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Friday, February 28, 2014

What to Make of Rat Bite Fever

Rat Bite Fever has been all over the news lately due to the very tragic death of a 10-year-old boy in California who contracted the disease and died from it last summer.

This is the story: Family Blames Petco for 10-Year-Old's Death.

I am sure this story is giving people everywhere pause about keeping rats as pets. But before you pass any judgment on the suitability of rats as pets, keep a few facts in mind.

The bacteria in question,  Streptobacillus moniliformis, is very common in rats, but disease from it is extremely rare. It is more common in wild rats (colonization rate between 50% and 90%), but is also present in domesticated rats - both lab rats and pet rats (colonization rate between 10% and 90% - I know, not a very helpful range there). This is one of those bacteria that animals can harbor without actually contracting a disease from it.

Rats are not the only animals that carry this bacteria. Ferrets, weasels, mice, gerbils, guinea pigs, and squirrels all carry the bacteria, among others. Cats and dogs can also carry the bacteria, likely contracting it if they catch a wild squirrel or mouse or rat.

While the bacteria itself is pretty common, disease from the bacteria is extremely rare. In the US, there have only been 200 cases of Rat Bite Fever reported since 2004. The CDC does not even consider Rat Bite Fever to be a reportable disease. That 200 cases is likely underrepresented, because in the vast majority of cases (about 90%), it will clear up without treatment. Most people just assume they had the flu. In the remaining 10%, it can be easily treated with penicillin. Tetracyclines and some other antibiotics are also effective. It is very unlikely to be fatal if treated. It is most likely to require treatment in young children.

Prevention is simple. If you are bitten (and rats are far less likely to bite than other small animals), wash the wound and disinfect. Should you develop flu-like symptoms after having been bitten (the bite can happen as many as 2-4 weeks before symptoms) be sure to alert your doctor to the bite. If you develop flu-like symptoms that worsen or do not resolve quickly, be sure to alert your doctor that you have rats. It is always good to practice good hygiene and wash your hands after handling your rats or cleaning the cage. Most cases of Rat Bite Fever happen after a bite, but supposedly, it is possible to contract it without being bitten.

Also remember, if you do research into this, that some articles have made the claim that 10% of rat bites will result in infection with Rat Bite Fever. Debbie Ducommun looked into this further and discovered that this statistic was taken out of context from a study of wild rat bites in a 2-mile urban area, where cases of Rat Bite Fever were being reported. It is by no means representative of the pet rat population.

The Philly Rat Rescue reported on their Facebook page that a 7-day course of doxycycline will ensure your rats do not carry the bacteria. That post was later changed to say "proper course of antibiotic treatment" and suggest that if you have ever treated your rats with antibiotics, they are likely free of the bacteria anyway (the original wording is still in one of the comments of the post). If you are still concerned about your existing rats, you can certainly check with your vet about using antibiotics preventatively.

The news story that has triggered all of the attention has drawn comment by some rat fanciers that the facts do not add up. The way some stories read is that the boy was fine and then 24 hours later, severely ill and died. That description does not coincide with how we know Rat Bite Fever presents. It could be that there were other medical factors at play. It could be that the media has their facts wrong or do not have all of the facts. It could be that symptoms were missed earlier on. It could just be that this was some very rare severe presentation of the disease. I do not know. I do know that the way this case is being reported would be an extremely rare way for an already extremely rare disease to present.

From the reports, it appears that while the boy was taken to a pediatrician the day before, he was not treated for Rat Bite Fever. Being aware of this disease is essential. Likely, the child was not treated because the physician was not told that he had rats.

If you are still concerned about Rat Bite Fever, also keep this in mind:
  • If you feel that rats are not safe to keep as pets, remember that neither are gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, ferrets, cats, and dogs, because they all can carry the same bacteria.
  • Almost all types of animals can carry some type of disease that can be fatal to humans in very rare circumstances. For example, cats can carry Cat Scratch Disease and birds can carry Psittacosis. They are diseases that owners should be aware of, but not something that we should live in fear of.
  • The list of zoonoses (diseases that can be passed from animals to humans) is much longer for cats and dogs than it is for rats. There are actually very few diseases overall that can be spread from rats. You can check and see what diseases can be spread from your various pets to you on the CDC website: Note that Rat Bite Fever is not even listed here because the CDC does not consider it needing reporting. Only two diseases are listed, one being salmonella, which can be spread from any type of animal.
There are risks everywhere. You are far more likely to die in your car than from any illness you acquire from your pet, and yet we still get into cars every day. We take precautions - we drive safely and we fasten our seatbelts and put our children in safety seats. Likewise, we take precautions with our pets, by being knowledgeable about the illnesses they can spread and by practicing good hygiene. But there is no need to panic and abandon them altogether.

