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Monday, September 30, 2013

Cleaning and Disinfecting

I had to take a little break from the blog while getting over losing Pirate. It is always hard when one of the little guys go. Their lives are so short and yet they touch us in such a powerful way that it takes a few days to get back in the swing of things.

I have been doing a lot of fall rat cleaning over the last week or so. I am taking advantage of the nice weather before colder fall weather sets in to hose down cages and accessories outside and allow them to dry in the sunshine (sunlight is a natural disinfectant). It just seemed natural to talk about cleaning and disinfecting a little.

Cleaning is what needs to be done on a regular basis. Disinfecting is what we do when our rats' environment has been exposed to a pathogen and you need to eliminate that pathogen from the home to prevent reinfection or spread. Disinfecting can be done on a preventative basis as well, but in those cases, I usually recommend a mild disinfectant. Vinegar, for example, is a mild and natural disinfectant that has antimicrobial properties, but is safe to use around rats and other animals. I have always believed that keeping animals in a perfectly sterile environment weakens their immune systems and makes them more vulnerable if they ever are exposed to something hazardous. So I don't believe in the sterile environment philosophy. It is better for them to be exposed to things in small doses that they can easily fight off and then build up their immunities to these things.


To thoroughly clean our cages, I use dawn dish soap and water. To do a wipe down, I use vinegar and water. Vinegar is both a mild disinfectant that is useful for cleaning, and also is an odor neutralizer. Vinegar is especially useful for eliminating urine odor, which is essential when you keep rats.

The Martin's cage can be taken into our downstairs shower or brought outside and hosed down, but the Critter Nation needs to be cleaned in place. On rare occasions, the Critter Nation needs to be taken apart and cleaned as urine and grime can get in between the panels. I never hose down the Critter Nation because the inside of the metal frame is hollow and untreated and will quickly rust if exposed to water and not immediately dried.

If the weather is nice, allowing the cage to dry outside will also provide some preventative disinfecting - as sunshine is a natural and effective disinfectant for many pathogens.

When disinfecting a cage because of a known exposure to a pathogen, it is important to know what that pathogen is susceptible to. Bleach is effective against many pathogens, is cheap, and easy to use. When using bleach, you must remove the rats to another cage and disinfect the cage in another room or outside. Bleach is less effective in the presence of organic matter, so the cage or item to be disinfected must first be cleaned to thoroughly remove any residue of urine, fecal matter, blood, mucus, hair, etc. I mix up bleach at a concentration of 10 parts water to 1 part bleach unless the literature regarding the pathogen I am trying to eliminate recommends some other concentration. If possible, keep the surfaces in contact with the bleach for 10 minutes before rinsing. Make sure to thoroughly rinse and then dry the cage before returning the rats to the cage. Bleach fumes can be extremely harsh on their lungs. Make sure the cage does not smell like bleach when you return it to use. Drying the cage in sunlight can be extra helpful.

Some pathogens, like coccidia and giardia, are less susceptible to bleach. In that case, another disinfectant may be called for. Coccidia, for example, is supposed to be susceptible to ammonia (never mix ammonia and bleach - the combination releases a toxic gas). Heat is also often used to safely disinfect when bleach is not effective. While rat cages are too large to disinfect in a dishwasher at antibacterial settings, soaking the cage parts in water that has been heated to boiling may kill off any pathogens. Exposed carriers may be able to be disinfected in the dishwasher on the antibacterial cycle.

Note that you do not have to disinfect cages because of exposure to respiratory infections caused by mycoplasma. All rats carry this bacteria, and thus we do not need to worry about spread from the environment. Rats become ill when their immune system is weakened, not from re-exposure to the mycoplasma itself.

Glass is fairly easy to clean and disinfect, so I always use glass water bottles instead of plastic ones. Because the water bottles are always exposed to water and air, they can be quick to harbor bacteria.

I clean glass water bottles in the dishwasher on the regular setting. I first do a quick rub down with a bottle brush, as the dishwasher may not reach inside the narrow opening as well as I would like.

I disinfect glass water bottles on the antibacterial cycle of my dishwasher or by soaking in a bleach solution and then thoroughly rinsing. I like to dry in the sunlight if the weather cooperates.

Plastic is easy to clean but actually is pretty hard to disinfect (one reason I use glass water bottles instead of plastic ones).

