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QUESTION: Hi, I got my first male rat (Bilbo) just over a month ago (he was 8-9 months when I got him), and this week he's started showing some worrying signs. He had been a little lethargic for a few days and taken to sleeping in his litter tray, which I put down to the cold, when I adopted another rat to be his cage mate. After that he seemed to be more lethargic and wouldn't eat solid food. He'd also stopped drinking from his water bottle which he used to drink from a lot. I ended up taking the potential cage mate back as his presence seemed to be stressing Bilbo.
From the beginning he barely touched his main food, so I worried that he perhaps had deficiencies, and now I grind up the main food and mix it with water and weetabix which he eats happily. I've also been giving him water with a little apple juice via needle-less syringe. I've also been giving him something called nutrical which I have left over from my last rat. I'm also now heating a snugglesafe heat pad for him and putting it behind the nest box, and he seems to be able to rest in there better with it.
He hasn't improved and has been pretty bad for about a week. I should probably list the symptoms. As well as the lethargy and lack of eating/drinking, he seems slightly restless, wants to be on me a lot, has trouble cleaning (food around mouth and paws, and has had 2 penis plugs), tries to jump from the cage which is quite high, will furiously try to lick the bottom of his spine/his back leg area if I scratch it a all, walks hunched over, fur puffs up, stands facing corners, walks past food when eating it, doesn't seem to be able to hold food, and today started sneezing a little (kind of high pitched). His fur is in good condition though aside from the food on it (it was clean other than the paws just yesterday), I tried the 'wheelbarrow test' thinking it to be a pituitary tumor and he seemed to have no problem.
Vet-wise I have a vet I can use but nowhere nearby has much knowledge on rats, I can ask them for medications/treatment though. I noticed recently when he was on me he left behind something that looked like worm segments/eggs/worms, so I wonder if it's possibly a parasite. The vets are willing to test his feces for them, but I want to know if that's a possibility/what else it could be.
Sorry this was kind of long, but thanks in advance.

ANSWER: Hi Skyler,
Your rat might have a secondary bacterial infection, and I recommend treating him with amoxicillin ASAP. See more info below. For future reference, do not wait a week when your rat has symptoms of illness. You need to address symptoms immediately.
Deb

For a rat who is sick, no matter the symptoms, amoxicillin is the first treatment I recommend.  Secondary infections, which can include respiratory symptoms, lethargy, poor appetite, and other symptoms, are common in rats, especially young rats and those from pet shops. Older rats can also get secondary infections on top of mycoplasma. In my experience, amoxicillin is the best treatment for secondary infections in rats.  Amoxicillin capsules are good to have on hand for secondary infections, which can get very severe very quickly, killing a rat in a matter of hours or days, and require immediate treatment.  Amoxicillin is also best for skin infections. (However, amoxicillin does not work against mycoplasma. For that I recommend doxycycline, and maybe also Baytril.)

All vets will have amoxicillin, and you can also get amoxicillin over the counter as aquarium fish capsules from some feed stores and specialty aquarium stores. Call the stores in your area and ask before driving there.  Do NOT tell them you are buying it for your rats!  It is legal for them sell it over the counter only for fish.  You will not find it at Petco, PetSmart, etc.  If you can’t find amoxicillin, you can use ampicillin which is basically the same thing, it just isn’t absorbed as well, so just double the dose to 20 mg/lb twice a day.

Some vets won’t prescribe amoxicillin for rats because they learn in vet school that you can't give amoxicillin to hamsters or guinea pigs (it will kill them) so they sometimes generalize this to all rodents.  But amoxicillin is fine for rats and mice, whose digestive systems are very different from quinea pigs and hamsters.  I use it all the time.  (For more about getting your vet to prescribe amoxicillin, see the info at the bottom.)

Rarely you will have an individual who will be allergic or sensitive to amoxicillin, and the most common side effect is diarrhea.  In most cases, this diarrhea is mild enough to be controlled with probiotics (good bacteria for the intestines) but if the diarrhea is severe it will stop when you discontinue the treatment with amoxicillin.

You can order amoxicillin and doxycycline capsules from www.aquaticpharmacy.com. If your rat is already sick, be sure to ask for overnight delivery!

You can also get amoxicillin mail order from Jedd’s Pigeon Supplies at 800-659-5928.  Ask for Greg, and be sure to order CAPSULES.  Also, you can get it from Doctors Fosters & Smith, 800-826-7206.  Order the capsules for aquarium fish, item #CD-18876.  (Please note that they sometimes change the item number, so just search for amoxicillin in the fish department.)  