This case being reported is tragic and I feel for the boy's family. Just because something is very rare, doesn't mean that it cannot happen, and that is why we need to be informed - so we can make sure proper treatment is received if something terrible does happen. At least this news story is helping people to be informed about this disease. Unfortunately, it is also spreading uninformed fear and panic among some people and also painting a negative picture of pet rats in the eyes of many uninformed Americans. I want to help put this information in context.

Finally, there is always the question of whether Petco is at fault here. I honestly don't see it unless there is some type of negligence - some awareness on their part that this rat was a potential danger. But many rats carry this bacteria and will never spread disease. It is true that pet store rats are more at risk for this problem, as they come from mills. At the mills, the rats are stored in overcrowded bins in warehouses and warehouses are notorious for also housing wild rats. Exposure to wild rats will always increase risk. It is no secret that I do not support the mill industry and strongly support the rescue community. But still, I don't see this as being Petco's fault, unless further information is disclosed that they were aware or should have been aware that something out of the ordinary was wrong with this particular rat. The family claims they want to make things safer for others, but I am not sure that that is possible. The bacteria is very common, the disease is very rare. Unless the rat they bought was suffering illness from the bacteria and not just carrying it, it is probably no different than thousands of other rats in the pet industry.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit - 7/16" Tube Size (Medium)

Earlier, we posted about a water bottle system that we absolutely love: The Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit. There was just one problem. Lixit recommends the small kit for rats and many online reviewers agreed, one saying that the larger sizes are too wide for rats and the rats won't be able to move the ball. So we ordered the small kit and installed them. But the 5/16" tube size in these kits is just a little too small for our rats.

Our rats are used to the 12 oz Super Pet bottles with a 3/8" tube. The small Lixit tubes are closer to the 6 oz Super Pet bottle tube size. If your rats use the smallest Super Pet bottle, then they may be fine with this size, but most of us use the larger size. My rats got frustrated with the narrow tubes as they did not release the water fast enough. But everything else about the system was great.

So we decided to go ahead and order some stoppered tubes in the medium (7/16") tube size. This is slightly larger than the Super Pet 12 oz tubes, but we were hoping not too large.

We received them the other day and, thankfully, this tube works perfectly for our rats. None have a problem operating the wider tube and the water seems to flow just like they are used to. The larger tubes still fit perfectly in the mounting kit (I imagine it is the same mounting hardware for both tube sizes). They are easy to fill, they have not leaked so far, and the mounting hardware supports the bottle better than the Super Pet bottles were supported. I am not sure why Lixit recommends the smaller size for rats, but I highly recommend using the medium-sized kit instead.

Comparison of Lixit Tubes with Super Pet Tubes

I am convinced this water bottle solution will be the best solution for our rats, but I will continue to update with my thoughts as time goes by.

Related Posts:
A Better Water Bottle: Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit
Installation Instructions for the Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit
Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit: Tube Update
A DIY Mount for the Lixit Recycled Water Bottle Kit

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Burt Has Been Introduced

A very sleepy Burt (left) and Bela (right) napping in the Critter Space Pod

Introductions between Burt and the girls have gone really well. As we pretty much expected, Bela and Ruby were afraid of him at first, but didn't put up any kind of challenge to him, and so the three get along really well. I have caught both of them sleeping with Burt at one time or another.
Jo, on the other hand, is Jo. Just like with Pirate, she feels the need to challenge any man rat's authority, but when he stands up to her, she puts up a fight but is quickly overwhelmed and ends up squeaking uncle. Burt gets the better of her every time, but that doesn't stop her from coming back for more. Of course, there is no biting - no blood, no foul - just challenges and brief wrestling matches (in which Jo is quickly overwhelmed) and then back to normal until Jo decides to stir the pot again.
Jo will eventually mellow out. She did with Pirate. It just takes a little time.
The most surprising thing about Jo is that the day we first introduced her to Burt, she was acting like a rat in heat. Of course, that is impossible, because she has been spayed (I saw her shaved belly and the incision site so I know it is true and she lived for a long time with Pirate without any babies). But she was poking him and then presenting her rear, and vibrating her ears, which I believe is typical behavior for a rat in heat. I don't know what inspired that behavior. Of course, after the first day of intros, it was normal Jo again - so I guess she was just excited to see a man in the house again.

