Common Hairless Rat Health Problems
Health Problems in Furless Rats
Here I'll share everything I've learned about common rat health problems as a successful breeder of furless rats. In this article, I cover conditions that require veterinary care and those that can often be watched and managed at home.
Common Health Problems in Hairless Rats
- Scratches, Bites, and Small Wounds
- Buck Grease
- Miscellaneous Skin Issues and Calcified Wounds
- Eye Problems
- Kidney Failure
- Respiratory Infections
- Breeding Difficulties
How I Became a Hairless Rat Enthusiast
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 my rat, Nappy, but by the time I got around to the big, bad world of breeding, I was on the right track.
Rescuing "Penny" From a Bad Environment
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 10-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. 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.
"My Hairless Rats"
Care Tips for Furless Pets and Rats
Here are some general care tips for furless pets:
- If you don't want your furless rats to have a lot of scratches, house them only with other furless rats. (The furry rats tend to be rougher with them, having no idea themselves what being furless is like.)
- Although aquariums are not recommended for most rats, they are the safest (and warmest) caging style available for furless rats who get scratched 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 the cage for cuddling when it's cold.
- Feed this type a higher-protein and higher-fat diet than you would give a furry rat. Furless burn more calories trying to keep warm!
- Keep an eye on the water bottle as this type drinks 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.
1. Abscesses in Furless Rats
Abscesses are very common in rats, particularly if they are housed with other rats. These 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 types of injuries. They are very common on the neck area but can show up anywhere and give any owner a fright; to an untrained eye, they might look like a tumor.
Caring for an Uninfected Abscess at Home
Abscesses can be cared for at home or lanced by a vet. Personally, I always try to monitor the abscess at home as this is less stressful for all. Here's what I do:
- When a scab starts to form, I take a warm wet washcloth soaked in sterile saline (available at any drug store) and place it on the abscess until the scab starts to soften.
- After this, the abscess will start to drain on its own (the site should be kept clean). (Be forewarned that this will be the worst smell you will ever smell.)
- Keep the wound clean; it should not reform into another abscess (although this sometimes can happen).
The wound should heal up on its 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.
2. 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 cagemates. Seeing an adult with completely unblemished skin is a bit like finding a unicorn.
How They're Managed
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. It is recommended that you see an exotic vet for wounds that are large or those that won't heal on their own.
3. Buck Grease in Male Rats
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.
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.
How It Is Managed
A bath can help 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 rat.
How to Give a Rat a Bath
4. Miscellaneous Skin Conditions and Calcified Wounds
Furless rats can be pretty susceptible 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. Still other times, they might get calcified wounds.
What Are Calcified Wounds?
Calcified wounds are wounds that are taking too long to heal; 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 that calcify. If left alone too long, the calcification can get bigger, the "hairs" thicker, and the wound can keep opening and become even more sizeable.
How They're Prevented
The biggest calcification I ever saw was the size of a quarter and had to be surgically removed by a vet. This is often your best option.
5. Eye Problems in Rats
Rats have very poor vision, but the pink-eyed varieties have the worst vision of any of them. Sometimes, rats sway their head from side to side to try to get a clearer view of what they are looking at. It is important to remember that 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
- entropy (eyelashes curl into the eyeball and cause irritation)
- eye infections
How They're Prevented
Eyes that have chronic, unresolvable issues can sometimes be removed by a vet if they are causing pain (if they cannot be shut and moistened). Eye infections need to be kept clean and a vet can decide if antibiotics or ointment is needed. Otherwise, the rest of these issues need to be accepted as is.
6. Ringtail in Rats
Ringtail is something that only certain fanciers know about. I haven't heard it discussed by most veterinarians, but it does occur frequently in lab animals. This condition occurs when a rat is kept on bedding that is too dry or absorbent; this can also occur if the rat's housing environment is not kept at the proper humidity level. Dry bedding can pull moisture or humidity out of a rat's environment, causing constricted rings to form around the tail in one or more spots due to dehydration.
Is Ringtail Dangerous?
This is a dangerous condition because if it is left untreated, it can constrict circulation in the tail and cause tissue necrosis in the whole tail—at which point only tail amputation can save the rat from infection which could otherwise spread to the rest of the body.
How It Is Prevented
Bedding that has been known to cause this condition includes corncob bedding and dry bedding types that are usually used for reptiles. Luckily, if caught in time, a little vet-approved moisturizer and a change in bedding can save the tail.
7. Kidney Failure in Rodents
Kidney failure is a tough thing to watch in a rat. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it except to 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, which really isn't humane.
How It Is Managed
Back when I first started with furless rats, this problem 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.
8. Immunodeficiencies in Rodents
Immunodeficiencies have been purposely bred into furless lab rats for many years. This makes them susceptible to catch any and all diseases going around and make 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.
Are Short Lifespans Normal?
A lifespan of six months is very good for one of these rats living outside of a sterile lab. Otherwise, they die young and quickly from just about everything.
9. Respiratory Infections in Rats
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. If someone is not attuned to 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.
Mycoplasma pulmonis in Rats
It has been my experience that respiratory infections take two things: genetic susceptibility and a contagious agent like Mycoplasma pulmonis or "myco." Myco is extremely common and most rats will pick it up at some point or another in their life, but only the ones with weak immune systems or a genetic susceptibility will suffer chronic damage from it.
Once caught, respiratory infections are typically chronic for the rest of the rat's life, and it does wear them down after a while and will eventually kill them. Take them to the vet as they will require antibiotics.
10. Cancer in Pet Rodents
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 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 or tumors (not to be confused with abscesses) 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 anyone can do about cancer in rats today.
Breeding Hairless Rats
11. Breeding Difficulties in Rats
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 abandon 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, it's 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 (Yes, this goes for the males too! Their daughters may have lactation issues in the future!).
Share Your Advice in the Comments
Are you a rat enthusiast? Be sure to share your story in the comments below. I hope my advice helps you learn more about caring for your rodent companions. Remember: When in doubt, the most humane and responsible thing you can do as a rat parent is to take them to a vet.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.