Common Hairless Rat Health Problems
How I Started
I got my first rat when I was twelve years old after a long campaign with my mother. Suffice to say I would never have succeeded had someone not dumped two rats outside where they were caught by the local dog officer. I did pretty much everything wrong with Nappy but by the time I got around to the big bad world of breeding I was on the right track.
Still my first furless rat and litter were far from a planned event. I had wandered into a disgusting little pet store one day and saw Penny staring up at me. She was all pink with giant black eyes and was living in a ten gallon aquarium with three of her brothers. Did I mention it looked like she swallowed a tennis ball whole? I couldn't leave her there in that filth to have her babies so I took her home and a few days later she gave birth to six enormous babies. The last died at five days of age as Penny couldn't lactate and I wasn't great at hand feeding them. This was my introduction into the often complex world of the furless rat.
Pointers on Keeping Furless Pets
- If you don't want your furless rats to have a lot of scratches, house them only with other furless. (The furry rats tend to be rougher with them, having no idea themselves what having no hair is like.)
- Although aquariums are not recommended for most rats, they are the safest (and warmest) caging available for furless rats who scratch very easily on more traditional cages.
- Always make sure there's at least one cloth item or a large pile of Care Fresh or similar bedding in their cage, for cuddling when it's cold.
- Feed them a higher-protein and higher-fat diet then you would give a furry rat. Furless burn more calories trying to keep warm!
- Keep an eye on their water bottle as they will drink more than a furred rat. I couldn't tell you why, but this has been my observation.
- Make sure the humidity isn't too low. Furless can get dry skin.
- If you have a male that gets "buck grease," you can give him a bath, but try to keep it to one bath or less a week as too many baths can also cause dry skin.
Abscesses are very common in rats, particularly if they are housed with other rats, as they are infections that form under the skin after a scratch or a bite. With that being said furless rats are more susceptible to getting abscesses because there's a lack of fur protecting them from these little injuries. They are very common on the neck area but can show up anywhere and give any owner a fright, as to an untrained eye they might appear to be a tumor. Not to fear abscesses can be tended at home or lanced by a vet. Personally I always try the home method first as it is less stressful for all. Basically when a scab starts to form you can take a warm wet washcloth, soaked in a salt water solution, and place it on the abscess until the scab starts to soften. After this it'll start to pop on its own and then you are in for a real treat because it'll be up to you to squeeze out any puss or fluid build up and wash it up really good. Just think of it as an enormous zit and be forewarned this will be the worst smell you will ever smell. With that being said if you keep the wound clean it should not reform into another abscess (although this sometimes can happen) and the wound should heal up OK on it's own providing there aren't any other issues. For stubborn abscesses that keep reforming in the same spot you may need to consult a vet for antibiotics.
Scratches, Bites, and Small Wounds
Because of their lack of fur the skin of a furless rat can get pretty banged up pretty fast. They can easily cut themselves on the wire corners of their cage or receive minor injuries during a scuffle or playtime with cage mates. Seeing an adult with completely unblemished skin is a bit like finding a unicorn. With that said these small scratches and injuries usually don't require any special attention and will heal up and go away or form scars. In the case of deep cuts or large wounds care needs to be taken to keep the area clean to prevent abscesses or other infections and if a wound refuses to shut Skin Glue (otherwise known as super glue) can suffice when you can't find an exotic vet to do stitches. Make sure to leave a little open for drainage - it helps with the not forming an abscess.
All male rats produce a sort of oily orange substance that coats their hair when they're running around. Obviously if there's no hair to catch it this same substance will just build up on the skin of a hairless rat and turn into a sort of crusty marmalade coating. it doesn't hurt the rat but it is a bit gross. A bath can help them clean it off but try not to give too many baths - more than one a week may dry out their skin and do more damage than good. However a warm wet washcloth can take off a lot without fully submerging the poor little beasts. The photo here shows an otherwise pink furless male covered in orange buck grease, that is not his natural coloration. You can also see he has a bite mark from a playmate on his back too. Not to worry both these things happen frequently.
Other Skin Conditions
Furless rats can be pretty suseptable to skin conditions. Sometimes they can have protein allergies to the food they are eating, other times they might have dry flaky skin from low humidity, and still other times they might get calcified wounds. Calcified wounds are wounds that their bodies spend too much energy trying to heal and furless rats seem very prone to this abnormal response. Instead of just making new skin sometimes these wounds will have hair-like fibers in them which is the calcification. if left alone too long the calcification can get larger, the "hairs" thicker, and it can keep opening the original injury larger and larger. The biggest one of these I ever saw was the size of a quarter and had to be surgically removed by a vet - however these are slow growing and manageable at home if you catch them well before that. Tweezers work great to get the calcifications out and keeping the wound clean until it heals is always a good plan of action.