Burt (front) having breakfast
with the girls (L to R: Bela, Ruby, Jo)
On the whole, Burt seems really happy in his new home and has adapted well. He loves to explore and is very active and inquisitive. He has no fear of people and is very friendly and outgoing, but is not the snuggly type - at least not at this age. He doesn't want to sit still on your lap, he wants to be out in the world, stopping by to visit for a moment, then hurrying on his way to the next thing. He is not crazy about being picked up unexpectedly, and will sometimes squeak if you do. We try to give him plenty of warning before picking him up, holding him gently and securely for a moment before lifting him up, and then he is fine. He has developed a taste for pomegranate, as my youngest son likes to eat frozen pomegranate right out of the bag while playing with the rats - and Burt likes to sneak by and steal some. He always wants to come out and play - any time you walk by the cage, he comes right up to the door and waits for us to take him out. He is really a sweet rat.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit - Tube Update

Just wanted to post a quick update that I am trying out the larger tip size (7/16" - Medium Kit) on these water bottles. Since Lixit sells replacement parts, I ordered just the stopper with the tube for a much lower price from a seller on eBay (it is also available from Windy City Parrot, a local bird supply store, but is currently out of stock, and I found it at a few other small private online shops, but was unfamiliar with them, so I went the eBay route this time).

5/16" is supposed to be the appropriate size for rats and I have seen chinchilla sites selling that size for chinchillas, so it should work fine. However, it just seems like my rats have to work so hard to get enough water out, that I want to give the larger tube size a try. I also saw Jo try to bite the bottle tip, so I think she was getting frustrated by the slowness of it.

In the mean time, I have put back one of their Super Pet bottles because I think it is easier for them to drink from it. Or maybe I am just paranoid. We will see how well the larger tube works.

UPDATE: I did a little more research on tube size. Unfortunately, information is limited. I measured the Super Pet bottle tube and it seems to be 3/8", which unfortunately is right in between the 5/16" and 7/16" Lixit tubes. Will the 5/16" be too small and the 7/16" too big? Everything on the Internet that I could find seems to suggest the 5/16" is the recommended size for rats. However, my rats seem to want a larger tube.

I finally found this article on the Rat Whisperer blog: The BEST Water Bottle for Rats. That article reviews the more expensive Lixit Bird Water Bottles. She is using the 7/16" tube successfully with her rats, even though she says that Lixit recommends the 5/16" for rats. So, I am keeping my fingers crossed that this tube will work better for my rats. I really like this water system, so it would be a shame if the tube size got in the way.

UPDATE 2/27/14: The 7/16" tubes work great for our rats and we recommend the 7/16" (Medium) Kit for use with rats.

Related Posts:
A Better Water Bottle? The Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit
Installation Instructions for the Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit
Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit - 7/16" Tube Size (Medium)
A DIY Mount for the Lixit Recycled Water Bottle Kit

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Installation Instructions for the Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit

Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit on a Dual Critter Nation
In my previous post, I wrote about my discovery and initial impressions of the Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit. That post got a little long, so I decided to post the installation instructions in a separate post. Installation is very easy and straightforward, and instructions are included with the kit. 
The following pieces are included with the kit:

You will need to provide your own 16 oz glass bottle (Snapple bottles work well - I haven't tried any other options) to hold the water.

You will also need a pair of pliers and a large flat-head screwdriver for the one-time installation of the mounting hardware.

To prepare the bottle, simply fill it with water (we use filtered water, many use tap water, others use bottled water). Then insert the stopper snugly into the mouth of the bottle. Push and twist to ensure a tight fit.

Set the bottle aside and install the mounting hardware. Start by inserting the bolt through the hole in one of the rectangular washers.

