7 Signs Your Pet Rat is Dying

If you’ve never had a pet rat before, you need to make sure you learn as much as possible about them before committing. This is necessary to distinguish between normal and abnormal behaviors and keep your rat healthy for longer.

As hardy as they are by nature, pet rats will sometimes experience health problems, many of which can turn deadly. Even seemingly mild conditions can bring your rat on the edge, in which case you must be able to distinguish between healthy, sick, and dying specimens.

Today, we will look into the 7 most relevant signs that your pet rat is going downhill.

Signs of Sick and Dying Rat

Rats are active and energetic mammals with a variety of social behaviors. Unfortunately, they can’t inform you on their health state. If they get sick, it’s up to you to detect the problem in time to provide your rat with immediate assistance. This can be a life-saving strategy more often than not.

The primary signs that may suggest your rat is not well include:

– Constant Sneezing

It’s normal for rats to sneeze; most animals do it. The problem is when the sneezing occurs more often than normal and produces some type of discharge, typically yellow. This isn’t normal. In most cases, such a behavior suggests a pulmonary infection.

This is more dangerous in juvenile and baby rats because they have less effective immune systems. Mature rats are less affected, but they, too, can die because of it.

A rat with a pulmonary infection will experience an accelerated degradation of its quality of life and risk sudden death in most cases. Immediate diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing that.

– Lethargy

Lethargy isn’t a good indicator of the rat’s health issue by itself. But it does indicate that something’s not right with your rat. Rats are very active mammals, especially when kept in a group. They will patrol their environment, look for food, interact with each other, and explore their habitat relentlessly. They also groom themselves quite often, way more frequently than cats, for instance.

Something might be off if your rat appears lethargic and doesn’t care much about what’s happening around it. In this case, you need to look for additional symptoms that could inform you on the nature of the condition.

– Sudden Weight Loss

This can occur both due to refusal to eat and as a natural side-effect of whatever problem your rat is experiencing. Some rats eat normally, yet they lose weight nonetheless. This isn’t normal and requires further investigation.

Also, keep in mind that weight loss isn’t the only issue to consider. Unexplained weight gain is just as much of a problem. Rats are predisposed to obesity, so feeding them too much too frequently can lead to obesity-related issues, including heart disease.

If your rat’s overweight problem isn’t due to overeating, you might want to contact your vet for an illuminating discussion. The rat may be experiencing a more severe underlying health issue with a potentially deadly outcome.

An interesting and unexpected one is malocclusion which is a dental disease. The rat’s teeth grow excessively, preventing the rat from eating properly. The rat will eventually experience difficulties eating, avoid food, and deal with drastic weight losses that could turn fatal.

– Lack of Appetite

Rats have very healthy appetites and will rare, if ever, refuse food. They only refuse food if they don’t like it, which almost never happens, or if they’re sick. In other cases, the rat may have food stuck in its throat which won’t kill it immediately, but will cause discomfort and prevent the rat from eating.

– Diarrhea

One common health condition to consider is enteritis. This is common in rats and generally relates to food-related health problems. This includes drastic changes in diet, Salmonella contamination, worm infestation, etc. Whatever the case may be, enteritis can become deadly, primarily due to diarrhea-inflicted dehydration.

Producing frequent watery poops is a clear indicator of either enteritis or any similar condition. While this may not seem like a life-or-death situation, it clearly is one. Extreme diarrhea leads to severe dehydration, which is deadly with time. So, you need to identify the condition’s triggers fast, or your rat will slowly go downhill.

– Tumors

Tumors are of particular interest for 2 reasons: difficulty of detection and long-term implications. Studies show that approximately 50% of female rats will develop some form of tumors over their lifetime. The prevalence is greater in older rats compared to younger ones.

These are generally benign, so they’re not as harmful as cancerous ones. But, with time, even benign tumors can become life-threatening. That’s because some grow considerably large, impending the rat’s normal movement. Some even become ulcerated, leading to infections and increasing the risk of death exponentially.

Then you have malign tumors presenting an entirely different set of issues. Unfortunately, you can prevent tumors, but you can detect them in time. The best way to do that is when playing with your rat. Touch the animal and palpate its body, especially around the belly. You should look into any abnormal lump because all tumors start small.

– Heavy Breathing

This takes experience because you need to know your rat’s normal breathing pattern to identify abnormalities. In short, an increased breathing rate is a sign of pain or discomfort, as this is the only way rats can vent their distress.

