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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hammie Picked up a Respiratory Infection

Hammie posing for a Christmas picture before becoming ill.

Hammie started sneezing right before Christmas. For a few days, he just wanted to hang out in his hammock and sleep, rather than come out and play. His eyes were narrow and not so bright.

We brought him into the vet the day after Christmas. His lungs were clear and the infection appeared to be confined to the upper respiratory system (nose and sinuses). He also had a swollen back left leg. I had noticed him limping the previous weekend, but at the time, his leg was not swollen, and the next day, he appeared to be using it again. Apparently, while he was ill, he either re-injured it, or it had gotten worse, and it was swollen pretty good when the vet looked at him.

He was put on some Rimadyl for the swelling/pain in his leg. He was also put on Trimethoprim Sulfa for the respiratory infection. This particular med is not effective for myco-related respiratory infections, but it can be effective for other types of respiratory infections. The vet thought it might be effective for Hammie's particular case.

Hammie has been on the meds for about 5 days now. His leg is much better and he is back to his active, alert, playful self. The change in his behavior is really remarkable - even my youngest son noticed right away how much better he is. However, he is still sneezing. We decided we will keep him on the meds for another few days to make it a full week, to give the meds more time to kick this thing before deciding whether we need to change meds or finish the course with the existing one. If after a week he is still sneezing, we will switch to another med. I am interested to see what will happen. Hammie really did improve drastically since starting the antibiotic, being back to his normal self except for the sneezing, so it seems like it is working, but until the sneezing stops, it is still up in the air.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Anti-pill Fleece Doorbuster Sale Today at JoAnns

Just a heads up for those who make their own hammocks and liners: JoAnn's has anti-pill fleece 70% off, today only (both in store and online). Solids are just $3.00 a yard. And to top it off, remnants are 75% off the sale price (this is not an advertised sale for the remnants, so I am not sure if all stores put their remnants on sale 75% off or not). That means that if you can find any anti-pill fleece in the remnant bin, it will come to just 75 cents a yard. At that price, I buy anything they have available.

My store even has the fleece available in 2 yard precut pieces, so you can skip the cutting table and get directly in line. This is a huge convenience on Black Friday weekend, when cutting counter lines can be very long.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Rats in the News: Photographer Anna Turin Sets out to Prove Rats Are Adorable

Source Article: Can Rats Ever Be Cute? One Photographer Tries Her Best to Prove that Rodents Are Actually Adorable

It really goes without saying that rats are, of course, adorable. I mean, how hard can it be to prove the obvious - what we see every day? But even though this is obvious to us, it is not quite so obvious to the rest of the world. As someone who makes an effort to photograph my rats as much as possible, I do know what a challenge it can be to capture that adorable mischief in pixel form. These photographs are a wonderful showcase of the beautiful and loving nature of the domesticated rat and are worthy of being shared.

Check out the entire image gallery at the link above.

Friday, November 14, 2014

BestMassage Gymnastics Mat

Gymnastic mat under the loveseat protects against falls.

The BestMassage gymnastics mat I ordered after Bobo's fall arrived earlier this week. The mat is 4' x 8', large enough to cover the area to the sides and in front of the loveseat. It is 2" thick and very firm, yet provides plenty of cushion in the case of a fall. I am happy with the construction. It appears very durable, although whether or not it will hold up to rat chewing has yet to be seen. It may be that with time, the loveseat legs may tear the cover, but for now, it is holding up extremely well. I did reinforce the area where the legs rest with a piece of duct tape and a scrap piece of furniture pad.
BestMassage Thick Folding Panel Gymnastics Mat
A few reviewers complained about a smell of volatile gases upon opening the box. I made sure to order from an Amazon vendor from which other reviewers reported no smell (Cavalier Wholesale). This mat arrived completely odorless, but I did leave it upstairs for a while to vent just in case.

I really like the protection and peace of mind this mat offers. If it proves to hold up well, I may order a second one to protect the center play area of the rat room. A mat like this would also be nice on the floor of a play pen or free range area to protect the carpeting or hardwood flooring underneath it. Again, I don't know how this will hold up over time, but my first impression is very positive. I just wish I would have thought of this before Bobo had his fall.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Introductions are Over: Sometimes Rats Just Need to Duke It Out

Hammie, Ruby, Jeremy, and Burt enjoy breakfast together.

Hammie, Ruby, Jeremy, and Burt are finally living together in the DCN. The ramp is down and they have access to all levels. We are greatly saddened that Bobo couldn't be here as part of the group. We know he would have loved the company and the space. This successful introduction is bittersweet without Bobo taking part in it. However, it wouldn't be fair to just stop working with the other rats because we are grieving Bobo's loss, so we keep trudging forward.

