Common Hairless Rat Health Problems
How I Started
I used to breed rats. They were my passion in life and I had a full-fledged rattery for nearly a decade before life in general forced me to take a break. My favorite things to breed for were dumbos in very odd colors (platinum, all forms of blues, pointed, etc.) and of course furless and furless dumbos. However furless rats were a very hard proposition. Their care was unique and their health was far more fragile then I had thought starting out.
Still, my first litter of rats ever was from a furless mama who I rescued from a disgusting little pet store. You all know the feeling—I couldn't just leave her there! Her name was Penthesilea, Penny for short. She was all pink with gorgeous big black eyes, the sight of perfection. She had six giant babies a few days after I brought her home. Suffice it to say the longest lived one only lasted six days, and that was only because I was hand-feeding it from birth. Penny couldn't lactate. This was my introduction to the difficulties of furless rats.
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.
Common Problems and Issues
Abscesses. Furless rats are by nature more fragile than their furry companions. They get scratches very easily and because of this they are more prone to things like abscesses. Most new owners automatically assume an abscess must be some form of cancer or tumor but really they are quite common and usually fairly harmless. They are actually an infection under the skin, usually caused by a bite or scratch. Pus and bodily fluids build up in these pockets, which swell up and look like tumors. When they get too big, they will pop and drain. It's better to assist in this process then allow it to happen naturally. All it takes is a warm wet washcloth dipped in saltwater and a strong gut. The water will loosen the scab and it'll eventually pop. From there it's your job to hold your nose (because the smell will be horrendous) and gently push all the puss out with your washcloth, cleaning the wound as best you can. Abscesses that refuse to pop or that form on the head or jaw should be seen and lanced by a vet. Abscesses that keep reappearing in the same spot and become chronic should be cleaned out and treated with a course of oral antibiotics (which your vet can prescribe).
Scratches, cuts, lesions, and wounds. Again, because of their fragile skin, furless rats easily get scratched and chewed up. Most of these are minor occurrences and heal well on their own. Just make sure to look for infection: is the area around the scratch or wound turning red? Yes, furless rats do scar pretty badly. As far as I know there's nothing you can do about it other than prevent it from happening. Clean straight open cuts that go straight through the skin can happen—usually during the introduction process with another rat. If your rat gets such a cut, make sure to clean it out really well. Most people will seek out a vet to stitch or glue the wound, while others use super glue themselves at home (as super glue is sterile, and the same thing as the "skin glue" surgeons and the vet use).
Buck grease. Male furless rats often get what's known to the rat world as "buck grease," an oily orange coating that dries onto the skin. Buck grease is not abnormal or a health hazard; it's just kind of gross. It can easily be washed off during a bath or with a wet washcloth.
Other skin conditions. Wounds, particularly bites, can heal abnormally in furless rats. Sometimes you'll notice that a wound has stuff in it, usually off-white in color, that's coarse and hard, looking almost like clumps of petrified bedding or hair. This is a calcification. It's what happens when the body overestimates how much energy it has to put into healing. Sometimes these can happen even without a wound, and untreated they can get very large. The largest calcification I have seen was on the back of someone else's rat and was the size of a quarter. That one had to be surgically removed by a qualified vet. Personally I always caught these calcifications while the problem was small, just the size of a pinhead. I removed it with tweezers and washed out the hole that remained. Generally it heals fine after that.
Eye Problems. A lot of furless rat lines have a genetic tendency toward eye problems. Some of these are birth defects while others come into play later on in life. All rats, furry or otherwise, have poor vision. The lighter the eye color, the worse their vision; this is why pink-eyed rats are often seen swaying from side to side. They're trying to focus on seeing something (usually you). Remember a rat can only see clearly less then a few feet in front of them. Always make sure they know you're there before you pick them up: it's only polite.
Birth defects involving the eyes are common in furless rats. Sometimes one eye will be so much larger than the other that it's impossible to close. This is probably painful, as eyes need to be continuously moistened so they don't dry out. This is usually treated with surgical removal of the eye. Sometimes babies are born missing one or both eyes. Other times they are born with a defect that makes their eyelashes (yes, furless rats have whiskers and eyelashes) turn inward, which causes constant irritation and often infection as well. These eyes generally get infected, lose vision, and then seal themselves off; essentially the rat loses an eye without any intervention. Cataracts may also be a little more common in furless. There's not much you can do for them.
Ring tail. Ring tail can happen to any rodent with a tail, but it seems somewhat more common in furless. It's what happens when a rat (or other rodent) is kept in an environment that is too dry with bedding that is too dry. This usually happens with corncob bedding or other super-absorbent materials. What happens is one stretch of skin on the tail dries out and becomes tighter then the rest of the tail. If this goes on for too long, it will cut off the blood supply and a portion of the tail will rot and fall off. Of course your aim will to be to make sure it doesn't even come close to that far. If there are dry patches of skin on the tail, try changing the bedding and rubbing in some hand cream (but not too much, they will eat some of it).
Kidney failure. The original lines of furless rat in the US were riddled with adult-onset kidney failure. As far as I know there is nothing you can do about it in a rat. There just aren't any tiny dialysis machines at the vet's office. It's usually a swift killer. The rat will stop eating, start acting lethargic, its skin will turn a ghastly green, blue, or gray color, and then within hours to a few days it'll die. It's never a pretty sight, and to rule out other more treatable causes of these symptoms you should probably seek veterinary advice.
Immune deficiencies. Furless rats were first bred by laboratories who bred lines (called "nudes") which were genetically immunodeficient, so much so that they essentially had no immune systems at all, making them all the easier to infect with diseases. Very occasionally you can find these rats (who are genetically different then most furless rats in the pet world) out in the general population but since they are so ill equipped to deal with illness they rarely live past four to six months. Often they die before they're even weaned. The cause of death is usually Myco overgrowth (which would show as an upper respiratory infection.)
Respiratory infections and cancer. Upper respiratory infections and cancer are the two leading killers of all domestic rats, not just furless. However since furless rats need to be inbred to make more furless rats, their incidences of these diseases are probably somewhat higher. Over the past ten or fifteen years breeders of the furless have dedicated themselves to responsible outcrossings (making the gene pool larger) which has been of enormous benefit. Rates of all the aforementioned problems have gone down drastically, from being seen in almost every litter to rarely being seen at all. That being said there are still a lot of unhealthy lines out there (usually in pet stores and feeder breeders.)
Breeding Difficulties. Furless rats have been known to have lactation problems. Sometimes they lactate for a few days and then stop; other times they never have milk at all. There's also a higher occurrence of abandonment on the part of the mothers. If you are breeding furless rats please do it responsibly, and at least have a furry litter at the same time (just in case you need a foster mom.) Females that show no interest in their offspring or who cannot lactate should never be bred again, and should any of their offspring survive they should not be bred either. If it's at all possible, when hoping for furless babies, please choose furry mothers who are carriers of the furless gene. Breed them to furless or carrier males. Yes, you almost certainly won't get a 100%-furless litter, but you are more likely to have healthy surviving babies.
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