Harry the 2 year old pet rat

Julie has always liked pet rats, but after she had three female rats that died at a young age from cancer, she decided not to get any more. Then she met a veterinary nurse who had been told by a new landlord to get rid of her two rats, Harry and Neville. Julie felt sorry for the animals, so she agreed to take them in.  

Rats make excellent pets 

Despite their poor reputation, rats make excellent pets. They are intelligent, playful and sociable. As long as their cage is cleaned regularly, they are not smelly or dirty. It’s often said that they make better children’s pets than other commonly kept small animals like hamsters or gerbils. Sadly, many people carry a strong prejudice against rats, imagining them to be dirty, disease-carrying creatures, which is not true at all. For this reason, rats will probably never achieve the mass appeal of other small pets.

Julie’s rats have generally been healthy, but a week ago she noticed that Harry had a swelling around his left eye. His normally bright, beady eye was hidden behind half-closed lids. He looked like a boxer who’d taken a punch to the side of his head. He was much quieter than normal, not playing in the same active way, so she brought him in to see me.

Swellings like this can be caused by various different problems, including bruising after trauma to the side of the head, bacterial infection and also more serious diseases like cancer. Rats age rapidly compared to other pets, and they are prone developing cancer at a much younger age than other animals.

It was difficult to examine Harry closely – he’s a wriggly creature who doesn’t like being held firmly. Julie helped me to restrain him, and I used a piece of moist cotton wool to gently dab around the swelling, trying to work out what had caused it. As I did this, to my surprise, a piece of skin, with fur still attached, lifted away from his head, leaving a red, raw area beneath. I could see now what the problem was: it was an abscess, with deep-seated infection causing swelling and damage to the skin on his head.

By the time I had finished cleaning Harry up, he looked much worse than when I’d started. There was a big red sore area extending over the centre of his forehead. I wasn’t worried though: with abscesses, it’s necessary to clean away the dead, infected tissue, exposing the clean areas underneath. Harry looked worse in the short term, but in the longer term, this was a necessary part of his healing.

What caused the abscess?

Julie asked me what could have caused the abscess, and I explained that there must have been some sort of injury penetrating the skin on his face. This would have introduced bacterial infection, and then the  abscess  had developed. I asked about his cage,  but Julie was sure that there were no sharp, protruding objects that could have hurt him. The most likely possibility seemed to be her other rat – Neville. The two rats don’t fight or bite each other, but they do play vigorously, scrambling around together. Harry must have been accidentally scraped by Neville, and he was just unlucky that the minor wound had become infected.

I sent Julie home with instructions to give antibiotic medication twice daily (sprayed onto florets of broccoli, Harry’s favourite treat). She has also had to bathe the sore area twice daily. Harry’s has done well; just three days after his first visit, the red, open area was half the size, and within a week, he should be completely better.

Julie doesn’t want to stop her rats from playing together, but she’s hoping that they’ll be a little gentler with each other in the future.


  • Rats are still unusual pets in Ireland
  • It’s common for small wounds to become infected
  • Treatment is just the same as for bigger animals: antibiotics and good wound hygiene

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