It was a long journey. Hammie, Jeremy, and Bobo were adopted at the beginning of August. Three months and two neuters later, everyone is finally comfortable enough with each other to be able to share the same cage. There was a lot of supervised play time and, over the last week, a lot of supervised cage intros. Last night, they spent their first night together, and this morning, they all ran to the same shelf to get their breakfast - no longer phased by the company of the other rats.

Sometimes the introduction process is tricky. Rats love the company of other rats, but sometimes, they can't help but think of a new rat as competition, as a threat, or as an intruder to their territory. Hormonal males are especially difficult. Some rats can never be introduced, but sometimes we are tempted to give up too soon.

We learned that neuters can be amazing, but it can take a few weeks for the hormones to die down. Burt and Hammie started intros again one week after their neuters, but that wasn't long enough and both got hurt. Burt's wounds became infected. The healing process took a bit of time, and the experience made Burt extra nervous around the other rats. However, neither Burt nor Hammie has bitten any other rat since their altercation shortly after the neuter. Neither rat has sought out conflict, although Burt will defend himself if provoked. Hammie has actually gone from the most rat-aggressive to the most rat-friendly. Jeremy (the remaining intact rat) has become the biggest trouble maker, loving to provoke a fight. However, he is really just looking to stir things up and he has never caused injury to anyone, so at this time, a neuter isn't necessary. I don't think introductions would have ever been possible without the neuters.

We are trained to look for signs of aggression in our rats during intros, and if we see those signs, to separate the rats, slow down, and back up a step. Signs we look for are arching of the back, shoving their rumps into each other, and getting into loud and angry fights that leave their fur standing up on end. Taking it slow and cautious is the proper way to proceed at first. You don't want to throw them unprepared into a scary situation that will scar them emotionally. You don't want their first impression of the other rats to be an extremely negative one. That is an impression that is hard to erase. But some rats won't ever progress if we are too cautious. Sometimes we have to take risks if we want to see what our rats are capable of and if we want to eventually move forward.

My advice is always to start by taking it slow and easy. No need to rush into anything. However, not every intro is going to go off with our rats being best friends at first sight. If they did go off that way, we wouldn't need intros in the first place. Instead, rats need to establish the rat hierarchy before they can live peacefully together. They need to know who is the top rat (if there even is one), and what kind of behavior to expect from the new rats. This process necessarily involves some risk.

The general rule to follow is no blood, no foul. This is my gospel. It is okay to back off intros a bit when things get a little too heated at first, but if those heated exchanges continue repeatedly, you will never move forward until you let them work through them. This means risking someone getting hurt. Just be sure to be vigilant and not leave them unsupervised. Be ready to intercede if needed. And as soon as someone does get hurt, you absolutely must back off intros or the violence could escalate. With males, this is a sign that a neuter is necessary. It is very hard to proceed with intros if blood is being drawn. It could be the injuries occurred because you rushed intros or skipped some steps. But when that is not the case, more drastic measures may be called for. If neuters are ineffective, it may be that these specific rats just can't live together. You may have a rat who just won't get along with other rats. Or, you might have better luck introducing the rat to a different rat, or a rat of the opposite sex (assuming one is neutered/spayed).

If no blood is being shed, but introductions are still a bit rocky and progress has stalled, then go ahead and put up with more aggressive behavior than you may want to. If they are not actually hurting each other, just posturing, threatening, screeching a little, and/or doing battle without causing injury, then chances are good that with perserverence, they can work their issues out themselves. If they wanted to hurt each other, they could. But they are not. That says a lot. Sometimes, just putting up with the undesirable behavior is not enough. Sometimes you need to move forward despite it. This is true only when it is clear that nothing is going to change if you continue with the status quo.

We moved ahead with cage intros even though Jeremy and Burt were still getting into some fights. Normally, I would want everyone getting along during supervised play time before trying cage intros. However, our intros had been going on for a long time with the same results and we were hitting a wall. The problem is that Burt and Jeremy would get into a fight, then Burt would run away to me or somewhere where Jeremy didn't follow or couldn't get to him. Burt would basically avoid Jeremy. They weren't working out their conflicts, Burt was avoiding them.

Cage intros seemed to be the way to go, because in the cage, there isn't anyone Burt could run to and there isn't anyplace where he could completely get away from Jeremy. He could seek safety in a cube or hut or tube, but Jeremy could always approach him and force him to deal with the situation. They needed to deal with each other head on. Again, I emphasize here that neither rat had ever bitten the other. After several days of supervised cage intros (taking place for a few hours a day), Burt seemed to tolerate Jeremy better and Jeremy stopped harassing Burt so much. We tried a day of cage integration with periodic supervision and periods of being left alone. It went extremely well, so I felt comfortable leaving them together at night. By morning, they were all acting like they had lived together forever.