From the inside of the cage, push the end of the bolt through the cage bars, so it is sticking outside the cage, with the washer inside the cage. On a Critter Nation, if you want the nozzle of the bottle to enter through a specific bar spacing, place the bolt about 4 bar spacings above that bar spacing. In the picture below, the bottle nozzle will enter the cage through the bar spacing where the lower text appears.

From the front of the cage, add the second washer. There should now be one washer inside the cage and one washer outside, with the open end of the bolt sticking out of the cage.

Now add the pedestal mount by slipping the bolt through the small circular hole in the mount. (The long slit opening should be perpendicular to the cage). Affix by screwing on the nut. (NOTE: Screw on the nut by hand with the wider end of the nut facing the bolt. You will only be able to turn it for a turn or two. To tighten, you must hold the nut with the pliers and turn the bolt with the screwdriver. I was able to do this by myself, but it was a bit of a handful. It might be easier with two people (and necessary if you are attaching to a side or back wall that is not near a door). The nut is designed to make it hard to turn the bolt so that industrious parrots will not loosen the connection and unscrew the mount.

Finally, attach the spring at the desired height based on your water bottle. The water bottle can then be inserted by sticking the tube through the opening on the mounting pedestal and through the cage bars, and pulling the spring around the bottle to hold it in place. The stopper should rest squarely on the pedestal.

Remember to seal the vacuum by tapping on the ball in the tube a few times.
Related Posts:
A DIY Mount for the Lixit Recycled Water Bottle Kit

A Better Water Bottle? Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit

Water bottles tend to be the bane of a rat owner's existence. I have repeatedly said that there is no perfect water bottle. But could it be that this answer may be about to change? The product that is winning me over: The Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit.

First, some background on water bottles.

Most water bottles for small animals are made of plastic. Plastic can harbor bacteria and is hard to disinfect. This is especially bad for a water bottle, where water sits all day, just inviting a bacterial problem, which can be made worse if the water isn't changed often. Plastics can also contain harmful chemicals that may leach into the water and they are at risk of being chewed by bored small animals looking for a little fun.

The few glass water bottles that are available are often problem ridden. I have always used the Super Pet glass water bottles (I believe they are also marketed as Kaytee glass water bottles). They are reasonably priced, but are prone to leak. I have had bottles that have leaked straight out of the box. Others worked for a while and then leaked. They all will leak if you don't get them to seal properly when you fill them and turn them upside down. Messing with them a bit will usually fix that particular problem, but what happens if I have a pet sitter and they don't know the ins and outs of working with these bottles? Leaking problems are exacerbated by the fragile nature of the rubber gasket in the cap, which can become dried out, damaged, or cracked over time, or may simply get lost when unscrewing the cap to change bottles or clean the parts.

In addition to leaking, these bottles can also jam without warning. I have had this problem more often on the smaller sized bottle (6 oz), which has a smaller tube. I know to check the bottles periodically and to watch when the rats drink to make sure I see air bubbles going up the bottle. If I am diligent, this won't be a problem, but what if the water bottles jam when I am on vacation and have someone else watching the rats?

There are a few other glass water bottle options, but reviews are often very similar to the Super Pet bottles, and none have looked promising enough to make me want to switch.

The exception seems to be the Lixit Bird Water Bottles - the ones that are made to be indestructible to larger parrots. They come with a stoppered tube rather than a screw-on tube, and thus there is no need for a fragile rubber gasket to seal the bottle. They also come with an indestructible mount that will hold up to the strongest of parrots.

Unfortunately, those bottles are quite pricey. The 16 oz bottle with 5/16" tube is currently about $35 on Amazon plus about $10 shipping (only available from marketplace sellers and not Prime eligible). Replacement bottles run about $10-$15. You pay for the durability, which is unnecessary for most small animals. Because they are targeting the larger parrots, most have a tube size that is too large for rats and that won't even fit between the bars of many rat cages. They do sell them with smaller tubes (5/16" is the size the reviewers recommend for rats), but it is harder to find the smaller ones - some pet retailers like Drs Foster and Smith don't sell the small tube size at all - and some online listings focus on the bottle size and do not even list the tube size (in which, I have to assume the tube is wider).

