How To Comfort A Dying Rat

Photo by Oxana Kuznetsova

Rats make for a wonderful pet; they are intelligent, social, clean, independent, loyal and affectionate. 

With their many qualities, their size, sturdiness (compare with a hamster or a mouse), and short life span (the average lifespan for a rat is 2 to 3 years), rats are wonderful pets, especially for children.

All of these qualities and attributes make them ingrain in our hearts, and become a beloved family member.

So when the time to cross the rainbow bridge starts to approach is our responsibility to ensure they are as comfortable as possible until they are ready to go.

Below I describe 5 ways you can use to keep your pet rat comfortable while he/she approaches the rainbow bridge.

1. Keep Them At An Optimal Temperature 

As your little rat gets older, or if they are sick, they may struggle to regulate their body temperature. 

If they get too cold they may go into hypothermia if, on the other hand, they get too hot; they may suffer from heatstroke, which in turn can lead to a painful death.

The optimal ambient temperature for your furry friend is 65 to 80 °F (18 to 26 °C). 

Temperatures above 90 °F (32 °C) will be uncomfortable, those above 100 °F (37 °C) can cause distress, and temperatures above 104 °F (40 °C) can be fatal. 

To Prevent Your Rat From Getting Too Hot

  • Avoid putting them in direct sunlight by the window. Instead, choose an area of your house that is shaded and well ventilated.
  • Consider putting them in a wire cage instead of a glass tank. This will help keep their space well ventilated, reducing the risk that his/her temperature will go up suddenly.
  • If temperatures are raging outside, consider putting the air conditioning on to ensure the ambient temperature in the room they are located does not go above 80 °F (18 °C).
  • Keep a thermometer in their cage so you can monitor the temperature. Another, less reliable, way to monitor if your furry friend is too hot is by feeling their ears and tails.  Normally a rat’s ears and tail will feel cool, so warm ears and tail mean the rat is getting uncomfortably hot.

Symptoms And Ways To Help When Your Rat Is Getting Too Hot

If your rat is lethargic and reluctant to move around much, if they lose interest in food and drink more water than normal; then they may be overheating. 

If your rat goes unconscious, is drooling or has a sticky discharge from his/her mouth, they have suffered a heat stroke and urgent attention is required.

If the problem is overheating, cool them down straight away by:

  • Offering them frozen treats such as peas or blueberries, and/or
  • spray cool/normal water temperature on them, followed by fanning/airflow to increase heat loss. 

WARNING: Do not use ice or very cold water in a rat that is overheating, as this can lower their temperatures too quick making the situation worse 

If the problem is heatstroke, cool them down straight away with a damp cloth, place their cage in a cool area of the house and contact your vet straight away. Heatstroke can be fatal, and quick urgent attention is essential.

To Prevent Your Rat From Getting Too Cold

Rats can often tolerate very low temperatures. However, a pet rat that is unwell and unable to regulate body temperatures may be uncomfortable or even may go into hypothermia if ambient temperatures plummet.

If your rat is feeling the cold, he/she may be curling up as small as possible in the warmest spot in the cage. To prevent this from happening:

  • Keep the room where they are free of draughts and warm, with temperature not going below 65 °F (18 °C) (just be careful temperature do not go above 80 °F (26 °C)).
  • Give them a comfortable home. Line their cage with sawdust, peat, wood-shavings or woodchippings. Avoid wood-chippings/shavings from woods that have a high content of volatile oils or preservatives, as these can be poisonous. Then place plenty of plain unscented torn toilet paper and plenty of cut up fleece little blankets in their cage. These (the toilet paper and fleece blankets) not only will provide them with a comfortable bed to rest, but will also keep them warm. Ensure this last layer never has newspaper as the print can be poisonous.
  • Some people use heat lamps with infrared light, to help keep their rats warm. However, most of the infrared lights available are designed for cold-blooded animals, and thus they can exert a lot of heat.

If you do decide to proceed with this option ensure that: 1) the heat lamp is on only for a short period of time and under your supervision, 2) the cage is large enough that your rat can go to a cooler part if the heat is getting too much for them, and 3) keep a thermometer to allow you to monitor the temperature. If the temperature goes above 104 °F (40 °C) for a sustained period of time, your rat can suffer from heatstroke and dehydration.

  • Some people recommend heating pads. I won’t do that here. Most (if not all) heating pads won’t work on plastic so you will have to put it inside the cage (unless you move your rat into a reptile tank). If your rat gets to it and chews on the cord or the pad, the consequences can be catastrophic.

A safer solution will be to create a heating pad out of flax seeds or rice grains. Place the flax seeds or rice grains in a sock or fleece pouch. Place the sock/pouch and a cup of water (next to the pouch to prevent the pad from burning), in the microwave. Heat the pad in small increments. Ensure you test this on yourself before putting it in your rat’s cage as it can get very hot and you may burn them. The pad will keep the heat for about 1 hour. Do not leave this pad alternative in the cage for them to chew. Once it is cold, remove it and repeat the process if you need to. 