Basically, we had to force Burt and Jeremy to live together with each other before they would actually try to get along. This is similar to the philosophy of using a carrier and a car ride to further introductions (again, a technique I would only recommend if you know that the rats aren't going to draw blood). The stress of the car ride and being forced close together in a carrier makes the rats forget their animosity and actually potentially take comfort with each other. We employed this method with Ruby and the new rats because we knew no one would hurt her and she was so afraid of them at first that she just wanted to hide. It helped a lot. It might have been very successful with Burt and Jeremy as well, but I didn't feel comfortable forcing them together in such a small space, so I thought the cage was the best way to go.

I am not claiming that there won't be future issues, but it looks like it will be mostly downhill from here. I have no fears about anyone hurting anyone else, and what is more, they all actually seem to like each other now, not just tolerate each other.

One thing is certain, we wouldn't have made it to this point if I didn't allow a little supervised conflict.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Barn - Fall Cage Accessories

You can easily make a fall barn hide using the House pattern in the
Tutorials for Common Rat Hammocks

It is time to put the Halloween hammocks away and start decorating the rat cages for fall. I created my first fall hammocks last year (see Fall Decorating Ideas), with pumpkin hides, a snuggle sack full of fleece leaves, and maple leaf-shaped flat hammocks.

This year, I spotted a fabric I just knew I had to have. It was available from and it was more than I usually pay for rat hammock fabric (knowing that they will just chew it up). But I fell in love with it and bought it anyway (good thing I did - it is no longer available). The fabric features an apple/pumpkin farm, scarecrows and sunflowers, and lots of fall birds looking for something good to eat. Everything I love about fall in one colorful print. It even had a coordinating leaf print.

I put together a standard DCN hammock set and then realized that what would really bring it to life would be a barn hideaway. Fortunately, I had already created a pattern for a house (used to make haunted houses and gingerbread houses) and it could easily be used to craft a barn without any modifications. You can find the instructions in the Tutorials for Common Rat Hammocks and Accessories PDF.

Using that tutorial, I put together the barn shown above to serve as the centerpiece of the set.

And this is the cage decorated for fall:

There are rats in the barn! Burt and Hammie during in-cage intros.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Breeding Matters: Genes Influence Temperament in Rats

Source Article: Genes Contribute to Behavior Differences Between Fierce and Friendly Rats

A Study dated 11/7/14 from the Genetics Society of America has examined the role that genetics plays in the temperament of rats. The study began nearly 40 years ago and involved two groups of wild rats. One group was selectively bred for aggressive behavior toward humans. The second group was bred for tame behavior toward humans. After 60 generations of rats, the two groups respond to humans in very different ways. The study went on to find gene variants that were responsible for the different temperaments and were able to identify "eight regions of the genome that contributed to the variation in tameness" among rats that were bred from crosses between one tame parent and one aggressive parent.

This study emphasizes the importance of selective breeding, not just for health and for physical characteristics, but for temperament as well. It is easy to think that all we have to do is proper socialization from birth and all of our rats will be sweet and loving. But genetics definitely plays a role. Having the wrong genetic makeup can make the socialization process more difficult, but the right genetics can also make socialization a simple and natural process.

This is something that rat owners familiar with halfies (rat litters born to one domesticated parent [usually female] and one wild rat [usually male]) already know. Despite intense socialization at a very young age, these rats usually remain somewhat wild-like and more difficult to handle, a clear sign of the influence the wild rat genes have on the domesticated rat gene pool, regardless of the best efforts at socialization.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bobo Had a Tragic Fall

Me and Bobo on Halloween
This is the hardest post I think I will ever have to write. I didn't want to write it. I wanted to wait a few days for the pain to deaden, so it would be easier. But somehow I feel like it has to be written now, while it is still real and immediate.

Bobo was out playing with the other rats in the rat room yesterday evening. I was sitting on the loveseat watching television while they played around me. Bobo is a very social boy and always jumps on and off the loveseat to say hello, then rushes off to do rattie things again. He's a flyby greeter, always on the go.

Or, I mean, he was.

Yesterday, he was jumping around on the love seat, when he suddenly got a little too close to the edge and he tumbled off and fell to the floor. It was a very short distance, less than the distance from my knee to my foot. One of the floor mats that I made was on the floor where he landed. I didn't think anything of it, because he jumps on and off that sofa like nothing all the time. But my baby didn't get back up.

I bent over to see what happened and found him curled on his side on the ground. He twitched a tiny bit and then just didn't move again. He was gone. Just like that. I couldn't believe it. I was in shock. I got out my stethoscope to listen for a heartbeat because I thought he couldn't be gone just like that. Maybe he was just in shock. But there was no heartbeat. I had to listen to the other rats' hearts to make sure the stethoscope was working. It was. Bobo was gone. I couldn't understand it. Things like that just don't happen. At least, they shouldn't ever happen.

He had to have landed wrong - on his head or on his back. I don't know how that could have happened, because he was like a cat - always landing on his feet. And he didn't fall very far. It was suggested to me that maybe he had a seizure or something, because rats are very adept, and I would really like to believe that, but Bobo had no history of seizures and I really think he just was over excited and misjudged the edge of the love seat. I want to believe that there was something else wrong and that this couldn't have been prevented, but I just don't believe it. It was one awful, terrible moment in time that I just can't get back to do over.

