Rodents - Diseases

What are some of the common diseases of pet rodents?

Common conditions of pet rodents include respiratory diseases, anorexia and lethargy, overgrown teeth, and tumors.

What are the signs of these diseases?

rodents-diseases-1Respiratory infections are commonly seen in pet rodents. Signs include nasal and/or ocular (eye) discharge in mild infections, and wheezing, coughing, and open-mouth breathing in severe infections (pneumonia). Animals with pneumonia often stop eating and become lethargic. Bordetella is one such bacterial organism that causes respiratory infections in guinea pigs and can prove fatal if not treated promptly. Since rabbits carry this organism without showing signs of illness, it is recommended that rabbits and guinea pigs not be housed together. In mice and rats, respiratory problems are often caused by an organism called mycoplasma, which can cause many respiratory signs and often leads to chronic respiratory disease. Other infectious agents, such as Pasteurella and Streptococcus bacteria, can also cause pneumonia. Regardless of the exact cause of respiratory disease in pet rodents, respiratory infections are relatively common. Anything that predisposes the pet to a respiratory infection (such as dusty cage litter, irritating aromatic cedar chips or high levels of ammonia from urine accumulation in dirty litter or a dirty cage) should be corrected to lessen the incidence of respiratory problems.

"Anything that predisposes the pet to a respiratory infection (such as dusty cage litter, irritating aromatic cedar chips or high levels of ammonia from urine accumulation in dirty litter or a dirty cage) should be corrected to lessen the incidence of respiratory problems."

Anorexia and lethargy are among the most common signs seen in sick pet rodents. Unfortunately, while this type of complaint does confirm that SOMETHING is wrong, it does not tell your veterinarian WHAT is wrong. ANY disease can cause an animal to feel ill. As with other exotic pets, the sooner a sick rodent is seen and treated by a veterinarian familiar with rodents, the better the prognosis (chance of cure).

All rodents have teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives. Occasionally these teeth grow too long and cause pain, which often makes the pet stop eating. Sometimes you might see your pet drooling or it may have a constantly wet chin ("slobbers"). The front teeth or incisors are most frequently the problem, and their excessive length is interfering with eating and grooming. Sometimes, guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits (although rabbits are technically lagomorphs, not rodents, they do have teeth that grow continuously) suffer from overgrown molars or back teeth, which make eating challenging or even painful.

Cancer is often seen in pet rodents, most commonly as external tumors. Mammary (breast) tumors are probably the most common type of cancer seen especially in rats and mice. Amazingly, breast tissue in these pets covers most of the underside of the body, so breast cancer can appear anywhere from the neck to the groin! Mammary tumors can grow rapidly. They can become so big that some veterinarians have surgically removed rats from tumors! Fortunately, most mammary tumors are benign and survival after surgery is good. Rodents can get many other types of tumors, but most of these are less common.

How are rodent diseases treated?

Respiratory diseases are easily diagnosed based on clinical signs. Radiographs can be used to confirm a diagnosis. With infectious diseases, antibiotic treatment is indicated. Supportive care in the hospital, including force-feeding and fluid therapy, may be needed for pets with serious infections such as pneumonia.

Anorexia and lethargy are signs of disease and not diseases per se. Successfully treating rodents with anorexia and lethargy requires an accurate diagnosis. X-rays, blood tests, cultures or other tests may be employed to facilitate an accurate diagnosis. If an owner is not willing to do these tests then treatment is aimed at supportive or palliative care, which means managing the problem without treating the underlying cause.

Regardless of any signs of disease in your pet rodent, pet store antibiotics are ineffective against diseases of pocket pets and should NEVER be used. They are often drugs not used by veterinarians. Treating a disease or health problem based on advice from well meaning, big-hearted people who are not veterinarians and who do not possess proper training may prolong the disease and hasten the animal's death.

"Pet store antibiotics are ineffective against diseases of pocket pets and should NEVER be used."

rodents-diseases-2Overgrown teeth need to be trimmed. Trimming the incisors is often done under anesthesia with a grinder. In the past, nail clippers or wire cutters were used to trim teeth without anesthesia, but often these techniques resulted in broken teeth, leading to more problems. The diagnosis of overgrown molars (back teeth) usually requires anesthesia, a thorough oral examination and radiographs (X-rays). Treatment requires trimming or filing of the molars (which is often difficult) under anesthesia. Dental disease can often be prevented by maintaining a proper diet and offering something for the pet to chew, such as a block of wood.

Tumors are removed surgically under anesthesia. Intra-abdominal tumors can often be removed, but the procedure is more invasive and challenging than for removal of external tumors. The smaller the tumor and the earlier it is removed, the easier the surgery.

How can I tell if my pet rodent is sick?

Signs of disease in rodents are sometimes specific for a certain disease. Most commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a rodent with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases including pneumonia, cancer, and even kidney or liver failure. ANY deviation from normal is a cause for concern and your rodent requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

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