HEALTH: common injuries

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Unless they are very old, rats heal astonishingly fast from even quite large injuries, provided the wound is clean. I have seen a buck who had an abscess so big that after it was cleaned out he had a round hole in his side the size of an old-style 50p bit (i.e. about 1¼ inches in diameter) - yet in a week there was nothing there but a faint red line like a mild scratch.

Rats - especially bucks - sometimes scratch and bite each other. These injuries may become infected, which is often painful and prevents proper healing. Bites in particular frequently develop into abscesses.

For advice on treating abscesses and other infected lesions, see section on infections.

Many female rats are terrors for nipping the toes and tails of other rats who may walk across their cage. It occasionally happens that a rat will lose half a toe this way, but a broken claw is much more likely.

Broken claws are harmless, but may not seem so at the time. They are painful - I've known a rat to faint as a result - and can bleed spectacularly.

Rinse the damaged claw with a gentle, non-stinging antiseptic such as tea-tree oil to stave off infection. If a broken claw or a nip on hand or foot does become infected it may cause severe local swelling and require a systemic (i.e. injected or swallowed) antibiotic.

Baby rats who are playing vigorously occasionally get a leg stuck in the bars of their cage and break it. Depending on the position of the break your vet may be able to pin it: pinned or not, keep the injured animal quiet (or as quiet as possible with a baby rat) for a week or two, in a single-storey cage with nothing it can fall over or off.

Being so long-bodied and low-slung, and having such long tails, rats sometimes suffer a dislocated vertebra in the lower back or tail. This is extremely painful: I have seen a rat who had cricked a bone in his tail sit wringing the affected portion between his two hands, licking it frantically and going "Ow ow ow ow ow" like a dog.

A veterinary osteopath or chiropractor would probably be able to help, if you are fortunate enough to have one in your area - or a regular vet might be able to manipulate the vertebrae back into place under anaesthetic. That aside, the problem usually rights itself in a few hours anyway: meantime keep the rat quiet in a single-level cage (because thumping down from shelf to shelf makes the problem worse), as for broken limbs.

Occasionally a rat will catch its tail in something and pull and the skin will split and peel off, leaving and inch or so at the end of the tail totally raw and exposed. This looks apalling but seems to be a normal mechanism and is no cause for panic - the affected portion will shrivel rapidly and in most cases will just fall off by itself in a few days. If it doesn't, and/or if there is any sign of infection around the stump, your vet can easily tidy it up.

One rare occurrence, probably due to a bite or scratch, is aural haematoma - a blood-blister on the ear-leather. In extreme cases the entire ear-leather swells up like a balloon full of blood. The swelling will normally be reabsorbed over a period of days or weeks, leaving a slightly thickened "cauliflower" ear. If the swelling is so great that the ear flops forward and rubs against the skin around the ear-hole, the area may need to be dressed with antibiotic ointment to prevent ulceration. Very severe cases which don't clear up on their own may require surgery.