For regular cleaning of plastic, I just use Dawn dish soap and water (or wipe down with vinegar for a quick touch up).

For disinfecting, I first clean the item to remove urine residue and debris, then soak in a bleach water solution for 10 minutes. Alternatively, I have a dishwasher that has an antibacterial cycle that runs at an extremely high temperature to kill most bacteria/spores/parasite eggs, etc. However, some plastics cannot handle temperatures so high and can melt or warp in that cycle - others are tougher and do fine. I have used that cycle with success to kill coccidia oocysts in a hospital cage/pan/drinkers/seed trays that held infected birds.

Wood is hard to clean and to disinfect because it is so porous.

I soak wood in a vinegar water solution to clean it. When it has been around for a while, I replace it.

Pitch everything made of wood and replace it - wood just cannot be thoroughly disinfected and it is better to just get rid of it than risk re-exposure or spread of disease.

Lava Ledges
Lava ledges are pumice stone and are also very porous.

I also clean these by soaking in vinegar/water solution.

I would replace these in case of a contagion as well - just because there are so many holes and crevices for bacteria to hide in. Soaking in bleach solution may be effective, but I personally would probably not risk it. Also, I don't like soaking anything in bleach that the rats like to chew on - and my rats chew the lava ledges.

I wash my hammocks and liners using a dye-free and fragrance-free detergent (I use Tide Free and Gentle, but any brand would do). I wash on hot to kill any bacteria present and use vinegar in the rinse cycle, running a second rinse cycle to make sure everything rinses out thoroughly. If urine odor is a problem for you and you are not worried about pathogens, you may want to wash in cold water, as urine stains are protein stains and cold water is more effective at eliminating them. However, I have found that as long as I use vinegar in the rinse, I don't have a problem with urine odor in the hammocks and liners - even when I wash on hot - so I prefer to kill off anything that might be lurking in there by using the hot cycle.


Washing in hot water and drying on the highest heat setting will kill most things (this is effective against ringworm, for example). My machine also has a sanitary cycle (extremely hot) with a Steam option that would probably be helpful if I am ever hit with something nasty that I want to make sure I get rid of. However, if I were dealing with something that bad, I would pitch the hammocks afterwards anyway. They chew through them quickly - no sense keeping them around if there is a chance they might get reinfected with something nasty.

The good thing is that because our rats don't usually go outside where they are exposed to bird and animal droppings and they don't usually eat live food like insects (unless you feed them mealworms), they are very unlikely to be exposed to many of these problems. It is much more important to know this stuff with birds/reptiles that eat live insects or that live in outdoor aviaries, than with rats who are usually sheltered in our homes. Still - it is always possible that they could catch these things if they do eat the occasional bug or if they go outside on occasion or if they are exposed to wild rats/mice in the house or a new rat that has been exposed to these things. Feeding mealworms is usually okay because most insectaries test for these problems and somehow manage to control them - however, I have seen mealworms crushed open and the innards examined under the microscope only to find worm eggs inside - so this risk is always possible if you feed live insects to your animals. For animals with insectivorous diets (many birds and reptiles), you have no choice, but for rats, I don't risk it, since there are other options to meet their dietary requirement.

Probably the main thing that people do a deep clean for is when they find mites or lice on their rats - but using Revolution makes it less important because one dose will last the entire life cycle, so any eggs will hatch and die out before they can be reinfected (as long as you treat all of the rats). I would also probably do a deep clean for a virus like Sendai or SDA - although I believe these viruses only live on surfaces for up to 3 hours, so time would likely render exposed items safe. Still - anything that serious, I wouldn't mess around.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Rest in Peace, Pirate 1/9/12 - 9/20/13

It is with great sadness that I report that we lost our darling Pirate this morning. He had started having episodes of very difficult breathing, where he would appear to gasp for air. They would last just around 10 minutes or so and then he would be back to normal. He had no sneezing, wheezing, porphyrin, congestion, lack of energy, or any of his other symptoms. In fact, when he wasn't having one of these episodes, he seemed fine. I put him on his Theophylline, which is supposed to open his airways, but it did not help him at all.
I had uploaded a video of one of his episodes to get help in diagnosing his problem. It can be seen here:

He went in to the vet this morning and she did an x-ray. It turned out that he had a very large mass in his left lung. The right lung was perfectly clear, which explained why he had no other symptoms and why his problems tended to start when he was more awake and active or when he was stressed - when he was relaxed, the right lung could handle things on its own. This mass has probably contributed to his past respiratory issues.
Unfortunately, he had a very bad attack at the vet office - probably triggered by the stress. He was put on oxygen, and when he calmed down, they brought him out to me. Unfortunately, he was very weak and he passed away in my arms. There was really nothing that could have been done for him. 
So Pirate, I wish you the best at Rainbow Bridge. I know you were always afraid of Mystery and Weasel, but I know they will look out for you. And you never met Gabe, but he will be a good friend for you - you were so much alike.
I am no good at writing memorials - I can never capture their truly unique and special personalities in words. Instead, I will close with a handful of the photographic memories of our good times.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Pumpkin Tutorial Added to Hammock Tutorial PDF

Pumpkin Hammock with Jack-o'-Lantern design
I have attempted in previous years to make a pumpkin-shaped cube-style hammock, with mixed results. In the past, I never quite got it right - the shape, size, or structural integrity were always off.
I am pleased to say that this year, I think I finally have it right. So I have updated  Ratropolis' Tutorials for Common Rat Hammocks and Accessories, to include my pumpkin design.
Simple Pumpkin for Fall or Thanksgiving themes
The design can be used to make a jack-o'-lantern for Halloween, a pumpkin for Halloween or Thanksgiving/Fall, or used to make any type of hammock that would require a spherical shape (eg, beach ball).

This design does use batting to keep the spherical shape intact. I have tried to make a pumpkin without batting, but it tends to sag and lose the structural integrity. With the batting, the pumpkin can easily stand unsupported (although your ratties may trample it if you don't secure the stem to the cage top/side with hammock hooks).

The finished size of the pumpkin hammock is approximately 8" in diameter.

Feel free to try out this tutorial for yourself this fall - I hope your ratties will enjoy!

Friday, September 13, 2013

More Rat Detectives - This Time in Holland

Update 9/14/13: I realized last night these may be some of the same rats reported earlier, as Holland is a part of the Netherlands. I was fooled by the fact that these rats are detecting things other than gun powder residue.

Hot on the heels of the story about rats sniffing out gunpowder residue in the Netherlands, comes another story about crime-fighting rats in Europe. This time, five rat detectives are being trained in Holland, to detect blood, explosives, and drugs.

This article includes a video (in English this time!) introducing us to the five rats, named after famous fictional detectives, and showing them in action.

Holland's Sniffer Rats Have a Nose for Crime Fighting

Related Post:
Rats Fight Crime in the Netherlands

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Loki's Abscess

Loki's abscess on his thigh. It is hard to see because
it is covered with fur, but hard and flat to the touch.

Today, I brought Loki in to the vet because of an abscess on his right thigh. He also has other skin problems - he scratches a lot to the point of scabs and his fur has a rougher feel to it. While this is frequently a sign of mites, not all scratching is caused by mites. Loki has always had some skin issues - being a rex probably doesn't help this any - and while mites were a definite possibility, I suspected something else - dry skin or infection or something.

The vet confirmed that Loki's lump was in fact an abscess - she drained some pus and found bacteria present. He also appears to have a skin infection (the abscess probably being related to the overall skin infection).

Loki behaved himself very well at the vet's - which was quite a relief. I am always worried he will bite if afraid or in pain, but so far, he has only bitten when he smells another rat.

An abscess is a collection of pus in the skin and they are quite common in rats if they scratch themselves or cut themselves. They can often be distinguished from tumors because they are actually in the skin - so they move with the skin. Skin usually passes over tumors, and thus you can move the skin around over the tumor without moving the tumor itself.

Treatment involves draining the pus. You can sometimes do this at home using warm compresses. I like to go to the vet so that I can also get an antibiotic to help make sure infection doesn't recur. I also fear the risk of pushing infected fluid back into the body - I just feel it is safer to let a vet handle this.