I would like to write something about how to cope with an accident like this, but I can't, because I  don't know how to cope with it. I've never lost a rat to an accident. I am devastated. I am heart broken. I am angry at myself that I could allow this to happen. I was supposed to be giving him a better life than the one he was rescued from, and now he is gone . . . way too soon. Naturally, I can't help but feel that this is all my fault. There were a million little things I could have done differently, that wouldn't have ended up with Bobo in that exact position at that exact time. Of course, I couldn't have known before it happened that it would end like this. But the one thing that became clear is the fact that the floor mats weren't enough to protect him and keep him safe. His environment was unsafe, and that was my responsibility and my fault.

I had spent a lot of time thinking about the floor of the rat room in the past. It is concrete, so it is hard. I had thought about putting comforters down, but that carries the risk that the rats will burrow underneath them and then we might step on them by mistake. Also, comforters can be easily chewed and the batting or fiberfill inside can be stringy and dangerous. Cushions get chewed and pushed around and the spongy foam can be dangerous and messy and can absorb urine and be hard to clean (I had tried this and it didn't work out). I thought about the puzzle foam mats that can be interlocked together to cover a floor, but they would be quickly chewed and there are articles on parenting websites about these mats containing dangerous chemicals. So ultimately, I decided to make the floor pads similar to the way I make the cage liners - a layer of fleece and a layer of furniture pad. They are soft and pretty thick but easily washable, and if the rats burrow underneath, they are pretty obvious and easy to avoid stepping on. However, this apparently was not good enough.

To fix this, I am going to try a gymnastics mat to cover the area where the loveseat is. I don't know how well this will work, but it is the best idea I have been able to come up with. If they fall off the loveseat onto the mat, it should provide enough cushion to prevent serious injury (if it can protect a gymnast, it should be able to protect a rat). The cover is vinyl, so it should be easy to wipe clean without rat urine soaking into the padding. There is the risk that it may be chewed, but I am hoping the vinyl will protect it and that supervision will be enough to keep it intact. If it does get damaged, duct tape should patch it up. I did try to find information about the safety of the foam inside the mat. It is a different type of foam than the supposedly dangerous foam used in the puzzle mats, and I couldn't find any websites reporting associated dangers with the gym mats. These gym mats are also used as toddler mats (for children learning to walk), so I am hoping that means they are at least child safe. But just because there is no information out there, doesn't mean it is safe. So I will have to be vigilant and make sure the rats don't chew through the cover and get at the foam.

Anyway, I want to say that, Bobo, I am so sorry. I failed you. I wanted to give you a good life and tragedy took you from me too soon. I feel completely responsible for what happened - for not making your rat room as safe as it should have been; for not moving you off the loveseat before you fell. I always tell people that we learn from our mistakes, but it hurts so bad to learn this way and I am so sorry it was you who had to suffer for it. You were loved and you will be missed. This is a nightmare that I really wish I could wake up from and get a do-over.

I hardly ever post pictures of me (I hardly ever take pictures of me), but I just had to share this one last picture Bobo and I took together on Halloween (above). I can't believe we won't ever take any more. I thought dealing with prolonged illness was hard, but it is no where near as hard as losing a rat to an accident that just shouldn't have happened at all.

Goodbye, Bobo. Play hard over the bridge.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Critter Nation vs Ferret Nation

Midwest Dual Critter Nation
Midwest Dual Ferret Nation
I frequently see posts asking which is a better cage for rats: the Midwest Critter Nation or the Midwest Ferret Nation.

In most circumstances, my answer to this question would be the Critter Nation. There are only three differences between the cages:

1. Bar Spacing

The Critter Nation bar spacing is 1/2" vs the 1" bar spacing of the Ferret Nation. This means that the Critter Nation is safe for young rats and both female and male rats. The wider Ferret Nation bar spacing can allow young rats to escape, along with many female rats and some smaller male rats. Thus, the Critter Nation will be safe for all your present and future rat needs. If you only have large male rats, the Ferret Nation may meet your needs today, but in the future, when you get new rats, it may no longer be appropriate.

Of course, you can always modify the Ferret Nation with some hardware cloth, but this can be a pain and an eyesore. Still, if you are finding one cheap for sale second-hand, it may be worth it to buy it and modify it as needed.

One benefit of the wider bar spacing is that it is easy to pet your rats between the bars without opening the door to the cage. The 1/2" bar spacing of the Critter Nation is just too narrow to comfortably slip a finger into the cage.

2. Bar Direction

The Critter Nation bars are horizontal. This is an ideal setup for rats, as it makes climbing the cage walls easier. The Ferret Nation bars are vertical and so a little more difficult to climb.

