By Debbie Ducommun
A rat can experience respiratory distress without any warning, whether or not she has had previous respiratory symptoms. The signs of respiratory distress are gasping through the mouth or dashing about in a panic. Severe labored breathing can also be considered respiratory distress. The rat may or may not have blue extremities. Respiratory distress is extremely unpleasant—one of the most distressing experiences there is—and must be treated immediately.
One of the first things to try is to get the rat to breathe air moistened by a humidifier or a shower running in the bathroom. You can also boil water on the stove, but do not let the rat inhale the steam directly as that can burn the lungs. Hold the rat at least 3 feet away from the steam.
If it seems like the rat might have mucus in the throat that is blocking the free passage of air, see the article on Choking.
If the rat is still having trouble breathing and the problem is constricted breathing passages (like asthma) a bronchodilator will help. The best treatment is a subcutaneous (subQ) injection of aminophylline, which will expand the breathing passages. In most cases this will stop the respiratory distress within a matter of minutes. It is also recommended that the rat be given a subQ injection of dexamethasone to reduce inflammation in the lungs.
If aminophylline isn’t available you can try an asthma inhaler. You can buy an asthma inhaler called Asmanefrin over the counter or you can use an inhaler that you or a friend has on hand. Take an empty cardboard toilet paper roll and put the inhaler on one end and the other over the rat’s face. Put one puff of the medication in the tube. Try to keep the rat there for as long as possible to make sure she inhales the medicine.
If a bronchodilator doesn’t help within 15 minutes you can try an injection of furosemide, a diuretic that will quickly flush excess fluid out of the lungs.
If none of these treatments work, the rat must be put in oxygen. If the rat doesn’t improve on oxygen it means her lungs are no longer able to work and she should be euthanized. If the rat does improve on oxygen, then you have some time to wait for other medications to work.
Once you get the rat out of respiratory distress she should be put on both amoxicillin and Baytril or doxycycline. She may need continued treatment twice a day with aminophylline, an anti-inflammatory (either prednisone or an NSAID), furosemide, and perhaps even enalapril and atenolol for congestive heart failure.