  • Wrap your little rat in a small towel and put him/her against your body. This is a great way to spend some quality time with your dying rat. However, this will only work if your rat is happy to be held. If they start to fight you or bite you, keep them in their cage as that may be a sign that they do not want to be held.

2. Provide Them With A Clean, Calm and A Quiet Sleeping Quarters 

As your beloved furry friend approaches death, he/she will need to sleep more to preserve the little energy they may have.

To keep them comfortable as they rest, ensure they have a place that is clean, dark, and away from noise, draught and/or dampness. 

If you have 2 or 3 rats in one cage, isolate the one that is unwell into his own cage to prevent stress from other animals and activity, and minimize the risk of disease transmission to cage mates.

Female rats are known to exercise even when they are unwell. To prevent them from injuring themselves or using the reserve energy, take out all the toys they may have in their cage. 

However, if you feel your rat can still cope with some exercise, discuss this with your vet. It may be that you can add the toys for a short period of time. 

Remember your vet is there to help your rat get to the rainbow in the most comfortable way. 

Use their knowledge. Together you and your vet can ensure your furry friend is comfortable and happy.

3. Avoid Dehydration

Rats are known for having a healthy appetite, after all, they are very busy little animals. However, one of the first signs you may notice when your rat is dying; is the lack of appetite and thirst. Their bodies are shutting down. They no longer have the sensation of hunger or thirst. 

Food is not essential for your rat, they can go for 2 or 3 days without eating anything. However, dehydration may make them feel uncomfortable and can be a cause for a painful death.

Rats need to drink approximately 10ml (2 teaspoons) per 100g of their body weight. So if your rat is 200g in weight, he/she needs to drink approximately 20ml (4 teaspoons) of water daily.

To check if your rat is dehydrated:

  • Look at their eyes. If they are droopy, sunken, dry, dull and/or listless, they are probably dehydrated.
  • If your rat’s tongue has swollen then they are severely dehydrated and the vet must be contacted immediately.
  • Gently pinch the scruff of your rat’s neck. If the skin quickly snaps back into its normal position, everything is okay. If the skin holds its shape or moves back to its normal position very slowly, your rat is dehydrated.
  • Check the water level of your rat’s bottle or bowl. If it hasn’t changed much since the last time you filled it, your rat hasn’t been drinking, and could potentially be dehydrated.
  • If you noticed less or no urine/wet patches in their cage, or the urine has a very dark tinge to it and has a strong odor, your rat may be dehydrated. 
  • If your rat has labor breathing, they may be dehydrated.

To prevent your dying rat from becoming dehydrated:

  • Offer them foods with high moisture content such as watermelon, cucumber or apples. Ensure the apple is peel, and the seeds of the watermelon and cucumber are out. Restrict this to very small amounts. If consumed in large quantities it can cause diarrhea.
  • Entice your rat to drink water by placing a dollop of peanut butter on the drinking tube and ball (if possible) of the bottle. As your rat leaks his/her delicious treat. they will get a mouthful of water in the process.
  • If your furry friend is not interested in the peanut butter, detach the bottle from the cage, pick him up, and attempt to “nurse” them by gently pressing the bottle into their mouth. Please stop this process immediately if you see any signs of distress.
  • If all the above attempts fail, and your rat is reaching 24 hours without a drink contact your veterinarian straight away.

If your vet is closed, try the below suggestion until you reach your vet. Always follow your vet’s instructions.  

  • With a clean eye dropper or a 10ml syringe, place drops of water mixed with a pinch of salt and sugar, or an electrolyte-enhanced fluid-like Pedialyte, into your rat’s mouth. 

Please do not give straight water to a dehydrated rat, this will only dilute the already-reduced amount of minerals, salts, and sugars in your rat’s body, making the situation worse. 

Also, ensure you do not force the whole content of the syringe into your rat’s mouth in one go, otherwise you run the risk that you will force fluid into his lungs, which is likely to be fatal. 

Note: If your rat becomes moderate to severely dehydrated, take them to your veterinarian straight away. They may need to be hospitalized and be given intravenous (IV) fluids.

4. Give Them Attention

Rat’s are very sociable, playful creatures. If you own a rat the chances are that the two of you have a strong bond.

Is this bond that your rat is banking on for comfort and security as death approaches. 

So stay close to them during the final weeks, days and/or hours. Take them out of their cage, pet them, hug them and let them sleep in your lap if they want to. But always read their cues. 

If you try to handle your rat and they try to escape or start biting you, it is their way to tell you that they need some alone time to try and conserve the little energy they may have.

Furthermore, depending on their condition of the illness, they may be in pain and your hands, although unknowingly or unwanted, may be hurting them.

If this is the case, leave them in their cage, but keep a close eye on them to ensure they do not show signs of discomfort such as: being too hot or cold, having labor breading or having diarrhea.