3. Price

The Ferret Nation is often cheaper than the Critter Nation. However, especially when on sale, I have been noticing more and more that the price difference between the two is shrinking. For example, today, has the Ferret Nation on sale for $195.49 and the Critter Nation on sale for $203.99. That is less than a $10 difference. Of course, prices on these cages fluxuates greatly from moment to moment. If there is a big price difference between the two, rather than going with the cheaper Ferret Nation cage, I recommend waiting and monitoring prices. There is a good chance the Critter Nation price will come down to something closer to the Ferret Nation with time. Even if it does not, the Critter Nation is worth the price difference just for the fact that it will meet all of your needs today and in the future.

There is actually one other potential difference between the two - but only if buying used. The older Ferret Nation cage used to have a flat shelf/level rather than the ridged pan that they come with today. Some people really love the old style, whereas others like the lip on the new style for keeping raisins and debris inside the cage. Liners designed for the new style may not work on the old style levels and shelves. All Critter Nation cages have always been made in the new style.

Despite my affection for the Critter Nation, the Ferret Nation is still a really good cage. If you have the option to get one or the other, I recommend the Critter Nation. However, if you have the opportunity to get a good deal on the Ferret Nation and are aware of its limitations, it is still a really nice cage and your rats will love it, as long as you make sure they cannot escape from it.

The Fiesty Ferret

There is another cage that many often confuse with the Ferret Nation. It is the Preview Hendryx Feisty Ferret, pictured to the left.

The Feisty Ferret is similar to the Dual Ferret Nation in that it has two main levels and two shelves. It also has vertical bar spacing that is 7/8" (a little smaller than the Ferret Nation, but significantly wider than the Critter Nation).

The Feisty Ferret looks like it has fully opening doors, like the Ferret Nation and Critter Nation. However, in actuality, only the right hand door opens. The left side is not a door and is permanently closed. This means that cleaning will be a little more difficult.

The Feisty Ferret is also a little smaller than the Ferret Nation. It's shelves are not full 1/2 cage width shelves, like the Ferret Nation, but instead are slimmer and they have a hole cut out. This means that it will not have as much space for accessorizing. The shelf ramps are solid plastic instead of a metal ramp with bar rungs, which I believe are easier for rattie feet to grab on to. Finally, the middle level is not solid, but wire, and will need to be covered for safety reasons.The bottom tray actually slides out (not my favorite setup for rats, but nice for bird cages), which means there is another metal grid above the bottom tray that will need to be covered for safety. Finally, the construction on the Feisty Ferret seems to be weaker than the durable Ferret Nation cage.

Of course, the Feisty Ferret is quite a bit cheaper than the Ferret Nation, but I always recommend saving for the cage you really want, rather than saving a few bucks and then being frustrated by the limitations later. When buying used, be sure to know the difference between the Feisty Ferret and the Ferret Nation. I have heard of people passing off Feisty Ferrets for Ferret Nations on Craigslist (either intentionally or out of ignorance), and the Feisty Ferret is just not worth as much as the Ferret Nation - so make sure you know what you are getting when you buy used.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fall Pumpkins are Fun for Rats, Too!

At our house, after the kids are done with Trick or Treating, it is pumpkin time for the ratties. Rats love a fresh pumpkin, especially the slimy guts and the yummy seeds. We use a pie pumpkin and cut a hole in the front to get them started, but many people like to use a full-sized carving pumpkin and let them crawl inside.

Just be warned, pumpkins make messy play. We put down large sheets of Kraft paper on the floor in preparation for pumpkin time, to make clean up afterwards much easier. Some pics of the yummy fall pumpkin action:

Hammie drags the pumpkin shell out through the castle door . . .

. . . and proceeds to abscond with it behind the garbage can.
Hammie clearly loves pumpkin.
Ruby is wondering why this thing only has one hole. 

Jeremy tells Hammie to quit hogging the pumpkin.

These pumpkin guts are delicious!

Finally, a turn for everyone.

Bobo likes the seeds.

Burt prefers to sit on the couch and be served by his humans.

Pumpkin? What Pumpkin? I was always this color!

Ruby licks pumpkin juice off my son's hand.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Update on Burt's Wounds

Burt (right) after his Staple Removal and Ruby (left)

A week ago Tuesday, Burt saw the vet. Turns out, the wounds on his back were very deep and pockets of infection had developed deep under the skin. The wounds on his thigh and at the base of his tail were healing fine, though. They looked nasty, but they were mainly scabs on the surface of the skin that were healing up.

The vet shaved his fur on his back near the wounds and drained the infected pockets, then closed his wounds with staples. We were given trimethoprim sulfa, an antibiotic that is very effective for infections of the skin, and some chlorhexidine antiseptic solution with which to clean his wounds. His weight had dropped considerably. Pre-neuter, he had been 720 grams. At his post-neuter appointment, he weighed 690 grams. At this appointment, he weighed 609 grams. The vet believed it was because of the infection that he was losing weight.

