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Hairless Rats: Common Health Problems

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger and experienced caretaker and breeder of hairless rats.

Health Problems in Furless Rats

Health Problems in Furless Rats

How I Became a Hairless Rat Enthusiast

I got my first rat when I was 12 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 Hairless 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.
My rat, Godiva—never camera shy! (RIP)

My rat, Godiva—never camera shy! (RIP)

Health Problems in Hairless 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

  • Abscesses
  • Scratches, Bites, and Small Wounds
  • Buck Grease
  • Miscellaneous Skin Issues and Calcified Wounds
  • Eye Problems
  • Ringtail
  • Kidney Failure
  • Immunodeficiencies
  • Respiratory Infections
  • Cancer
  • Breeding Difficulties

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

Buck Grease in a Male Rat

Buck Grease in a Male Rat

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 of 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; it had to be surgically removed by a vet. This is often your best option.

Eye problems in rats.

Eye problems in rats.

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.

Ringtail in Rats

Ringtail in Rats

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.

Hairless rats are used in science for disease studies.

Hairless rats are used in science for disease studies.

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.

M. pulmonis can become a chronic respiratory disease in rats.

M. pulmonis can become a chronic respiratory disease in rats.

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.


Ratlover1223 on July 17, 2020:

My hairless rat boy, Sid, his stomach is blown up and the intestines are hard. Does anyone know what it is and/or what i can do to help him?

Sarina on December 18, 2019:

I had a hairless boy for awhile named Chapo, he died a little before his 3rd birthday. I would use coconut oil on his skin when it got too dry.

Wendy Hays on November 16, 2019:

What do I use for dry skin on my pet rat?

Callie Stanton on February 14, 2019:

Hi. I've owned rats for years... However I've recently adopted for mail hairless rat Brothers. They have all been together since birth. I adopted them about 3 weeks ago. The day after bringing them home I noticed two of them we're covered in scabs. The scabs were small at first, almost looked like scratches from playing or fighting. However now on week 3 of having my babies home the scratches on just two of them F1 from scratches to rather large scabs ( I'd say the largest is smaller than a dime) and are now looking more and more infected! I Googled skin conditions for hairless rats which brought me to this page, I'm I'm just wondering how do you suggest I care for the scabs? The page I read said a warm wet washcloth until the scab is softer then to squeeze like a giant zit! I'm just wondering is this the best home method to help cure this... Or is there something that might be a little less painful for my babies?

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on May 21, 2018:

@GremlinMom - Hey! Good to hear from you! Actually, male and female rats have very similar looking parts. In the very young (a week to four weeks old) you can only tell by the distance between their bits, but in older rats, past weaning, the appearance of testicles is where it's at. Undescended testicles would be very rare in a rat as they're normally bigger than their head (seriously!) but if you want to double check there's another thing you can look for that'd be easy to see on a hairless - nipples. Only the females have them in this species. I'm going to venture a guess you have a girl but good luck! :)

GremlinMom on May 11, 2018:

I have a 2 1/2 year old male hairless rat named Gremlin. He is the sweetest rat I have ever had! I have also noticed that his testicles haven't dropped. Is this normal?? I know for a fact he is a boy cause we look for pics on the internet and he has a little dinger, lol! Hope someone can help me with me with this. Thanks in advance!

jasmine on April 01, 2018:

I have two baby rats.They are almost 5 weeks I think.I got them form a breeder and she told me they week 5 weeks old and they were still so tiny! I have one white one and a hairless one. Both are from the same litter. both are female. Mt white one loves to be petted and still skittish about been held but still comes to the cage door. My Hairless one is very skittish still does not like to be touched,held or hear noises. she would rather hide out in the furry coat sleeve she has. Is it the hairless gene making her more skittish and not like me or do i just need to work with her more???

Dan on September 30, 2017:

OK I understand now, thanks for giving me a headache.

Dan on September 30, 2017:

"Rats in and of themselves " what??? I thought very deeply what this means but put put a fork in me.........

Jess on November 05, 2016:

Thank you for this. We had an accidental litter born, and 4 of the 12 are hairless. 3 out of the 4 are blind. Their poor little eyes look like raisins... I'm not sure how to help or if I can, but it's interesting to know it's almost common for hairless to have eye issues.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on February 08, 2016:

Thank you for your kind comments Megan. Rats do indeed deserve some love too! If I didn't become allergic to the little buggars they'd still be romping through my house. :)

megan on June 25, 2015:

Wow, great information! I appreciate the time the author took to describe in meticulous detail about the variety of issues that can arise. I have been rescuing rats for years now and have unfortunately come across almost everything on the list. It can be heartbreaking, but it's so worth it; to even save one rat is all worth it, it's certainly worth it to that particular rat. I always take mine out with me on my shoulder (providing it's good weather) and educate folks about them. Most have an irrational fear and hatred for them, but once they meet one, that all goes away. Rats need 'our' help and love and to teach folks about them. Together, we can save 1 rat at a time and change 1 mind at a time. Look at it this way, even if you only get a short period of time with your little bub(s), at least they knew love during that time they were in your care.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on May 22, 2012:

Well, I can't really give you an answer there. I can only guess if she's showing no outward signs of illness like breathing difficulties than she may have something internally wrong with her... cancer, kidney failure, some other disease. Wish I could help more but I have nothing.