You need to know about how much your rat weighs.  The dose is 10 mg/lb twice a day but you can safely go as high as 50 mg/lb.  In most cases (check the package) each amoxicillin capsule contains 250 mg, which is 25  1-lb doses.  

If you have access to small syringes for measuring (a 1 ml syringe or insulin syringes with the top broken off) you can mix the amoxicillin in a liquid.  Amoxicillin does not dissolve but forms a suspension.  The powder will sink to the bottom, so before taking out a dose, you need to stir the mixture with the syringe extremely well, being sure to scrape up all the powder off the bottom so it is in suspension.

Mix one capsule of 250 mg amoxicillin in 7.5 ml of flavoring such as Ensure or slightly diluted Hershey’s strawberry syrup. (If you have 500 mg capsules, use twice the amount of flavoring: 15 ml.) A small pill bottle is about the right size to mix it in.  Keep in the refrigerator.  Amoxicillin doesn’t taste too bad to most rats and most rats will eagerly lick this right from the tip of the syringe.  The normal dose is 0.3 ml/lb twice a day.  (Note: 1 cc = 1 ml = 100 units on an insulin syringe, so 0.3 ml = 30 units.)  You can go as high as 5 times that normal dose if necessary, and it’s a good idea to give a double dose the first time.

If your rat won’t take the amoxicillin mixture voluntarily, you can make the dose 0.1 ml which is too small for them to spit out when you put it in the back of their mouth.  Mix one capsule with 2.5 ml of flavoring. Then the dose is only 0.1 ml/lb twice a day.

If you don’t have small syringes, you can mix it in food.  Dump a capsule out on a plate.  If it is granular, grind it to a powder.  Divide the powder in half, and half again, etc.  Until you have 24 piles. Since it’s hard to divide it more than this, you can give the 1-lb dose to rats who weigh less than a pound.   It’s better to give too much than not enough.  Scrape a pile into a little bit of food such as baby food, mashed avocado, etc.  

Give the dose twice a day.  If it's going to work the symptoms should improve within 2-3 days.  If it does work you need to continue the treatment for at least 2-3 weeks.  If it doesn’t work then you need to try a different treatment.  If the symptoms are all gone within 3 days you should continue the treatment for 3 weeks.  If it takes longer for all the symptoms to go away, give it for 4-8 weeks and maybe longer.  The longer it takes for all the symptoms to go away, the longer you should continue the treatment.  If the symptoms stop improving, or if the amoxicillin doesn't help at all, you will need to try doxycycline instead.

You can buy 100 ml of 10% oral generic Baytril (enrofloxacin but they call it Enroxil) from Jedd's Pigeon Supply for $40 plus shipping.  The dose for a 1-lb rat is 0.1 ml, which means that 100 ml is 1000 rat doses!  Very economical.   You need to give it twice a day.  Do not refrigerate the Baytril!
I’ve had the best luck giving it in in 4-6 ml of a product such as strawberry Ensure or Boost in a baby food jar lid, or in 1/8 teaspoon of the soy baby formula powder, making a paste.  It helps if you put the baby food jar lid on a small magnet to help keep your rat from tipping it over.  

Jedd’s Pigeon Supplies is 800-659-5928. If you order by phone ask for Greg. When ordering, just ask for the 10% Enroxil.  Do not say “for my rats” because it is available without a prescription for pigeons only.  Greg is cool about it though.  You can also order it on their website at http://www.jedds.com/StoreFront.bok. If ordering online, order item #5002.  It won’t say it’s Baytril, as they keep it quiet.

You can also get doxycycline capsules from Jedd's.  Ask for Greg.  Be sure to ask for CAPSULES otherwise they will send loose powder.  It will cost about $35 for 100 capsules of 100 mg each plus shipping.  Don’t say “It is for my rats.”  You can only buy them over the counter for birds. However, Greg is very cool about it.

To mix doxycycline capsules:

In a small pill bottle, put 12 cc (12 ml) of liquid such as Hershey’s strawberry syrup.  Open and dump in the contents of one 100 mg doxycycline capsule.  Stir well.  The amount for the typical dose of 2.5 mg/lb is 0.3 ml/lb (0.3 cc or 30 units on an insulin syringe) twice a day.  For 5 mg/lb give twice that.  To use an insulin syringe for oral dosing, break off the whole needle assembly.  Be sure to refrigerate the mixture.

