat
Nutrigel™ is available from most Vet practices, and can also be purchased from online veterinary product stores.
Sugar coated cereal

Crunchy nut cornflakes™, Cheerios™ and fruit filled Shredded Wheat™ are all favourites at Sunshine Rattery
High calorie

There are many types of sugary cereal available. Experiment with a few types until you find one that your old rattie can't resist. Soaking in Ensure™ or water is advisable if his teeth cannot cope with hard food items.
Available in your local supermarket
Peanut Butter

Not suitable for very weak ratties as the peanut butter can stick in their throat
High calorie

Very palatable

Great for hiding medication
Available in your local supermarket


The Signs of Ageing

It happens to the best of us. We all get old, if we're lucky! Just as humans age, so do our rattie companions. Their bodies sag and their temperament changes as do their needs (sound familiar?!)

A rat in the prime of its life should feel solid and muscular, but as age catches up with them their body will start to lose its firmness. An elderly rat when picked up feels like a rag doll, very floppy and squishy. I'm sure many of us can identify with that! Eventually, the muscles waste away to the point that the rats mobility is hampered. It is common, especially in bucks, for the back legs to become paralysed.
[pet rat eating dried sweetcorn] Hard foods may be too difficult for an old rats teeth

A once voracious appetite often wanes. Old rats can be picky with their food, and types of food that were readily accepted in youth are no longer deemed palatable. This may be because your rats teeth have degraded and he cannot break the food into small enough pieces to swallow, or perhaps because the food is not nutruitionally worth the energy required to eat and digest it.

Illnesses are more likely in old rats, due to a suppressed immune system. Respiritory infections are very common ailments of the elderly, as are cataracts in one or both eyes, impaired hearing and tumours.
[pet rat with tumour and cataract] An elderly rat with cataract - Image courtesy of Silver Frost Rodents

As your rat gets older, he will spend more and more time sleeping. He may not react as quickly when you call him or jump when you touch him, possibly due to impaired hearing and/or sight.

Due to the lack of mobility old rats are not able to effectively clean themselves, especially on the back and rump. Their claws may also grow long, as they are no longer worn down through use.

Incontinence is also experienced in old rats and is more likely in rats that experience paralysis of the hind legs, but can also present in rats that have full use of their back legs.

Old rats are not able to effectively control their temperature, much the same as baby rats. This means that they are very prone to overheating in the hot weather and hyperthemia in cold weather.

With some consideration for his changing needs, your elderly rat can live very contentedly during the last phase of his life.
TOP
Adapting cages for old rats

Due to reduced mobility, it is advisable to change the cage layout so that everything is on one level. Climbing into a hammock may once have been a piece of cake, but is very difficult if not impossible for an old rat. A bed should be offered at ground level, with soft material for bedding.
[pet rat with tumour and cataract] A suitable cage for an elderly rat, with a solid ramp and plastic sides to protect from the cold

If your cage has a wire bottom, cover it with material. Old rats do not have enough control over their footfalls to easily walk on wire surfaces and can get their legs stuck through the wire. As they will spend their time on the floor rather than in hammocks, it is important to make the floor as comforable as possible. This will help prevent bumblefoot, which is a foot condition caused by rats walking on soiled bedding and wire floors.

Similarly, replace ladders with wide ramps with a surface that is easy for your rat to climb on. Steep ladders should be removed and levels lowered so that shallow ramps can be used instead.

It is important to keep the cage clean of soiled bedding as with reduced mobility, your rat will be spending most of his time on the floor.

TOP
Feeding old rats
[pet rat drinking from a water bottle] Lower the water bottle so that your old rat does not have to stretch up to reach it

It is very important to offer high calorie foods to your old rat. Due to his decreased appetite, the more calories in the food he eats the better. It is advisable to offer mushy foods that do not have to be chewed. It takes energy to hold and chew hard food, and solids items such as uncooked pasta or rodent blocks take more energy to digest than mushed up foods.

Make sure that food is available on each level of the cage if there are multiple levels, so that your old rat does not have to travel far to find his food. The more often he happens upon food, the more he will eat. Keeping a bowl of food right next to his sleeping spots is also advisable as is lowering his water bottle so that he can reach the nozzle without having to stand on his hind legs to reach it.

Here are some ideas for high calorie foods that can help your rattie keep his energy up.
Food Type Benefit Where to buy

Ensure™


High calorie powdered drink
High calorie

Loved by even the fussiest of eaters

Can be made into a thick paste of a thin liquid depending on preference


Ensure™ is available from most pharmacies

Nutrigel™

High calorie gel
High calorie

Very palatable, even sick rats will eat it

Easy to eat

Nutrigel™ is available from most Vet practices, and can also be purchased from online veterinary product stores.

Sugar coated cereal

Crunchy nut cornflakes™, Cheerios™ and fruit filled Shredded Wheat™ are all favourites at Sunshine Rattery


High calorie

There are many types of sugary cereal available. Experiment with a few types until you find one that your old rattie can't resist. Soaking in Ensure™ or water is advisable if his teeth cannot cope with hard food items.

Available in your local supermarket

Peanut Butter

Not suitable for very weak ratties as the peanut butter can stick in their throat

High calorie

Very palatable

Great for hiding medication


Available in your local supermarket

Porridge mix

Rolled oats or muesli soaked in Ensure™ with added honey and dried fruits

High calorie

Highly palatable

Can be mixed to taste - figs, dates, sultanas and raisins are great
Available from your local supermarket

Grooming old Rats

Your rat will become increasingly unable to groom himself due to problems with mobility. Here are some ways to help him stay clean and shiny;

Use a soft bristled toothbrush to clean his tail with warm water. Wipe his body with a soft damp cloth to clean his fur. Make sure that you do not overwet the cloth.

Wipe ears, eyes and nose very gently with a cotton wool pad (not ball) damp with warm water. Salt water can be used for eyes if there is any discharge. Use separate pads for each eye so as not to spread infection.

Clean your rats undercarriage gently with a cotton wool pad damp with warm water.

Dry your oldie carefully using a soft absorbent cloth and tousle his fur gently in circular motions to dry. This will also help stimulate blood flow.

Temperature Control

thermostate with probe
A probe thermostat suitable for use with a heat mat

See the Keeping Rats Warm page for ideas how to keep your rat warm during the cold weather, but in addition specifically for elderly rats the following methods can also be used.

Microwave a heat pillow and add to the cage for extra warmth. Wrap the pillow in polar fleece so that there is less chance of you oldie nibbling on it.

A low wattage heat mat can be used under one of the corners. It is important that the heat mat is placed UNDERNEATH the cage, and not in the cage with your rat as if your rat chews it he will receive a potentially fatal electric shock.

Heat mats should also be used with a thermostat to control the temperature. This will ensure that it does not melt the bottom of the cage, as they have been known to cause house fires when not used with a thermostat. Make sure that you provide more than one bed for your rat to choose from, one on the heat-mat and one away from the heat-mat.

Old rats will very easily overheat in warm weather. Is is even more important than usual to ensure they are kept cool. Please see the Keeping Rats Cool page for suggestions on how to keep your rat cool.

Time to say Goodbye

Rats cope exceptionally well with many of the ailments that present in old age. However, when the decision has been made to let your friend pass on, contact your vet to discuss the method that will be used.

Many vets use a very inhumane method to euthanise rats, and it is your responsibility to tell your vet what method you want to follow. See the Euthanising Rats Humanely page for further information about the most humane methods.