Rat Respiratory Problems – Causes and Treatments

If you know anything about rats, you know they are some of the toughest animals on the planet. They’re adaptable, resilient, and versatile and don’t get sick too often. This doesn’t mean they’re impervious to all diseases, and that’s exactly what we’ll be discussing today.

More specifically, we’ll dive into respiratory problems, as these have the potential to aggravate fast. If you have a pet rat, today’s article concerns you directly. So, let’s get into it!

What Causes Respiratory Diseases in Rats?

Rats can fall victim to a variety of bacteria responsible for triggering different conditions. These include mycoplasma pulmonis, bronchioles, bronchi, rhinitis, and Murine mycoplasmosis, to name a few.

Some of these conditions can potentially turn deadly in certain cases, especially if the rat is old or has a weak immune system. The nature of the pathogen is also critical in determining the right treatment. That’s because viruses, for instance, remain unaffected by antibiotics which are only designed to kill bacteria.

The problem is that most respiratory conditions share similar symptoms, making it difficult to identify the culprit in time. It’s the treatment that usually tells the story, so we’ll get into that shortly.

For now, we’ll discuss a specific type of respiratory infection that seems to affect more rats than others. We’re talking about Upper Respiratory Infection (URI).

What is Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)?

Upper Respiratory Infection is a condition that affects the upper part of the respiratory system, as the name suggests. There are 2 primary types of respiratory infections, depending on their localization: upper infections and lower infections. URI affects the sinuses and the throat, while lower respiratory infections attack the lower airways and lungs.

If it wasn’t already obvious, lower respiratory infections are generally more severe and can lead to complications more often. By extension, URI are less severe, which can be deceiving. Even upper respiratory infections can aggravate with time, especially if the rat has a compromised immune system or is dealing with other health issues.

The nature of the infecting pathogen is also critical in determining the condition’s severity which will influence the treatment’s pathway. So, let’s get into that.

How to Treat URI in Pet Rats?

Treating URI is pretty much similar to shooting arrows in the dark. Not quite as random, but pretty close. This is because you cannot know the pathogen’s nature from a simple visual analysis.

Fortunately, since most URI are mild conditions, you’re not pressed by time to diagnose the condition fast. Instead, you can begin the treatment by following a standard protocol designed to stabilize the rat and improve its physiological recovery.

Here are some good recommendations in this sense:

  • Quarantine – This is the first step to consider, given that respiratory infections are generally highly contagious in rats. You should always quarantine your rat at the first sign of trouble, especially since you don’t know the nature of the infecting pathogen.
  • Nebulization chamber – This is a standard treatment procedure for treating rat respiratory infections. The nebulizer system delivers medication via vapors to eliminate congestion and combat the bacterial organisms responsible for the infection. The medication and doses to use depend on your vet’s recommendations. Each nebulizing session shouldn’t last more than 30 minutes, probably less, depending on your rat’s tolerance to the treatment. The nebulizing technique may be too complex for you to handle properly, so you may need a vet’s assistance in this sense.
  • Ensure proper exercising – Overweight or obese rats have difficulties breathing, to begin with. A respiratory infection will make things worse fast. The solution, or one of the solutions, is to provide your rat with workout opportunities to lose some weight and stay in shape during the treatment. Moderate physical exercise will usually help the rat breathe better by decongesting its airways but monitor your rat during its workout routine. If it exhibits heavy breathing and the congestion doesn’t seem to go away, stop the workout.
  • Good and balanced diet – Adequate nutrition is essential to prevent the condition from worsening. Always ensure your rat has diverse and well-rounded meals to support its body during recovery.

When dealing with respiratory infections, the problem is that things rarely go as planned. Your rat may have a mild infection, but this can aggravate, depending on the pathogen’s nature and the rat’s overall resilience. A standard antibiotics treatment shouldn’t last more than 7 days before delivering visible results.

However, some rats show no improvement by the 7-day mark or even experience a worsened state during that time. If that’s the case, your rat may have a viral instead of a bacterial infection.

The treatment’s profile also depends on the condition’s severity, as such:

  • Mild respiratory infections – Mild respiratory infections caused by Mycoplasma should be preferably treated with Enrofloxacin (15 mg per kg of bodyweight every 12 hours) or doxycycline (5 mg per kg every 12 hours.) Both medications should be part of a long-term treatment lasting between 10 and 30 days. You can even use both medications at the same time if the rat doesn’t show any improvement within 10 days with just one agent.
  • Advanced/severe respiratory infections – You will use the same medications at similar concentrations. The only thing that differs is doxycycline which you need to double. Your vet may also prescribe dexamethasone (1 mg per pound of body weight twice per day). The problem is that dexamethasone is an injectable, so you might want your vet to handle that.

Bronchodilators and corticosteroids may also be necessary in cases of severe lung and bronchi inflammation, which takes the treatment’s complexity to an entirely different level. My recommendation is this: if your rat doesn’t show any improvement during the initial 7-day period with standard nebulization treatment and mild workout regimen, contact your vet.

