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    First aid for rats
    by Alison Campbell

    From time to time all of us will experience rattie emergencies. The following article will help you to administer appropriate first aid to your rat, which should then be followed by veterinary assessment. According to first aid is:

    "emergency aid or treatment given to someone injured, suddenly ill, etc., before regular medical services arrive or can be reached."

    It is not a substitute for veterinary care.

    Types of emergency that might affect your rat

    • Accidents: these include crush injuries, trapped feet or tails, falls and scalds.
    • Poisoning: usually following the ingestion of plants, medication or recreational drugs/alcohol.
    • Wounds: often the result of fighting, opening surgical wounds or attack from another pet.
    • Choking: may be on food or a foreign body.
    • Drowning: most often in the toilet bowl or standing buckets of water.
    • Electrocution: generally the result of chewing through wires.
    • Sudden illness: shock, infection, strokes and other illnesses can all require emergency interventions.

    Prevention is better than cure
    Many emergencies are completely avoidable. Always consider your rats' welfare when controlling their environment. Take another look at the list above and consider whether any of the preventable emergencies are waiting to happen in the design of your rats' cage, free-range area and all of the spaces that they share with you. Provide your rats with a safe environment before an accident occurs.

    Things to do before the event
    As well as providing a safe environment for your rats there are a number of other things that you can do in advance to make any emergency situation easier to deal with.

    • Learn what you can about rat anatomy and health - Debbie Ducommun's Rat Health Care booklet has lots of useful information and there are many websites (including this one) that have good rat health articles and resources. Don't wait until your rat is hurt and you are in a panic!
    • Make sure you have registered with a good local vet who has made provision for some kind of out of hours service.
    • Gather equipment for a basic first aid kit for rats. It is too late to do this once your rat is hurt.
    • Try to pin down at least one experienced rat owner who you could contact in an emergency at any time of the day or night. Online communities are a reasonable substitute for this but you may not get immediate access to a person with the necessary experience.

    Making up a first aid kit
    A suitable temporary home - this needs to be quite small and well insulated (not a barred cage). Something like a hamster duna tank would be suitable. This needs to then have a suitable layer of insulating bedding. Many people like to use a sheet of Vetbed cut to the size of the tanks base. A layer of newspaper underneath this will absorb urine that drains through. As well as the vet bed a small fleece blanket that the rat can snuggle under, or a good handful of soft shredded paper will help to keep the rat warm. Do not use any bedding material in a dark colour (especially red) or it may be difficult to accurately assess bleeding/urine loss.

    One of the main needs of a shocked or seriously ill rat is heat, therefore an external heat source is also recommended. Microwave heat pads (Snugglesafe make one), heat mats and infrared lamps are all suitable heat sources.

    Other general items that you may find useful in different situations are:

    • Small towel
    • Sharp scissors
    • Nail clippers
    • Cotton wool pads
    • Cotton buds
    • Tweezers

    Medical items (available from your vet, pharmacy or rat product shop):

    • 1ml, 2ml and 5ml syringes
    • Cohesive bandage
    • Sterile Melonin dressing
    • Haemostatic plasters
    • Sterile saline eye drops
    • Trimmex powder (stops minor bleeding instantly)
    • Hibiscrub antiseptic cleaning solution
    • Veterinus Derma Gel
    • Sterile normal saline solution

    Supplemental feeds and medicines:

    • Manuka honey
    • Poly Aid (Dr Squiggles)
    • Nutrical
    • Metacam (prescription only)

    What to do in common scenarios:

    Crush injuries - often due to sitting or standing on a rat or a rat getting trapped in a closing door. Assess quickly for obvious damage but keep handling to a minimum. Most likely injury is internal. Keep warm and calm. Immediate veterinary attention is required.

    Degloved tail - looks awful, and can bleed a lot. If this happens 'out of hours', bleeding is minimal and you have access to painkillers (Metacam) then treatment will wait until morning. Keep in clean, warm environment and for any bleeding or shock (see below). Treatment it usually antibiotics and painkillers until the degloved tip dries out and falls away. Sometimes amputation is needed.

    Trapped feet, toes and torn toenails - if there is profuse bleeding, stem flow with Trimmex powder and wrap with a small haemostatic plaster. If the bleeding doesn't stop quickly seek immediate veterinary advice. Most 'caught' limbs are just bruised, but even where bones are broken treatments are limited. Metacam will reduce pain and inflammation, and climbing should be restricted as much as possible. If in doubt seek veterinary advice.