Ashu28 on May 22, 2012:

Rat is pink eyed albino female .rat have regular bath twice a week.the problem is she doesnot eat anything.she does not have any sneezing or coughing.she has normal breathing.she is normal and active but problem is she doesnot eat and always scaraches her skin.also there is no vet in my area.can you tell me any home remedies

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on May 22, 2012:

A female furless or a normal fury rat? Yellowing of the skin is usually a sign she hasn't been bathing herself, its a build up of natural greases from her coat and it would be just as itchy as if you decided not to bathe for a month. This means whatever is wrong with her has probably been going on for awhile but probably isn't related to the skin. Is she breathing hard? Or making coffee peculator noises? Is there anything else going on? I am afraid without knowing all this I can only suggest for now a consult a vet that accepts "exotics."

Ashu28 on May 21, 2012:

I have a white female rat of 2years old.From past two days she has a yellow coloured skin infection and she always scartches on her skin.she doesnot eat anything.what is the problem?how to treat it

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on May 20, 2012:

Tonia, send me an e-mail and I will happily give you my opinion. :)

Tonia on May 20, 2012:

Theophanes, I think my rat may have what you refer to as a calcification. I'm not certain. It started as a bump below the surface. Two weeks pass and nothing about its appearance changed. Then yesterday, it suddenly appears to have opened and has a hard spot in it. I've google-searched rat skin calcification but can't find any images that are similar to what I'm seeing on him. Do you have any photos? Or possibly, could I forward one to you of how he looks? If it's something I can take care of myself, I'd like to do self-care. The best small-animal vet in the area is EXPENSIVE! I've taken him to her before, but I'm looking for a cheaper alternative.

Thanks for any help!

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on April 14, 2012:

Tina button could have kidney failure or something else going on. You'd need to confer with a vet to know for sure.

Christine: hairless rats are very prone to eye infections and problems. She will very likely loose that eye. A vet could determine if it's an issue that could be solved with antibiotic eye cream or if it needs to be removed.

Christine on November 21, 2011:

My hairless rat Vomer developed some kind of eye problem about 2 mths ago . It's a thick lumpy like pink stuff that has a foul odor and is just building up along her lower eye lid. It is under the eyelid and on the eye. It's starting in her other eye just not a thick but I anticipate it will eventually become like the other eye. I suspect a eye infection but what can I do about it?

newratowner on November 12, 2011:

thank you for the info i just got a new baby hairless from a pet store they say she is about a month old. so im glad i got her b4 she became food for a snake, she is sooo cute and curiouse always getting into something

lila on May 04, 2011:

i have a cute hairless rat that we call cece shes super cute and one day me and my mom were in my room looking for her(she got out) and saw her run in with a big plum in her mouth!! lol XD

Tina on August 18, 2010:

Please help my hairless "button" looks just like godiva in the pic...but in the last few months he has lost a severe amount of weight! He is skin and bones! He is still eating like normal...except he has become a little pickier, but still eats about the same as the other rats. I have even tried given him nutracal, but still no weight gain!

Pamela on July 01, 2010:

Sorry for your loss Riley...

I have a hairless named Violet who had one eye removed a year ago (vet said cancer) and now the other one looks the same as the first. I was wondering if she was in pain...what to do...? She's so sweet. It makes me sad.

Riley on June 28, 2010:

This was so helpful. One of my rats died early this morning, and had a blue stomach when I found him. Now I guess I know what happened. *tear*

Orlie on April 12, 2010:

I rescued an older hairless from a petshop. Although now uber friendly, he doesn't bite and is content to just hang out or eat. He will sit under a towel or blanket on my lap or inside my shirt. I am so glad I found this site, it gives me a heads up on what to expect. This is my first rat but when I saw all the others dissappearing from the pet shop (my comment about them finding nice homes was met with "yeah, they found a nice home in a snakes belly") I knew that I couldn't leave Kojak there and so nagged my husband until he gave in and let me bring him home. Kojak was about 6 = 9 months old when I got him so I knew that he would never be as friendly and confident compared to a baby that had been raised by hand, but I didn't care, I would rather work with him every day to get him used to me, feed him everything he likes and take care of him than ever see him to to the belly of hell!

Lynny on September 26, 2009:

Wow! Maybe not a great idea for a first..., I'd be worried at every thing!

I have to get from a petstore( my parents don't wanna drive 5 hours) so I thought I would figure out if I would have a better chance with a hairless or not.

ladywolf777 on September 11, 2009:

i never liked rats until one day i bought 6 baby rats to feed to my snake i know that's cruel but the little guy hung on my finger it wouldn't let go he looked like he wasd praying so i keeped them now i am a rat lover they are so funny