Itching is the most common skin problem in rats, but it’s usually nothing too serious or incurable. Bacteria, allergies, parasites, fungi, too much protein in the diet, eczema, or stress can all cause itchy skin.
Bacteria can enter the skin through cuts. If a rat has sharp nails it can break the skin, letting bacteria in. The bacteria itself can cause itching or the scab that forms can become itchy, which just makes the rat scratch it off and open the wound again. The rat’s claws should be trimmed, usually about once a week, or worn down by climbing on rocks or bricks. If you find a cut, some antiseptic cream would prevent infections (Tea Tree oil is great). Itching caused by bacteria is fairly rare.
|example of scabs; possible cause: mites|
Allergies are fairly common in rats. The most common allergens are peanuts and dairy foods (that includes those yummy yoghurt drops). You should eliminate these foods for at least a week and hopefully your rat’s skin will improve. If not, you might have to remove all foods except a staple diet and slowly start adding a different food every week until you find the allergen. Some rats can be allergic to mites and some litters, but this is uncommon. But if you’ve run out of options, change the type of litter and treat for parasites and see if that stops the itching. Most allergies, and eczema, can be treated with hydrocortisone creams or steroid treatment. If the itching occurs after an operation, consult your vet on the medicines used during the op as this may also be the cause.
Parasites can cause a lot of itching and scratching, which can lead to other problems such as infections and scabs. If one of your rats has parasites then most likely they all will. To check for parasites, take a white piece of paper and run your fingers through your rat’s coat while holding him/her over the paper. Mites are tiny and hard to see, but if you spot red/brown specs on the paper then your rat has mites. Brown oval-shaped specs will be lice, and black specs will be fleas. You will also most likely find white eggs at the base of your rat’s hairs. You should treat with either ivermectin, horse dewormer, Revolution, or something else prescribed by your vet. You should see improvement in a week or so, and make sure to treat all your rats. The most important thing to remember when using a horse dewormer paste is to mix it thoroughly before getting the dose size! If the dose is too concentrated it can paralyze or even kill your rat! Also, rats should never be given an injection of ivermectin, only oral form!
Fungi can also cause itching, but it’s fairly rare. If you’ve already treated for parasites and your rat isn’t allergic to anything, then you should treat for fungi. Your vet can do a skin scraping or biopsy to test for fungi, but the test usually isn’t very accurate and comes up with a false negative. For a mild fungal infection, you can try an over-the-counter anti-fungal cream. For severe infections, you can use an oral fungicide such as ketoconazole, but you should always ask your vet. Anti-fungal shampoos usually don’t work too great. Treatment usually takes a couple of weeks to 3 months, and your ratty should be given very little sugar (fruits too) because fungi thrive on it.
Too much protein in the diet can cause itchy skin and scabs. Protein scabs are common around the eyes, chin, neck, and shoulders. If there’s too much protein in the body, it will be broken down, detoxified by the liver, and then excreted by the kidneys. If the rat has to get rid of excess protein for a long period of time, then kidney problems are likely to occur. If you find scabs on your rat, you should apply some antiseptic cream onto the scabs and then focus on your rat’s diet. Your rat only needs about 10%-18% of his diet to be protein so make sure that it doesn’t include too many nuts, meats, dairy products, and legumes. If your rat’s main diet is grain/cereal based, then it gets a lot of its protein from there and you should cut out other sources for a while. As the scabs start to disappear you can slowly start giving animal-source protein foods a few times a week.
Eczema is a chronic, non-contagious skin disease caused by stress, allergy, hypersensitivity, or other unknown factors. The skin will usually be dry, crusty, and very itchy, and may also have lesions, blisters, or skin spots. The symptoms can be controlled with a steroid cream or shampoo that you can get from your vet. In many cases, you have to continue with treatment for the rat’s whole life.
Stress can suppress the immune system of your rat, making it easier for bacteria, parasites, fungi, and other factors to cause skin problems. A rat can be stressed by many things, including illness, smoke, new people or surroundings, incompatible cage mates, and other large pets. Try to keep your rats’ cage in a fairly quiet room with no drafts, smoke, other pets, little kids, or harsh light. They should also have plenty of places to hide and feel comfortable in.