Recently, I decided I would look back into the Lixit Bird Water Bottles with the rubbered stopper tube. I need to replace some of mine (gaskets are broken or missing) and I really want a better alternative to the Super Pet bottle. I was thinking of trying one of the Lixit Bird Water Bottles, despite the high cost. If I have at least one to buy me peace of mind when I am away from home, it might be worth it. I decided to see if I could find a better price at some of the bird supply stores I have frequented in the past, since I would be paying shipping even through Amazon.

During my search, I happened across a Lixit option I had never seen before. The Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit (also called the Lixit Snapple Bottle Kit in some places). It is geared toward smaller birds (finches, parakeets, and the smaller parrots) - birds that do not need the indestructible design of their more expensive product.  However, it is also marketed toward "Rats, Guinea Pigs, Chinchillas, and other small animals." It uses the same stoppered tube design as the better quality bird bottles. The kit comes with no glass bottle included. Instead, you supply your own recycled Snapple bottle (other 16-oz glass beverage bottles will work as well, reportedly), which also means that you have a plentiful supply of extra glass bottles for little extra cost (none if you drink these beverages anyway). It is very reasonably priced - in the same rough ball park as the cheaper bottles - and as such, is a much more economical alternative to the Lixit Bird Water Bottles.

But, would they work just as well? Or would it be just a gimmick? This kit is frequently not offered by vendors and even when it is, it often does not come up in my searches for water bottles. If it is so economical and if it works so well, why isn't it pushed by vendors?

I have a lot of bird friends with parrots. Many of them are show breeders / exhibitors with a lot of bird cages that need drinkers. Surely they weren't paying the high prices of the Lixit Bird Water Bottles in that kind of volume and surely they weren't wasting money on products that don't work well. If anyone would know about these, they would. So I asked around. Sure enough, some of them are using them and all who use them said they love them. I was sold. Maybe this was the real deal. If it was not, it was affordable enough that I could take that risk.
Once I knew what to look for, I was able to find it on Amazon from marketplace sellers for about $14, including shipping. (The retailer I purchased from was GlobalPets [about $7 plus about $7 shipping), and if I ordered multiple quantities, each subsequent bottle only added on $2-3 more dollars in shipping. They are currently down to only 1 in stock, probably because I ordered 4). Yesterday, I received them in the mail and I have to say that my initial impression is very very good!

UPDATE: Here is a link to the 7/16" (medium) kit from Amazon.

Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit installed on a DCN.
Of course, I can't speak to durability yet, but based on the positive feedback that I got on these kits and the reviews of the lixit bird bottles, I have high expectations. I will post again after some time has passed to let you know if I have any leaking or jamming or other unanticipated problems, but I am very optimistic. I will say that the stopper fits on Snapple bottles very snugly and that I had no problem installing the kit. When you turn the water bottle over, you tap on the ball in the tube a few times to help seal the vacuum lock. The water seems to flow out easily and the bottles I installed did not leak upon my first attempt to mount them to the cage. The bottle is better secured with the mounting hardware than the Super Pet bottles were, although probably not as secure as the full-featured Lixit Bird Water Bottles would have been. Super Pet bottles have a tendency to lean, and while these can lean somewhat, they are less prone to lean or slide around. They survived the night without leaking and I have seen the rats drink from them.
The tube on the small size kit (5/16") is a little more narrow than the Super Pet 12oz bottle tubes (closer in size to the 6 oz bottle tubes). However, I have found the Super Pet 6-oz bottles to be very stingy at releasing the water, whereas the water seems to flow freely from these tubes when triggered. The rat-owning reviewers of the Lixit bird bottles all agree that this is the proper size for rats. The water seems to come freely out of the bottle, so I don't think they will have any problem with the tube size. Apparently, there also is a medium-sized kit with a 7/16" tube, but I suspect that the wider tube might be too wide, as that is larger than the 12 oz Super Pet bottle. Someday, I might buy one to try it, but I think for the most part, I will be happy with the 5/16" tube.

UPDATE: I have noticed that it takes a long time for the rats to drink and Jo sometimes gets frustrated and bites the nozzle. I see air bubbles go up the bottle, so water is coming out, but I don't think it is coming out as fast as they would like it. I have ordered some stoppers with the medium tube size (7/16") to see if these fit their needs better. I will post again when I get them and have tried them out.