During the course of the week, while cleaning the scab on his back, the scab came loose revealing more pus underneath. I cleaned out the pus as well as I could and the wound scabbed back over again.

Yesterday, Burt went back to the vet for a follow-up and to get his staples removed. This time, he weighed 640 grams, so he was putting back on some of that lost weight. The vet said he was looking much better. The wound on his thigh was kind of swollen, but she aspirated it and didn't find any pus, so it may just be that it is near a lymph node and the node is swollen. We are keeping an eye on that. It should shrink with time. All of the other wounds look pretty well healed.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to restart introductions. Introductions with Ruby to the three new boys have gone really well during the time that Burt has been recooperating. The two intact boys, however, just can't seem to figure out why she never goes into heat and that seems to either fascinate or frustrate them. They constantly want to get a whiff of her lady parts and she doesn't want any part of that. But aside from such annoyances, they have all gotten along just fine.

Now that it is almost a month after the neuters, I think things will go much better for Burt and Hammie. Both rats seem to have calmed down considerably since the altercation that caused Burt's problems. It would be nice to have all five rats living together.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Rats in the News: Rats Are the New Dogs

Article: Rats Are the New Dogs from the Aquinian

Some good press for rats in Canada. I have always believed that rats are the closest small animal pet to dogs that you could get. I am glad others feel the same way.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Skin Problems - Possible Cyst - for Burt

Poor Burt. Things haven't been going his way lately.

As I posted earlier, Burt and Hammie did not have a very good go at our first attempt at introductions post-neuter and both ended up with small injuries. I normally don't worry much about skin wounds on rats. Rats heal extremely quickly and usually without incident, as was the case for Hammie, who is as good as new.

Burt's wounds, however, scabbed over. I was concerned when, a week later, his injuries seemed worse than when they started. I called the vet and made an appointment for him, but the earliest he can be seen is Tuesday. In the meantime, I gave Burt a bath (that he did not appreciate) and cleaned off the injured areas to the best of my ability.

One particularly large scabby area cleaned up rather nicely and ended up looking like this:

I assumed this was an abscess that had come to a head, but I could not express what looked like pus - not with pressure or with massage from a warm wet wash cloth. Burt really did not like me messing with it, so I went to the online forums for help and learned that there is a good chance this is a cyst and not an abscess.

I decided to leave it alone and keep things clean until his appointment. I do not know what caused the cyst or if it is related to his squirmish with Hammie. Maybe the vet will have some answers for me.

His other injuries look like scabs. Because it is unusual for injuries to scab like this, I suspect there is some sort of skin infection involved that may be related to the cyst or that may have caused/worsened it. The shampoo I am using a chlorhexidine shampoo to bathe him. It is an antiseptic that may help if a skin infection is complicating things. I checked his neuter site and that is clean, healthy, and unaffected.

Despite these issues, Burt has been a real sweetheart lately. His neuter has softened his control-freak nature and he is much more laid back than he used to be. He sometimes lays next to me and boggles when I rub behind his ears. He no longer paces along the cage walls or bites the bars or chews the tray when the other rats are out. He is calm and relaxed. If we can get these skin problems cleared up, I am hopeful that a second attempt at intros may go better than the first. In the mean time, Ruby is keeping him comfortable and happy in the lower half of the DCN.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Back Together Again

Burt and Ruby on the lower half of the Critter Nation, together again.
Bobo, Jeremy, and Hammie on the upper half of the CN - getting along for a change.

On Friday, Hammie and Burt got the okay to resume normal living with other rats in a normal cage environment and to begin introductions. They have recovered nicely from their neuters.

There is already a noted improvement in Hammie's temperament towards Bobo and Jeremy. I reintroduced them and they all got along fine. No wrestling, no fighting, no squealing, no hiding from each other. It was way more than I hoped for this soon. I cautiously tried adding Ruby into the mix without incident. That is a noted improvement over the last time I tried to introduce Hammie and Ruby and a very welcomed pleasant surprise. Hopefully, that behavior will continue.

Adding Burt into the mix was a disaster, however. Jeremy avoided him, so he left Jeremy alone. Bobo challenged him and got bit (but surprisingly, I saw no blood or open wound - just an indentation where the bite mark would be). After that, Bobo stayed away from Burt and Burt left him alone. But Hammie and Burt were a no-go - getting into a terrible fight that looked like one of those Japanese anime fight scenes out of Pokemon or something (where both contestants take flying angry leaps into the air and collide in an explosive confrontation). Both ended up with cuts that bled and that put a stop to any further foreward advancement with intros. I realized I should have left Burt out of the mix for a while - I rushed things a bit. I was just so optimistic by the positive results so far, that I pushed forward a little too quickly.