The fact that your rat breathes heavily or rapidly doesn’t tell you much about what’s bothering it, except the animal is experiencing some type of suffering. If that’s the case, you should talk to your vet to diagnose the rat’s condition properly.

There are numerous potential health problems to consider here, including bladder issues, kidney problems, neurological diseases like torticollis, cancerous tumors, abscesses, infections, fractures, etc.

Can You Save a Dying Rat?

I would have to say no to this one. You can save a sick rat, but a dying one is unlikely. If your rat is dying, it means that the situation has already reached the point of no return. If that’s the case, you only have one option left: palliative care. In other words, you must provide your rat with the most comfort you can for a painless passing.

Consider the following:

  • Increase the temperature – Rats have problems regulating their temperature when they grow old or when sick. Increase their environmental temperature to 65-80 F, preferably closer to 80, to increase your rat’s comfort.
  • Ensure optimal hydration – Your rat requires clean water at its disposal at all times. If it’s sick, it won’t be able to look for water on its own. Place the water bowl closer and make sure it has clean water constantly. This will prevent dehydration and avoid unnecessary stress aside from what your rat is already experiencing.
  • Play with the rat – It may sound weird to play with a dying rat, but rats are very sociable animals. They will most likely develop a tight bond with you over the course of their lives. If your rat is living its last days, keep it company and pet it from time to time. This helps the rat calm down and feel less stressed during this time.
  • Analgesics – Speak to your vet about relieving your rat’s pain in case any is visible. They will recommend specific pain medication, depending on your rat’s age, size, and medical condition. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t take the matter into your own hands and medicate your rat without professional guidance. There’s a fine line between proper and improper doses that could actually exacerbate your rat’s suffering.

You can also prepare the rat’s resting quarters based on their immediate needs. Keep the dying rats in a clean, dark, and quiet setup for greater peace of mind and improved comfort. Your rat will feel more relaxed and at ease, thanks to that.

Also, note that female rats tend to exercise more when sick. Give them the room to do so and add some toys in their enclosure if you notice they interact with them.

How to Keep Your Rats Healthy?

Rats require physical, mental, and emotional assistance to remain healthy over the years. These are intelligent and active animals with complex emotions and social interactions. To keep them healthy and happy for as long as possible:

  • Keep them in groups – You should never have just one rat. Rats are highly social creatures that require the presence of other members of their own species. Social interactions like grooming, playing, group eating, etc., help build the rat’s character and regular its behavior with time. Solo rats are more stressed, get sick easier, and have shorter lifespans overall.
  • Personalize their living quarters – Low lights, warm temperatures, a comfy bedding with cellulose or non-aspen wood chips, and a shelter-type hiding area for resting purposes. All these are necessary to create a comfortable setup that your rats can enjoy and explore. Also, make sure that the rat can see you in the room as they like to watch their keepers moving around.
  • A good maintenance and cleaning routine – Rats are self-grooming, but that doesn’t mean they are clean animals. They will produce a lot of mess and dirty their bedding frequently. The bedding will suck in moisture and lead to fungal, bacterial, or mold-related pulmonary infections, which can turn fatal with time. Frequent cage cleaning is necessary to prevent that.
  • A healthy diet – Rats are omnivorous animals, so they will eat pretty much anything. Provide your pet rodents with a balanced diet mixing veggies with animal protein in balanced proportions. Grains, eggs, fruits, and veggies are all important. You can also supplement your rats’ diet with rat-specific foods if necessary. Most importantly, avoid harmful food items like sugary products, dairy, citrus fruits, grapes, onions, and others.
  • Ensure proper entertainment – As I’ve already noted, rats are highly intelligent creatures requiring constant stimulation to remain mentally and emotionally fit. Decorate their living quarters with various entertainment tools like hanging toys, boxes and tubes, gnawing blocks, and elements for them to grind their teeth, hammocks, etc. Your rats will use everything at their disposal to keep themselves entertained, so variation is always welcome.

Plus, you should always assess your rat’s health and behavior regularly. This helps you identify early signs of disease, and early treatment is key to preventing more serious health problems.


Pet rats are amazing creatures that can live up to 4 years in good captive conditions. They will bond with their keepers and each other and are peaceful and entertaining with distinct personalities. Unfortunately, they, too, can sometimes struggle with health problems.

I hope today’s article has shed some light on this issue, allowing you to better understand your rat’s physiology.

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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