    Falls - all kinds of injuries are possible following a fall, and I have heard of everything from an injured spine to a ruptured liver. If your rat gets up and moves away there may still be internal injuries and it is wise to be cautious and observe them closely for a few hours. The rat may be initially shocked by the fall. Keep in a quiet, warm environment with minimal handling (this could exacerbate the injury), and seek veterinary advice. Spinal injuries are generally treated with enforced rest (no climbing opportunity), steroids, warmth and nutritional/fluid support. Internal injuries may require surgery.

    Scalds - these are rare in rats but can occur if rats are able to investigate hot drinks or bath water. Take the rat immediately to a basin and rinse the area in cool water - don't immerse the rat in this or it may go into shock. Then keep the rat calm and quiet, giving Metacam if possible. Any open areas should be covered in cling film and the rat taken immediately to a vet.

    Poisoning - since rats can't vomit, they are at high risk from poisons. If you are in doubt always seek advice from your vet or the International Animal Poison Centre. Some poisons do have antidotes that can be prescribed. Keep the rat warm and quiet until you get veterinary advice. You may be told to 'dilute' the poison by giving lots of fluids. It is easiest to get fluid into rat by offering warm water sweetened with honey, or warmed soya milk. Milk may be more appropriate for some poisons. If the rat is reluctant to drink you may need to give fluids from a 1ml syringe.

    Wounds and bleeding - many of the wounds gained from fighting are shallow and heal easily. Where a wound is bleeding profusely this may indicate that a vein or artery has been severed. Cover wound with a dampened cotton wool pad and apply constant pressure for 5 minutes. If the bleeding continues get to a vet immediately. In the meantime keep the rat warm and quiet. Keep pressure on the wound. Warm fluids may help to re-hydrate the rat but do not force fluids into a reluctant rat at this stage. Get help! More minor wounds can be treated with Dermagel, which is a colourless 'wound filler' gel, which aids healing, or with a smear of Manuka honey. Dirty wounds can be flushed with a 5 ml syringe of warmed sterile saline. On occasion a rat will re-open a wound post operatively. Treatment depends on the operation and length of time since surgery. Skin wounds (like those left after lumps are removed) tend to close up themselves but antibiotic cover is required. A cohesive bandage can be used over a sterile Melonin pad to cover a wound on the trunk.

    Choking - rats seem to be quite prone to choking and usually breathing continues normally. The rat may become tired and listless, will drool and perform a 'reaching' movement repeatedly. Breathing sounds may become 'wet'. Almost always this will eventually clear the obstruction and the rat will gradually return to normal. However if drooling and reaching continues for more than a few hours - or if respiratory effort seems to be increased - seek veterinary advice. Occasionally a rat chokes so that the airway is obstructed and breathing stops. In this case you can perform the rat-fling to try to dislodge the obstruction.

    "Hold your rat firmly around the neck with one hand, and by the base of the tail with the other to hold her securely. Make sure there are no objects within an arm's length. Lift the rat overhead and bring her down in a rapid arc, so that at the end of the path she's tail up and head down. This can be repeated 3-4 times, then give the rat a rest, check her breathing, and see if anything is visible in the mouth. This is extremely effective in dislodging objects in the throat. However, don't use this procedure if your rat can breathe, or you might make it worse."(Debbie Ducommun, Rat Health Care)

    Drowning - most rats (when forced) can swim very well, but an unattended rat could exhaust itself and die in a volume of water. If you find your rat has been immersed in water for any length of time take a small towel and rub them over briskly. Look for signs of respiration. If your rat isn't breathing you may wish to try covering its nose and mouth with your mouth and breathing out a small volume of air. Pushing air into its lungs and also tipping head down (try ratty fling above) might help to clear airways of water and allow breathing to begin. If your rat is breathing but exhausted dry as much as you can and house is a warm and quiet enviroment with plenty of fluid/nutritional support until recovered. If you think the rat has inhaled water antibiotic cover will be needed. Your rat will need a proper check up from a vet once he has warmed up/dried out.

    Electrocution - sadly, chewing through cables connected to mains electricity often results in death and rats should be protected at all times. As well as keeping rats away form cables, fitting a mains circuit breaker will reduce the chances of accidental injury for both you and your pets. If electrocution occurs, switch off current and remove rat from the source. Check chest for signs of breathing and feel for a heartbeat. If necessary you can try resuscitating your rat. If his heart is beating but he is not breathing you may wish to try covering his nose and mouth with your mouth and breathing out a small volume of air. You can repeat this a few times in quick succession. If his heart has stopped lay him on a hard surface and give a sharp tap to his chest, just to the right of centre as you face him. You will probably need to gently and rapidly compress his chest area while also breathing for him. Chances of success are not high - but you may wish to try.

    Sudden illness - seek veterinary help. In the meantime give warm fluids, or Dr Squiggles Poly Aid from a 1 ml syringe. Keep quiet, calm and warm.

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