Rats in and of themselves have very poor vision but the pink-eyed varieties have the least vision of any of them. They may sway their head from side to side trying to get a clearer view of what they are looking at. It is important to remember they can't see more than a foot or two in front of them so make sure to announce your presence before trying to pick one up by rapping on the cage or talking to them.
Furless rats are also prone to eye related birth defects which include but are not limited to: enlarged eyes, eyes that are unable to close, small or missing eyes, and entropy (when their eye lashes curl into the eyeball and cause irritation.) They can also get a lot of eye infections. Large eyes can sometimes be removed by a vet if they are causing pain (by being unable to be shut and moistened.) Eye infections need to be kept clean and a vet can decide if they need antibiotics. Otherwise the rest of these issues are just something that needs to be accepted as is.
Ring tail is something that only certain fanciers even know about. Bizarrely I haven't seen it discussed by an veterinarians. However it is when a rat is kept on bedding that is too dry and that bedding sucks the moisture out of the skin of their tail causing constricted rings to form around the tail in one or more spots. This is a dangerous prospect because if it is left too long it can constrict the blood circulation in the tail and kill the whole tail - at which point only an amputation will save the rat from the following infection that will spread to the rest of its body. Beddings that have been known to cause this include corncob bedding and certain other very dry bedding types that are usually used for reptiles. In the photo you can see this rat has a constriction at the base of his tail causing swelling further up - this isn't a good thing either! Luckily if caught on time a little hand moisturizer and a change in bedding can save these tails.
Kidney failure is a tough thing to watch in a rat. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it except perhaps consider putting them out of their misery. It's a ghastly process to watch but an affected rat will rapidly lose weight and their skin will turn a very sickly shade of blue, grey, or sometimes even a bit green. This usually kills them within a week or two if it's allowed to continue. Back when I first started with furless rats this problem is what killed most of them in the US. Today better breeding has almost eliminated the problem but it is still a genetic issue and if you have a rat who dies from this please do not breed any of their surviving relatives.
Immuno-deficiencies have been purposely bred into furless lab rats for many years. This makes them susceptible to catch any and all diseases going around and makes them valuable for disease research. These rats are genetically different from most of the furless rats we find in the pet population today but every once in a while one of these "nudes" will slip into the pet population and break a heart of two. A lifespan of six months is very good for one of these rats living outside a sterile lab. Otherwise they die young and quick from just about everything.
Respiratory Infections are a leading killer in all rats but can be particularly nasty with furless rats because of their limited gene pool. Furless rats only produce furless babies when they are bred to other furless or furless carriers which means there's a lot of inbreeding going on and if someone is not wise on the benefits of occasionally outcrossing to furry rats (to expand the gene pool) or are just churning them out for money with little regards to their health, than this can become a big issue very fast. It has been my experience that respiratory infections take two things: genetic susceptibility and a contagious agent like Myco. Now Myco is extremely common and most rats will pick it up at some point or another in their life but only the ones with the weak immune systems or a genetic susceptibility to the disease will suffer chronic damage from it. Once caught respiratory infections are usually chronic for the rest of the rats life and it does wear them down after a while and will eventually kill them. Echinacea has proved a wonderful herbal preventative and treatment and for those who prefer to take them to the vet antibiotics can be ordered for these difficulties.
Cancer is the other really big killer of all rats and again is probably more common in furless because of their limited gene pool. Personally I have seen a lot of mammary cancer in particular in these lines. Sadly there's not much you can do except breed away from these lines and provide a healthy chemical free diet and exercise. Cancer is normally seen as tumors (not to be confused with abscesses) which can grow to be bigger than the rat if allowed to! Other types of cancer will just lead to wasting and lethargy. There's not much any one can do about cancer in rats today.
Breeding problems in furless rats are common. Usually these problems revolve around the fact that many of the females seem to have an inability to lactate. Sometimes they have milk for the first few days and then dry up, other times they may never make any milk at all. Add to this the fact that they have a reputation for being bad mothers and just outright abandoning pups and you got a recipe for a challenge that's for sure! Many breeders chose to breed a furry rat a day or two before the furless rat breeding so they can have a foster mother available if this becomes a problem. Other breeders prefer to only breed furry carrier females to avoid the lactation issues altogether. If babies are born to a non-lactating mother its probably not a good idea to use any of those babies as breeding stock in the future as they will likely pass the problem on (and yes, this goes for the males too! Their daughters may have lactation issues in the future!)