You may need to diagnose your pet rat in a professional setup to determine the exact cause and pull out a personalized treatment protocol.

Can URI Cause Pneumonia in Rats?

Yes, it can. This is always a reason for concern, even in cases of mild respiratory infections. The main problem to consider is the mucus leaking into the lungs, along with the infecting pathogen, which can trigger pneumonia and aggravate the entire situation.

This is why you should always treat URI with the utmost consideration and never ignore even mild symptoms like sneezing or mild nasal discharge.

Other Symptoms of Respiratory Diseases in Rats

Diagnosing your rat’s condition correctly is essential in determining the right course of action. Your rat may exhibit various symptoms depending on the severity and nature of the infection. Here are some general markers to consider:

  1. Upper Respiratory Infections – The symptoms of upper respiratory infection vary based on the severity and the infecting agent. The rat may initially show no symptoms, despite being infected. Then, the rodent may exhibit signs like sneezing, squinting, and showcasing porphyrin discharge. This is a fluid accumulating around the eyes and nose, typically in a rusty color. Ear infections are also common with URI, causing the rat to tilt or shake its head. Constant ear and face rubbing are also common indicators of mild inner year infections.
  2. Lower Respiratory Infections – In this case, we’re already talking about bronchitis or bronchopneumonia, depending on the disease’s progression, infection method, and severity. Some of the most noticeable symptoms include difficulty breathing, wheezing, frequent coughing, gasping, and even moist breathing sounds. The rat may also exhibit a hunched posturing, as this allows it to somewhat breathe better, visible weight loss, lethargy, and a rough coat lacking that healthy, shiny look.
  3. Acute Respiratory Infections – This is where things get a tad more problematic. Your rat may exhibit signs of severe respiratory distress, at which point you know things are serious. The most alarming sign is the accelerated breathing rate, making the rat seem almost panicky because it is. The rat can no longer breathe properly as the infection has reached its final stages. Respiratory arrest and death are generally the most foreseeable outcomes.

As an additional interesting point, mycoplasma pulmonis can degenerate into genital infections by affecting the uterus lining. In some cases, the same pathogen also affects the ovaries and causes salpingitis by inflaming the fallopian tubes. In this case, the rat will exhibit signs such as blood-tinged urine and visible bloating. The latter can be deceiving, as most people mistake that for a digestive problem.

If your rat show signs of difficulty breathing with nasal discharge, sneezing, wheezing, and bloating on top of everything else, contact your vet immediately. The situation may be more severe than you might suspect.

Is Rat Respiratory Infection Contagious?

Yes, rat respiratory infections are highly contagious among other rats. The nature of the pathogen doesn’t really matter because they can all transmit between rats quite fast.

In most cases, all rats that come into contact with one another will get the pathogen before the first signs of infection even come visible. So, you’re unlikely to have one rat displaying signs of respiratory infections and several healthy ones sharing the same space, completely unaffected.

When it comes to rat-human disease transmission, the situation isn’t less worrying. While not all respiratory infections transmit to humans, some do, such as HPS (Hantavirus Pulmonary Symptom.)

This is a particularly worrying pathogen because it causes severe respiratory infections and is mostly deadly in advanced stages. It also reaches said advanced stages fast, making the treatment difficult and uncertain.

The other scary part is the transmission medium. Rats eliminate the virus via urine, saliva, and droppings, but you don’t need to come into contact with the matter directly to get infected. You only need to breathe the air around the rat’s discharged fluids, and that will do.

Fortunately, HPS isn’t something to lose nights over. This is because:

  • There are several strains of hantaviruses that can infect your rat, and most don’t transmit to humans
  • Your pet rat is unlikely to get a hantavirus if kept in good conditions and doesn’t have contact with wild rats
  • Even if you do get HPS, you’re unlikely to transmit it to another member of your family (there are no recorded HPS transmissions from one person to another in the US)

Unfortunately, there is no known treatment or medication you can take against a hantavirus. The symptoms are also generally mild at first, with fever, muscle aches, and shortness of breath. If you have rats around you, even domesticated ones, you should contact your doctor even if you’re experiencing mild symptoms.

HPS is more manageable in its incipient forms, as most patients recover with oxygen therapy and 24/7 care in a specialized facility.


Rats don’t experience too many health issues, but things can get serious fast when they do. Respiratory infections are of particular concern due to how contagious they are and how fast they can progress. Always treat every situation with the utmost seriousness until you can figure out the condition’s nature and find the appropriate treatment.

avatar Jane
Jane is an experienced animal care specialist with a focus on rodents and small mammals, with over 10 years of experience in the pet industry. Her articles provide practical guidance on choosing the right pet and managing common health issues. Jane is an advocate for animal welfare and supports organizations dedicated to protecting wildlife. read more...

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