UPDATE 2/27/14: I definitely recommend going with the medium kit (7/16" tubes). The water flows much quicker through these tubes and my rats had no trouble operating them. They are very close in size to the Super Pet 12 oz bottles (a tad bigger, but you can barely tell). If you already have the small kit, you can order replacement stopper tubes in the larger size and use the same mounting hardware to hold the bottle, saving money.
Installation was fairly easy. For anyone who is interested in seeing how they are installed, I will add a second blog post with the installation instructions. You won't need my instructions to figure it out yourself - the instructions that came with the kit are pretty clear. But it is nice to see how something works before buying, to see if it will work for your setup.

Cleaning should be straightforward as well. The wide mouth opening of the Snapple bottles should make them easier to clean than Super Pet bottles and the instructions claim that all parts of the kit can be sterilized and cleaned in the dishwasher.

NOTE: When searching for this item, make sure not to confuse it with the Lixit kit that comes with a blue 28-mm threaded cap tube that screws onto shampoo and soda bottles. That kit is more of the standard water bottle cap that screws on, with a gasket to seal the bottle. It is not designed for use with glass bottles.

Related Posts:
Installation Instructions for the Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit
Lixit Glass Bottle Recycle Kit - 7/16" Tube Size (Medium)
A DIY Mount for the Lixit Recycled Water Bottle Kit

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Adding A New Rotary Cutter Mat

I have blogged before about the benefits of using a rotary cutter set to cut fabric for hammocks. Today, I was in JoAnn's and they had 40% off Fiskars cutting supplies, including their rotary cutting mats. I also had a 15% off my entire purchase coupon. So I succumbed to the impulse buy and bought myself a new rotary cutting mat. This one is larger than my old one - it is 24" x 36".

For most hammocks, the standard 18" x 24" is plenty big. But there are a few projects, including Critter Nation furniture pad cage liners (top and bottom level) and the pocket hammock that require cutting pieces that are longer than the mat. This mat is large enough that I can cut fabric for those two projects without having to move the mat or fabric during the cutting process. I can't tell you how many times I have accidentally run the rotary cutter off the mat because I wasn't paying attention - hopefully that accident will be a thing of the past.

Rotary cutters are by no means a necessity, but they sure do make things easier. This larger mat is a luxury item, but since I have been working to make new liners in a variety of colors, it will get a lot of use for a while. It is large and unwieldy, so it will probably only come out for those projects that need it, but I think it will come in handy when it does come out.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rat Safe Play Areas

All pet rats need some play time out of the cage. They need a safe place to explore and time to spend bonding with you. Because our homes frequently contain unsafe items (eg, live electrical cords) and things that a rat might destroy (wooden furniture) and because many do not want rat pee soaking into their carpeting and furniture upholstery, it is important to have a designated rat-safe play area.
Many people use their bed for out-time. If you throw an old comforter or blanket on top, you can protect your mattress and bedding from pee and allow your rats free range of the bed, throwing the blanket in the wash as needed. Another option is the bathroom. Bathrooms usually are not carpeted and usually do not have items plugged in near the floor where the rats would be able to chew on a cord. They can be easily closed off so the rats cannot escape and are pretty rat safe as long as you keep the toilet lid down.
We currently have a play pen set up in a corner of our basement, where the rats can run around and explore and we can sit with them on an old couch that is covered with a sofa cover and then a flannel sheet - both of which can be removed and washed fairly easily. The floor of the play area is covered with old throw rugs that my mom was going to throw away until I absconded with them.
The play pen is surrounded by plywood walls, 2 feet high. Our rats cannot jump this high, so it is secure as long as none of the taller toys get too close to the wall. The rats can jump onto the sofa if they want, but will not jump from the sofa arms/back to the floor. However, we must be present to supervise them, just in case. We do not leave the rats loose in the play area unsupervised.
If we should need to leave them (to answer the phone or the door or for some other reason), we also have our Martin's Play Pen set up on a children's table inside the play area. We can easily move the rats into the Martin's Play Pen and secure the door and they will be safe unsupervised.
We have a variety of toys for the play area that we change around periodically to keep free range time stimulating and interesting. Some of our favorite play area toys are Imaginext toys that my boys outgrew. We have an Imaginext castle and also an Imaginext Gorilla Mountain. The rats love to climb these toys and go through the doors and openings. They can be opened into different shapes, to make new configurations, and sometimes lying them on their side makes them new and exciting. We also have a variety of huts and boxes and a handful of Marshall ferret toys (octopus, alligator, pirate ship, noah's ark, and elephant) that come and go. In addition to these things, we like to use the Super Pet Ferre-Trail tubes (they used to sell these in a large set for a reasonable price, but now only sell them by the piece or two and are more expensive). In the play area, we can build more complicated tunnel mazes than would fit comfortably in a cage setting. We also have a Hagen's Living World Teach 'n Treat puzzle where the rats can learn to move puzzle pieces to find treats.
Both the Martin's Play Pen and our play area have their own litter boxes, and the Martin's has a water bottle in case the rats get thirsty. We have a television set up by the play area, so the kids can watch television while the rats are out. If the kids stay entertained while the rats are out, the rats get more out time.
This play area is only temporary. I have a bird room downstairs but only have a handful of finches left. This spring, we will be moving the finches out and into an aviary and doing a thorough clean and redesign of the room. The rats will then be getting this space as a rat room. It should be fun to have a whole room to dedicate to the rats that will be safe for them to explore for as long as they like. It will hopefully be a space that is fun for both rats and people, so the family will be encouraged to spend a lot of time there with the rats.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