I plan to continue intros with Ruby and Hammie (with Bobo and Jeremy present), but will keep Burt out of the mix for now. It can take several weeks for the hormones to subside after a neuter, and Burt and Hammie are not ready to be introduced to each other yet. We will try again after some time has past, perhaps starting with Burt, Bobo, and Jeremy before going all out with Hammie.

In the meantime, Burt is really glad to be reunited with Ruby. They are living together again in the lower half of the Critter Nation. Bobo, Jeremy, and Hammie are together in the upper half. Ruby and Burt were snuggled together in the Critter Space Pod this morning, taking comfort in a safe relationship. I installed a brand new set of Halloween-themed hammocks in the DCN, but don't have it fully back to normal yet. There are still a few baskets, some lava ledges, and the wheel that need to go back in the cage.

One thing I need to watch is Burt's weight. He lost between 30 and 40 grams after the surgery. Fortunately, as a big squish of a boy, he could afford to lose that weight. Perhaps when he lived with other rats, he ate a good chunk of their portion of fresh foods. Living alone, he was limited to a single rat portion. However, I am beginning to wonder if stress may have factored in. He wasn't as quick to eat breakfast this morning, which made me think there might be something else going on. I haven't noticed any signs of illness and he checked out good at his post-neuter vet visit, so for now, I am just going to keep an eye on him and try to keep him stress free (no introductions or stressful situations) until I know that he is eating fine. If his appetite continues to decline, it may be there is something else wrong.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Post-Neuter Care

The Critter Nation with the shelves and ramps and most accessories removed.
Each level is closed off to make two hospital cages.
Hammie (top) and Burt (bottom), giving me the stink eye.

Hammie and Burt were neutered yesterday, and the surgeries were performed without incident. Both ratties came home last night. Hammie had already perked back up to close to his normal self (surgery? what surgery? why am I locked up alone in this boring cell?). Burt was a little out of it and I think in a little pain or discomfort, because he started chewing on the plastic pan of the Critter Nation, filling it with little black plastic shavings. However, this morning, he is much more himself.

Of course, after the surgery, there is a period of special post-neuter care. Our instructions are to continue this care until their follow-up appointment a week from today.

First, they need special living arrangements. They need to stay in a one level cage with only a low-hanging hammock, to limit climbing and stretching and anything that might cause the incision site to open or become infected. They need to be kept alone, separate from the other rats. I do have one smaller one level cage that I use for travel (longer trips) and as a hospital cage. However, since both boys were neutered at the same time, I would need two such cages. Since I didn't really want the expense of a second hospital cage which would not be used often, I decided to go a different route. I closed up the middle ramp of the Critter Nation and zip-tied it in the up position, then put the full sized bottom tray on the top level to cover up the ramp opening. I put the notched upper level tray on the bottom, but covered the exposed grate with a small liner, then a small flat circular weight from my husband's old weight set, then covered the entire pan and opening with a full-sized liner. I now had two separate cages. I took out the shelves and the metal frames that held the shelves, all of the hammocks, the lava ledges, the huts and space pods and baskets, and the wheel (which got moved to the Martin's R695 to Bobo's delight). I left the litter boxes and a single low-lying hammock. I also kept a cuddle cup in each cage, figuring it wouldn't hurt their sutures any.

It is important that the incision site not become infected. To try to prevent that, the cage must be kept extra clean. This means changing the bedding every day. Using fleece as bedding is ideal as it will promote less waste (just change-out and wash the liner each day) and it has less chance of dirt or debris finding its way into the incision site. I was told that a litter box with paper pelleted litter was okay. Again, it should be changed daily.

Both rats were prescribed meloxicam (aka, Metacam) for pain. They were given an injection at the vet's office and we were given some oral meds to take home with us. They will receive those meds once a day for 3-5 days, as needed. Hammie is already acting so good, 3 days will probably be plenty for him. Burt may need an extra day or two. They both have had their morning dose, which they took willingly and without any struggle.

The incision site must be checked every day. I am to report any swelling, discharge, or redness - or anything that just looks off. I checked both boys today and was surprised by how good the incision site looks already. Below is a picture of Hammie post surgery (not a great view as I took this myself with the camera on a timer):

In the mean time, in order to free up the Critter Nation for the boys, I had to advance the introduction process between Ruby (spayed female) and our other two new boys (Bobo and Jeremy). We had been doing introductions for quite some time, but the progress had stalled. Ruby is terrified of the two other boys, even though they have never hurt her or made any attempts to hurt her. She starts whining (a mew type sound) and sometimes outright crying (a more screechy sound that sounds like someone is getting murdered) whenever they get close to her or try to smell her private parts. However, I have no concerns about anyone's safety. We have been doing these introductions long enough that if someone were to get aggressive, it would have happened by now. But Ruby is not going to get over her fear unless she is forced to. So yesterday, we moved Ruby into the Martin's R695 with Bobo and Jeremy. She is still not crazy about this new living situation, but I think that after a few days she will realize that no one is going to hurt her and things will improve.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Controlling Odors

In our rat room, next to the TV, we run two HEPA air cleaners
(Honeywell on the left and BlueAir on the right).