Loki is currently on Baytril and we are treating his skin topically with chlorhexidine wipes that we will use twice a day to try to eliminate the skin infections. If the wipes alone don't do the trick, he may need medicated shampoo. We are trying to avoid that option because Loki hates baths, and with his unstable temperament, we are nervous about forcing him into the situation.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rats Fight Crime in the Netherlands

We know that rats are very intelligent and highly trainable and have a great sense of smell. They can be trained to do a variety of tricks, to sniff out landmines, and to detect tuberculosis faster and more cheaply than lab tests. Now, police in the Netherlands have found another way they can be useful: detecting gun powder residue. They are easier to train than dogs and they can detect the presence of gun powder residue in seconds.
I love to see stories like these, showing off the usefulness and intelligence of domesticated rats, and demonstrating that they are not just a pest species but actually work with people to perform services to benefit humanity.
Check out the full story here:
There is a video linked to at the end of the article that looks like it delves into more detail and would be very interesting, if only I could speak Dutch:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Litter Training

Weasel loved to lay around inside his litter box.
Litter training is something I have never given much thought to. A litter box is a necessity when you use fleece/fabric liners, but just because it exists, doesn't mean they will use it. Our Loki is the best litter trained rat we have ever had - always using the litter box, with never a stray raisin to be found. Our other rats have been decent, with most of the raisins found in the litter box, but the occasional stray raisins left elsewhere. Our girls are still in training - sometimes it takes several months.

Here are some tips to make litter training go as smoothly as possible.
  1. Pay attention to the places where you normally find raisins. Rats tend to have certain preferred spots for this. Place the litter box in their chosen spot. Put a few raisins in the box to get them started.
  2. Place a litter box on every full level of the cage. Rats can be lazy. They will use the litter box if it is there, but not if it is out of sight or an effort to get to.
  3. Use a heavy litter in the litter box. It is always best to use a different litter in the litter box than in the cage (if you also use a litter in the cage). You need to differentiate the litter box from everywhere else if you want to litter train your rats. Using a light and fluffy/airy litter can be messy. Rats can easily toss lightweight litter out of the litter box - either by accident or on purpose. A heavier paper pelleted litter is more likely to stay in the litter box than something like aspen or Carefresh.
  4. Move any raisins you find into the litter box to teach the rats that this is where they belong.
  5. Don't change the litter too frequently at first - keeping some raisins in the box helps remind the rats where they belong.
  6. Have patience. Sometimes it takes a while for them to get it. Just keep up with it. One day, you will likely find that most of the raisins are in the boxes where they belong.
Remember that rats can only be litter trained for poo and not for pee. Rats use urine to mark their territories and to communicate with other rats, and thus will always pee where they see fit.

Don't be surprised if your rats drag other things into the litter box. We have had rats who would drag their treats into the litter box. Sounds disgusting, but there is really no discouraging this. They will do what they want to do. Our rat Weasel also liked to sleep in the litter box. We think that perhaps in the summer it was cooler in the box than sleeping on fleece.

Make sure to choose a safe litter for your litter boxes. Many litters marketed to small animals are not safe for those animals. Cedar and pine wood shavings are aromatic and the oils in the wood can cause respiratory problems in rats. Aspen shavings are a safe alternative if you prefer wood. Corn cob litters are prone to mold and can carry fungi, like Aspergillus. Paper litters, like Carefresh and ExquisiCat Paper are safe. Be warned, however, that Yesterday's News is made partially with sawdust, even though it claims to be a paper bedding. Thus, it may not be as safe as other alternatives. We used to use Yesterday's News (pictured above with Weasel), but have changed to ExquisiCat for this reason.

Also note that paper-based cat litters are safe for small animal use as long as the only ingredient is paper and they do not contain any added fragrances/chemicals/agents. Paper cat litter is usually the same as the paper products marketed toward small animals, but can be purchased in larger quantities for less.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cat Toy Terror

My husband was gone for the weekend visiting relatives in Ohio. His aunt, a loving cat owner, sent him home with this cute cat toy as a gift for our rats.

My son, Zander, took out Bela onto a couch to play with her with the toy - and as soon as she got near it, she freaked out, leaped from the couch, and darted under a storage shelf. Zander had to squeeze himself underneath to get her out - but she was clearly traumatized and didn't have any interest in playing for the rest of the evening. Even this morning, she was still looking a little timid.

The evil cat toy did not have this effect on any of the other rats - even Ruby, the most timid of the group, was chewing on the plastic and pulling at the feather.

I am guessing there must have been cat smell on the toy and this is what freaked Bela out. I know that many people keep both cats and rats without incident, but we have never had any cats in our house as I am severely allergic to them. Plus, one of our dogs does not get along with cats, as the neighbor cats would willingly attest. Clearly, Bela still has an instinctive fear of cats and a strong survival instinct.