If you don’t have the proper syringes for dosing, dump the capsule out on small plate and divide the powder into 40 equal piles.  (Divide in half, then in half again, etc.)  Each pile is a dose and can be scraped into soft food.

You will find more info about treating respiratory infections on my website at www.ratfanclub.org on the Rat Info page.  I also highly recommend you order my Rat Health Care booklet.  It is only $7 plus $2 shipping (CA residents add 58 cents tax.)  The address is Rat Fan Club, 857 Lindo Lane, Chico CA 95973.


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Concerning amoxicillin and veterininarians:  Many vets don’t want to use amoxicillin on rats.  This is probably because in vet school they learn that amoxicillin can’t be used in guinea pigs, rabbits or hamsters (because it kills the good bacteria in their intestines), and they probably generalize this to rats and mice.  However, rats and mice usually tolerate amoxicillin quite well.  In my experience only a very small percentage of them will get diarrhea from it, and this is not life-threatening; it will usually clear up with a probiotic, or the amoxicillin can be stopped.

Here are some references for using amoxicillin in rats for your vet to check if they are reluctant to prescribe amoxicillin:

Exotic Animal Formulary, Third Edition, James W. Carpenter, MS, DVM editor, Elsevier Saunders Publishing
Page 377, Antimicrobial and antifungal agents used in rodents.
Ampicillin for mice and rats: dosage 20-50 mg/kg PO, SC, IM q12h
(Note: ampicillin and amoxicillin have essentially the same adverse reactions and effectiveness, so they can be used interchangeably)

ViN (Veterinary Information Network, Inc.) Website

Thomas Donnelly, BVSc on 02/05/2006  “Amoxicillin is safe to give rats.”

Johanna Briscoe, VMD, on 07/08/2004  “I have used Clavamox liquid in a rat and it worked beautifully on an abscess that I thought may have been from a bite….  Clavamox dose same as in other mammals—13.75 mg/kg PO BID.”
(Note: Clavamox is the brand name for a mixture of amoxicillin and clavulanic acid.)

Elizabeth Mitchell on 06/01/2007  “I have used Clavamox a few times in rats without problems, although I am always very careful to warn owners to watch for diarrhea.  I  generally have gone with a dose more similar to dogs and cats (20-30 mg/kg BID) but if you search on PubMed you will find all sorts of much higher doses.”
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---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Unfortunately he died quite suddenly just a few hours after asking the question.
I would have got help quicker but it was very gradual and I was unfamilliar with
him or male rats, and it took a while to realise he was actually ill.
I feel awful knowing it could have been prevented though, and will remember that advice
if I ever have rats again in the future. I hate that he died for my naivety and I wish
I knew about this website sooner. There were so many factors messing with how I judged
the situation. He was perfectly well enough to get around the cage, had a great appetite,
and looked in general healthier than I'd have thought if he was that ill. I should have got
antibiotics right away rather than worrying if they would make him feel worse. Darn it I
only knew him a month but it's hard to deal with and I wish I'd followed my instincts.
Do you know how he could have got a secondary bacterial infection, and would cold/stress
have had an impact? Would he have been in much pain?
Thanks for your answer, I only wish I'd asked sooner.

Answer
I'm so sorry you lost him. Unfortunately in this life, we often learn things the hard way. Secondary infections tend to be pretty common in rats. They can come on suddenly without any obvious cause. They are caused by bacteria that are all around us, the just happen to overcome the immune system. That is why I recommend all rat owners have amoxicillin on hand at all times so they can be treated at the first sign of illness. Even then, sometimes the infection comes on so fast you don't have a chance to treat them. He was probably not in pain, although he might have felt sick.

If you do decide to get rats again, it is best to get at least 2 at a time. Single rats may tend to be a little more prone to getting sick.
Deb

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Debbie Ducommun

Expertise

I can answer any questions about pet rats, but you will probably be able find answers to simple questions more quickly on my website at www.ratfanclub.org/helpfinfo.html. If you have a life-threatening emergency you can try calling me at 530-899-0605. I am not usually on the computer on the weekend.

Experience

I have been "The Rat Lady" since 1985 and am recognized as one of the world's experts on pet rats. I have 3 published books and already answer lots of questions about rats daily.

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President of Rat Assistance & Teaching Society

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I am a monthly columnist for Pet Business magazine, and my writing has appeared in other magazines. I have 3 published books.

Education/Credentials
BA in Animal Behavior

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