One of the most common questions I see being asked about rats is how to keep the smell under control. It is important to control odor. When the cage smells, it is a sign that it is dirty and needs to be cleaned, and the environment is likely less than ideal for the rats and for you as well. This is especially important if the rats are kept in a bedroom where you will be sleeping at night.

The most obvious answer to this question is to clean the cage frequently. It is important to keep the cage clean. Dirty cages can lead to respiratory issues, skin infections via scratches and cuts, weakened immune systems, and other problems. But cleaning is only the answer up to a point. If you clean too frequently and vigorously, you might find that your rats go crazy marking everything. When they find that their smell has been eliminated, they go overtime to undo what you have just done. Because of this, some people recommend leaving a used hammock in after a cage clean or doing spot cleans at times instead of a full cage clean.

Using the proper cleaners can also help. With animals, we like to use natural products, rather than harsh chemicals that may contain irritants or fragrances. Plain white vinegar is an excellent choice for cleaning cages. It has a powerful effect for neutralizing odors, especially urine odors. It can be used to clean the cage and it can also be added to the rinse cycle when you wash liners. Liners can begin to retain that urine odor over time, but adding vinegar to the machine when they are washed will prevent that from happening. If you have a front loading machine, you can add the vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser and it will be added to the rinse cycle at the appropriate time automatically.

Cage size and number of rats will also affect the smell. If you have a larger cage and you do not fill it to capacity, you can go longer between cleanings without noticing excessive smell. I always like to keep my cages half stocked with regard to the number of rats the rat cage calculator says will fit in that space.

What you use as bedding can impact how quickly the cage smells. If you use litter on the bottom of the cage and the cage gets stinky fast, you might want to try switching litters. Some work better than others. I have heard good things about ECO Bedding, but I don't use litter except in the litter box, so I can't offer an opinion.

Many people, myself included, use fleece to line the trays and shelves of the cage. Fleece is soft and comfy and reusable, so it produces less waste (as long as your rats are not voracious chewers). However, fleece alone is not very absorbent. If you use fleece by itself, the pee will wick through the fleece and pool on the pan/tray underneath, where it will start to smell almost instantly. To better control odors, you will want to use something absorbent underneath the fleece (or make liners with an absorbent layer beneath a fleece layer). Towels are one of the best choices for absorbency. The thicker bath towels work better than thin sparse towels. However, towels can be chewed and unravel, making them a more dangerous choice. Another option are U-Haul furniture pads, which are very absorbent but do not have unraveling threads like towels do. They can be easily sewn into liners or just cut and laid on the pans beneath the fleece. Instructions for making these liners can be found in the Tutorials for Common Rat Hammocks and Accessories PDF file or in this post of the blog: Liner Instructions for Critter Nations and Martins R-695 Cages.

Fleece cage liner, with U-Haul furniture pad lining for absorbency

Some people also recommend leaving a cup of vinegar near the cage to help absorb the odors. You can also open a box of baking soda and leave near the cage. I do not recommend sprinkling the baking soda in the cage in the bedding, as the dust may irritate your rats lungs.

Finally, I strongly recommend using an air purifier with a HEPA filter in the room with the rats. I recommend one with both a true HEPA filter for removing dust and allergens from the air and also a carbon filter for removing gases and odors. Air purifiers are rated in terms of room capacity. Make sure you get a purifier that can handle the size of the room your rats are located in. If you want top of the line, I highly recommend the BlueAir brand. We use them in rooms with animals in them because they are very powerful and effective. They could handle my bird room when I was breeding finches in a free flight environment for a conservation program. But for most ordinary situations, the standard Honeywell type home air purifiers will work just fine.

And on an ending note, while I have recommended many ideas that will help you eliminate and remove odors from the environment, the one thing I want to recommend you NOT do is try to cover them up. If the odor is overwhelming, there is probably something that needs to be addressed in the environment. Covering up the odor won't help address that issue. The ammonia/urine vapor will still be in the air. Using scented candles, scented air fresheners, incense, Febreze, or perfumes to cover up odor won't address the problem and will just add harmful chemicals to the environment that can irritate your rats lungs and lead to respiratory problems like myco flare-ups.

A special note on Febreze. Febreze is supposed to be safe to use around pets. While that is likely true for cats and dogs, for birds, it is recommended that they be removed from the room while using the product because of their sensitive respiratory systems. I always recommend rat owners follow the same precautions as bird owners with regard to such products. Birds are at a greater risk and can outright drop dead when exposed to certain toxins in the air (canary in the coal mine type thing), but what can cause death in birds may irritate a rat's respiratory system enough to trigger a myco flare up. Thus, I highly recommend not using Febreze in the presence of your rats or on fabrics that your rats have regular contact with.