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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.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Neuters Are on for Next Week

But Mom! I don't need a neuter! See! I can get along!
Hammie and Burt had their pre-neuter visits yesterday and passed their physicals with flying colors. They now have appointments scheduled for next week.

Since this is my first time doing neuters and this is not my regular vet (my vet refers to this clinic for neuters and certain other procedures), I had a bunch of questions. I have to admit to being quite nervous about the surgeries. I am always hesitant about taking risks on elective surgeries, because I would be devastated if something went wrong. However, despite Hammie's occasional good social graces (seen above), I know he will truly be happier without those raging hormones to distract him from rat life, and I am certain his cage mates will be safer and happier if it helps even just a little. Burt is a little trickier, as I am less certain a neuter will help with his issues. His issues may be more territorial than hormonal - I am really not sure. He is also older - over a year - so health concerns are more likely with him. But he is still young enough that he should be fine with the surgery. I think introductions will have the best chance of success if both Hammie and Burt are neutered, so I am moving forward with both.

I am very glad to say that this practice has reassured me that they know what they are doing and that everything will most likely go well for both. They assured me that I will be sent home with Metacam for pain relief. There will be internal stitches that do not need to be removed, and the outer layer will not use stitches, but surgical glue. They were aware that rats should not be fasted before surgery (unlike most other animals). They explained proper post op care (keeping them alone in a single level cage, changing the liners every day, allowing a low hanging hammock for comfort if needed). They also will be seeing them for a post-op visit to make sure everything is healing up properly, and there is no additional charge for that visit. All in all, I am confident both Burt and Hammie will be in good hands.

OT - JoAnn's Fleece Sale Alert!

In an unrelated note, JoAnn's has fleece on sale through September 27th. Blizzard fleece (solids and prints) are 50% off. Anti-pill fleece prints are 60% off, solids are 50% off. For me, this means stopping by occasionally during the next few weeks and raiding the remnant bins, which will be 50% off the sale price (most will come in at about $2.50 a yard).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pre-Neuter Appointments Scheduled

Quarantine officially ended and the new rats moved into the rat room several days ago. It was time to start thinking about intros, and intros with males can be tricky. This time, they will be especially tricky.

Hammie tries to find an escape route
out of the rat room.
Hammie's hormones are clearly coming in and there is no lack of testosterone there. Most of the time he lives peacefully with Bobo and Jeremy, but every now and then, he gets a little crazy and has started picking fights. It was pretty obvious he was going to need a neuter. If he is having trouble getting along with his friends, he is definitely going to have trouble with intros to Burt.

Burt is not pleased with
his new neighbors

After moving the new guy's cage into the rat room, it also became pretty clear that Burt would also need a neuter if intros were going to proceed. He became obsessed with the new boys and their cage, pacing the side of the cage nearest to them, and biting the cage bars when they would come out to play in the rat room. There is no way I want to try intros with Burt in the state he is in when the other rats come out. Somehow, I think if Burt and Hammie were ever to be put in the same place together, they would have a fight to the death. I am unsure who would win. Likely, they both would lose.

Hammie, a bully? No way. Look at that cute face.
I did begin to try introductions with Ruby and the three new boys in neutral territory. Hammie quickly had to be removed from that equation as he instantly attacked Ruby, putting a one-inch gash in her side. It was my fault. I should never have tried to introduce him to anyone until after the neuter. I thought he might be accepting of a very calm spayed female who was no challenge to his authority, but he didn't seem to care. Intros with Ruby and Bobo and Jeremy were okay. I had hoped for great, but with Hammie removed from the equation, both Bobo and Jeremy wanted to show off as top dog to Ruby and with Ruby being once bitten twice shy, she didn't want much of anything to do with them. However, despite posturing and a little chasing and some posing, there was no biting. I think these three can eventually be introduced with time and patience if we take things extremely slowly.

Bobo and Jeremy will probably be successfully introduced to Ruby with time and patience.
In the mean time, I have scheduled appointments for Burt and Hammie to be examined to ensure they are healthy enough to be neutered. I am confident they will check out okay and neuters will then be scheduled. I have never done neuters before, but it was pretty clear they were called for in this case. I'd be okay if the two groups of rats had to live separately, but Burt is not happy being in the same room with them and Hammie is sometimes too aggressive with his own cage mates. I have heard good things about neuters calming boy rats down, so I am hopeful their dispositions will improve afterward, but I also know that sometimes neuters don't fix everything, so I am also prepared for that result. If they do have positive results, it may be that Bobo and Jeremy will need neuters next.

Bobo explores the rat room. It is pretty cool.

My regular vet does not do neuters so I scheduled the appointment with the exotics practice that she refers more specialized procedures out to. I have never been to this vet. One of the avian veterinarians who works there is well known in the bird community in the Chicago area and I have heard him speak at bird club meetings in the past. So I am optimistic that they hire good people.

Jeremy favors his left side to keep weight off his right leg
One other thing that I have observed about Jeremy is that his right back leg appears to be lame. It has been that way since we adopted him. I noticed his unusual gait right from the start. He kind of holds that leg out away from his body a bit more and doesn't always put weight on it. He can move it and use it and there are no outward signs of injury. He does not show any signs of pain when I touch his leg or move it. He just doesn't seem to have a lot of strength or dexterity in that leg. I am guessing that it may have been injured sometime in his early life in the overcrowded cage and it never healed properly. In his cage, you can't really tell. When he moves about greater distances in the open space of the rat room, it becomes more obvious. Sometimes, the only sign is that he tends to lean a little to his left, probably avoiding putting weight on that back leg.

Forget the toys, I want to play with you!

Jeremy and Bobo love their people!