Pet rats suffer quite a lot from eye problems but fortunately they are not life-threatening and they are very easy to treat. A pet rat is a friendly creature and very inquisitive, so you should be having a lot of contact with it on a very regular basis, so the early signs of conjunctivitis or corneal injury should be easy to spot.
Signs to watch out for
A rat with conjunctivitis will have very sore looking eyes and will probably shun the light. The eyelids will be swollen and red and there will be a crusty discharge around the eyes. Probably the rat will rub at its eyes or face and in fact this may well be the first thing that will alert its owner that there is something wrong. It will probably be sneezing a lot as well – the tear ducts will drain into its nose and irritate it. This is also a sign of a corneal injury. There will probably not be any crusting, at least at an early stage, but the eye will be red and may close. The other eye will look normal, but may be a bit ‘teary’ as the ducts will be working overtime to try and wash the injured eye and when one duct is working, they both do. If you can get the rat to open its eye, there may be a visible injury, from a piece of bedding or something similar. If the injury is a scratch, then that will not be so obvious, but if an ulcer has begun then it will be very visible as a white spot with a very clear margin. If the ulcer has been there for a while there may be a thick yellowish discharge under the lid.
Treatment of eye problems in rats
The treatment of early corneal injury and conjunctivitis is the same; wash the eye with saline – this can be bought at most chemists in the ‘eye care’ department – very gently with a cotton ball absolutely soaked in the solution. Always wash away from the tear duct to the outside edge of the eye. If the conjunctivitis has caused a lot of crusty discharge to dry the eyelids may be stuck closed. In this case you may need to hold the ball soaked in saline (slightly warmed is sometimes better) briefly against the eye to soak it free. Never use the same cotton wool ball on both eyes and never on two rats. Always make sure that you have thoroughly washed your hands before washing the rat’s eyes in this way and also give them a thorough scrub afterwards. If either the conjunctivitis or the corneal injury does not appear to improve after a day or so, or if the discharge becomes more profuse or offensive, then the animal should be taken to the vet. This advice also holds for any animal experiencing eye problems on a regular basis.
What will the vet do?
If things do not resolve themselves, the vet involved as soon as possible. It is vital to make sure that eye infections do not take hold, as they are not always easy to treat and the animal will be in a lot of pain, due to changed pressure in the eye. A corneal ulcer is particularly painful, especially if the object which caused the injury is trapped under the lid. Every time the rat moves its eyes, the edges of the ulcer will scrape under the lid and the bacteria will also cause a lot of unpleasant discharge, which will dry and make things worse. Depending on the severity, the vet will prescribe antibiotics, either as an oral medicine, as eye drops or ointment or all three. If there is a chance that there is still a foreign body in the eye, the vet will remove it; for this he will probably sedate the rat so that it stays still – trying to remove a splinter from the eye of a squirming rodent can’t be easy!
What are the causes of conjunctivitis and corneal ulcers?
The most common cause of both is problems with the bedding material. If a bedding is not completely natural, in other words if it is perfumed or deodorised in some way, this may irritate the rat’s eyes and cause conjunctivitis. The bedding may be very dusty – this is sometimes the case with the ‘economy’ bedding sold in some stores and this dust will irritate the eyes as well, clogging the tear ducts and causing the problem that way. Some bedding has sharp bits; this is particularly an issue with woodchip bedding. A rat burrowing down in the chip can easily get a sharp splinter in its eye. As the bedding has bacteria living in it naturally, this can all too easily become infected, which on the cornea will result in an ulcer.
If you suspect that the bedding is causing the rat problems, it is easily solved – change the bedding and watch carefully for improvement. When thinking of different bedding, it is sensible to try to buy one with as few volatiles as possible – this means avoiding spruce and pine, cedar, scented and deodorised ones. Some shops sell dyed bedding; this is totally pointless and can give a rat a lot of problems with allergies affecting the eyes and they are best avoided. Looking carefully at the bedding in its pack should make it easy to weed out the ones with a lot of dust and splinters. If the change of bedding makes no difference, a visit to the vet is called for. In some cases the rat can injure its own cornea when grooming itself. A rat is meticulous when grooming over its nose and sometimes it can catch itself in the eye with a claw; this should not happen often so if the rat is experiencing repeated corneal ulcers, this is not likely to be the cause.