UPDATED - Tutorials for Common Rat Hammocks and Accessories

The Tutorials for Common Rat Hammocks and Accessories PDF file has been updated. The file now includes tutorials for the corner hut, which is similar to a cube but fits nicely in any corner. The corner hut is easy to hang because the ribbon loops in each corner can be attached to the bars on the cage walls rather than the cage ceiling.

Also added to the tutorials are the instructions for making furniture pad cage liners for the Dual Critter Nation, Martin's R-695, and Martin's Rat Play Pen with Pan. These liners have been working well for us. They get chewed around the edges, but so far, the damage has been easily repaired. The furniture pad has proven to be absorbent and to handle odors almost as well as towels.

Finally, the new PDF also includes instructions for creating pocket hammocks, tunnel pocket hammocks, double decker hammocks, and tube hammocks with a fleece border at the openings. These tutorials include the steps for creating the border and refer back to the original tutorials for the rest of the steps.

UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that when I added the content, some of the pictured links on the first two pages ended up broken - pointing to the wrong tutorial. I have had a problem with this and long documents in Word - I don't know why it happens. I have gone back and checked all of the links and fixed the broken ones, so it should work better now. I apologize for the inconvenience.

A Tool for Ensuring Our Rats Are Healthy

I ordered this stethoscope and received it from Amazon a few days ago. It is a new tool in my rat arsenal. If you have ever heard of "telephoning" your rat, it is my hope that this tool will make that job easier.

It might seem like kind of an odd thing to get for the rats. After all, I am not doctor and I don't try to be one. When our rats get sick, it is into the vet they go. But sometimes, when symptoms are mild, they are difficult to notice. And sometimes, you might notice a sneeze and wonder if it is just a sneeze or if there is something else going on.

One of the techniques we use to try to figure this out is "telephoning" our rats. This is just a cute term for holding their chests up to our ear like a telephone and listening for any unusual lung sounds. I've never been very good at this - especially if you have a squirmy rat who doesn't want to play telephone. So I figured a stethoscope may be a better option.

Please be clear that I am not recommending trying to diagnose and treat your animals yourself. I have always believed that if there is something wrong, a vet is the best person to diagnose it. A vet can prescribe the best antibiotic for the particular problem. A vet can assess progress and whether or not treatment should be changed - dosages increased or medications switched. A vet will ensure that dosages are calculated properly based on the weight of your rat and the severity of illness.

