Q: I think my rat has fleas or lice. He has little, red dots and dandruff-looking “eggs” in his fur. I cleaned the whole house, bagged everything up and now he’s in his cage, which he hates. Now I wonder how to clean my rat of these fleas. What do you think? He also has the respiratory disease, I think mycoplasmosis. He is sneezing a lot and always a little congested in his nose. What should I do for him?
A: It is very common for rats to have external parasites on their skin. You may see these little buggers moving around, you may see their eggs (called nits) glued to hairs, and if your rat is scratching a lot, you may see red, broken skin.
Rats can be parasitized by lice and/or mites. Both types of parasites cause similar signs — flakey skin, hair loss, itching, red skin and ulcerated skin. Although it is very important to clean any area where your rat has been, both in the cage and in the house, further treatment is necessary on your rat to be certain the parasites are no longer alive and cannot breed and produce eggs. It is unlikely these are fleas, as our pet rats rarely have fleas. Also, fleas will be more difficult for you to see and will be “jumping around” whereas parasites may look like little red dots, as you have observed.
The sneezing is another reason to visit your veterinarian. First, your veterinarian can dispense the correct and safe medication to remove the parasites on your rat. Second, your veterinarian can help diagnose the cause of the sneezing. It could be mycoplasma, as you suggest, because this is a common cause of respiratory illness in rats. Or this may be a viral respiratory problem. Or a combination of both. The reason we need to know which it may be is that we really do not have medication to treat viral infections, but we do use antibiotics for bacterial infections like mycoplasma. The right diagnosis will lead to the correct treatment that will lead to the improved health of your rat!