5. Provide Pain Management Medication 

This step is essential to keep your rat comfortable during his last days, but only give medication that has been prescribed by a qualified veterinarian. 

Never self-prescribed or you run the risk to make the situation worse and make them feel worse.

Final Good Buy

Losing our beloved furry friends is not easy, but thinking ahead of time whether you want your little friend buried or cremated, will allow you to make the decision that is right for you, rather than making it last minute when you are grieving and under stress.

There are many decisions to be made. Do you want your furry friend to be buried or cremated? Do you want communal or private cremation? Do you want an urn that is at home with you or one that you can bury? 

Let’s break these questions down.

Burial vs Cremation

  • Burial provides a permanent place for you to visit and honor your pet. Burial may be at a pet cemetery, at your home, or even some human cemeteries have a section for pets. 

If your desired option is to bury your pet at home, check our post Is It Legal To Bury Your Pet In The Backyard. Some counties/cities in the USA do not allow pet burial at home, and some have certain rules that you need to follow if your rat is to return to mother earth. This article will guide you on this process.

  • Cremation allows your pet to return to his/her natural state more quickly. You can spread your rat ashes in the garden, or you can keep them at home. 
  • When discussing cremation,  you may hear the terms communal cremation and private cremation: Communal cremation means that your pet will be cremated at the same time as other pets, in the same cremation chamber. This means that you will not be able to have your pet’s ashes back. The cremation service will collect the ashes of all pets in the cremation chamber and dispose of them. Most cremation services will scatter the ashes after each communal cremation. For a rat, this service costs between approximately $15.00USD to $40.00UDS. 
  • A private cremation means that your pet will be cremated individually in a cremation chamber, and the ashes will be returned to you. The ashes may be returned in a standard wooden box urn or a plastic bag. Or you can choose a personalized urn from the cremation parlour. However, this may be more expensive and the selection may be more limited to those you can find on the internet. Private cremation for a rat is approximately $200 + the urn or memorial you select. 

Whether you decide to bury at a pet cemetery or cremate your furry friend, your rat will be picked up from your veterinarian or home and transported to the final destination. If however, you choose to bury your rat at home, the body will have to be transported by you. 

Choosing A Pet Urn

When choosing the urn form the internet consider your budget, the size of the urn, whether you want to bury the ashes on a biodegradable urn or a nonbiodegradable urn, or whether you want to keep the ashes at home:

  • Budget: Urns can vary in price from as little as $30USD to as much as $300USD+.
  • What size urn do you need?: The general rule to determining the appropriate size for an urn is, for every pound (454g) of your rat’s total weight you will need one cubic inch (2.5cms) of space plus 10 cubic inches (25.4cms) for good measure. For example: If your rat weighs 300 grams, you will need an urn that is 2 cubic inches (18 cms) or larger.
  • The urn: The selections are endless. To keep the ashes at home you can choose Pet Figurine Urns, Wooden Pet Urns, Pet Photo Urns, Natural Stone Pet Urns, Metal Pet Urns, etc… to bury the ashes in the garden you can choose either a biodegradable or a nonbiodegradable pet urn.

If considering a biodegradable urn, we have reviewed The Best Biodegradable pet Urns in the market to date. This article has been written with you and your furry friend in mind. To your rat, it will give him/her an urn where they can rest is peace; and to you, it will provide the practicalities you need when choosing an urn: cost, size, and materials used.

Memorializing Your Rat

There are many ways to memorialize your rat:

  • Write an obituary
  • Hold a memorial service
  • Create a photo journal
  • Create a memorial garden. This is a great way to create a place of peace, seclusion, and tranquillity to reflect on the wonderful memories your furry friend left you.

If a memorial garden is the way, or one of the ways, you choose to memorialize your rat’s memory; our article 10 best garden plants for pet memorial is a must-read. This article will give you the various factors to be considered for a memorial spot that thrives, couple with a description for our 10 favorite shrubs and trees for a memorial spot full of color, succulent smells and a spot that will give comfort to you and animals such as birds, bees and butterflies.

How to Say Goodbye

Make sure all the family members have a chance to say goodbye.  

For children, many books can help explain the process of death and grief.  

To say goodbye, some people will get their rats a treat on their last day. This may be a dollop of peanut butter or some broccoli.

Their happiness is our comfort, their comfort is our happiness. 

Grieving For A Pet

Losing a pet is hard for everyone, but the grieving process is different for each family member.

Some people have a harder time than others with the grieving process. Some people feel sad all the time, while others have their sadness comes in waves. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.  

Feeling sad and lonely is a normal reaction to pet loss. Trying to ignore this emotional pain will usually make it worse.  

If you are having a hard time, make sure you take time for yourself, don’t let others tell you when its time to ‘move on’ or how should you be feeling, and talk, talk, talk.

There are many people that you can talk to that can help with the grieving process.  The ASPCA has a Pet Loss Hotline (1-877-474-3310) with a grief counselor at the other end.

Recent Posts