Instead, I am just advocating a technique for detecting problems earlier than you might otherwise. Early detection often means it is easier to treat and there may be less long-term damage done. Early detection is always a good thing. When I worked with birds, early detection was essential. Birds are even better at hiding illness than are rats - especially small prey birds like finches. There is a saying that a sick finch is a dead finch. This is often true, because by the time they are showing symptoms, there is often little a vet can do. The illness has progressed too far and treatment is often unsuccessful. With finches, I had to invest in a microscope and learn to do my own fecal smears. Most finch illnesses that are treatable are related to the digestive process - parasites, bacteria, yeast - and are therefore detectable in fecal smears before the birds show any symptoms. When I could find the problem via fecal smear before severe symptoms showed up, they could often be treated very easily. Rats don't suffer from gastrointestinal problems as often as birds do, but they do suffer from respiratory problems quite often. So instead of a microscope, a stethoscope is called for.

Of course, I don't know yet what exactly to listen for. So this is a learning process. I figure the best way to start is to periodically listen to the rats while they are healthy. If I am familiar with what a healthy rat sounds like, then I will be more likely to recognize something that it abnormal. I am guessing that a lower respiratory infection (one that involves the lungs rather than just the sinuses) will be a bit obvious if I know what normal sounds like.

When picking out a stethoscope, I wanted something inexpensive but that has good sound. I picked out this Omron Sprague Rappaport Stethoscope for a few reasons. First, it was inexpensive. I am not going to be using it every day for several hours, so I don't need the top of the line in medical diagnostic equipment. It is just for hobby use. Second, the reviews claim it has good sound. Many complained that it is uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, but since I won't be wearing them all the time, I can put up with a little discomfort. Third, it had a pediatric bell (along with an adult bell). A pediatric bell is smaller and more suited to small animals. There is even an infant bell included with the accessories, although I have not yet investigated what all these accessories do or how they work.

Hopefully, with the help of this new tool, I will be able to stay on top of respiratory infections and catch them sooner, so our rats will stay healthier.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Hammocks for Valentine's Day

Over the last several months, I have been working on creating hammock sets for holidays and seasons. I recently created a few nice sets of winter hammocks, made with flannel instead of regular cotton prints for warmth, featuring penguins, skiing raccoons, and snowmen.

But it is February now and I am tired of focusing on snow this winter. I'm sure we will have more winter to come, but we have taken a break from the winter theme to add some Valentine's Day hammocks to our cages. The following is the resulting set:

This is a double set, meant to fill both the Dual Critter Nation and the Martin's R695. This set also includes a floor mat shaped like a candy heart, with the message "BE MINE" embroidered on the front. This floor mat is made with the same materials as the liners and is meant to dress up the cage floor a bit. I am very happy with the way it came out.

Some of the hammocks installed in the DCN

This set also includes a corner hut, a cross between a corner hammock and a cube. While I usually set my cubes flat on the ground and use the ribbon loops to keep it erect, the corner cube works well hung in a corner, as it has ribbon loops to support both the top and the bottom. I make mine with windows on the sides (if I don't, my rats will chew their own windows). I took pictures as I built this hammock, and will be adding it to the list of hammock tutorials soon.

Corner Hut from the front (top) and side (bottom).

Next on the agenda, St Patrick's Day Hammocks.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Meet Burt!

Check out those awesome whiskers!

We want to welcome Burt into our family!

We all miss Loki terribly and his absence has left a huge hole. What is more, we really miss having a big squishy boy around. So I started looking around. The first pair of rats I found that were in the area ended up being adopted before I called inquiring about them. Then we found Burt.

Burt had a great home with his buddy Ernie, but sadly Ernie passed away, leaving him as a lone rat. His family is really attached, but didn't want to adopt new rats and didn't want Burt to have to live alone as he is a very social rat. So I thought he would make the perfect fit for us.

We will eventually be introducing him to our girls (all spayed), after quarantine. He came from a really good environment that is low risk for exposure to illness, but we still want to do a quarantine just to be safe. He will be using the Martin's R695 cage for quarantine and until he has been successfully introduced to the girls, when he will move into the dual Critter Nation.

Burt is super friendly and very trusting. He is a great eater, snacking on peas and corn and blueberries on the way home. He has already tried and liked the Oxbow Regal Rat, so I have no doubt that he will adjust to it just fine. He is a black variegated (similar to hooded, except instead of a stripe down the spine, he has random splashes of color) dumbo and I can already tell he will fit right in here. I know he will miss his first home, but hopefully he will come to adapt to ours. We will be sure to give him lots of love and attention and all the things he needs to stay healthy.