Wow! It’s July already and that means, at least here in sunny California, that the weather is warm outside. Although we might love the nice and sunny weather, when it gets too hot, this can be life threatening for animals, and pet rats are no exception. Rats are remarkably tolerant in a wide range of temperatures but there is a point when it is simply too hot and they may begin to suffer heat stroke – which is life threatening and can be fatal. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of witnessing rats die from heat stroke which is why I wanted to cover this condition in our blog series this year. I’ll review what heat stroke is, events that can lead up to it, things that can be done to help prevent it, and what to do if you think your rat may be suffering from it. Hindsight is 20/20 and I hope many of you will find this useful and informative!
Heat stroke is, according to Google, “a condition marked by fever and often by unconsciousness, caused by failure of the body’s temperature-regulating mechanism when exposed to excessively high temperatures.” So, how do rats regulate their body temperature? Similar to dogs, and unlike humans, rats don’t sweat. Have you ever seen a rat pant like a dog? … Nope, because rats don’t pant either! Rats control their body temperature primarily through releasing and constricting the veins in their tail! Tails are extremely important to rats and this is a major reason why. The “temperature-regulating mechanism” for a rat is its tail!
Just like people have different tolerances to heat, so do rats. Depending on size, age, cage population, habitat, etc, rats can start showing signs of heat stress around 78°F…which is also where I start being uncomfortable! If you’re hot and uncomfortable, then they are likely hot and uncomfortable too. Check the weather and, if you know it’s going to be hot, plan to run the AC (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and get some fans going to help keep the air circulating. Out here in California, when it starts getting hot, we have to consider and worry about electrical blackouts prompted by everyone trying to use their AC and fans at the same time and this is where it becomes important to have alternate plans in place in the event that there is no electricity.
When rats start to get hot, they will become much less active – again, similar to people. As the temperatures rise and they get warmer, they will begin to flatten out their bodies to increase their surface area to help release more body heat and try to cool down but, they’re rats. They can only flatten out to a point and then they really need some help in getting cooler or they will begin to become disoriented and soon pass out and very likely pass away. I don’t mean to sound alarmist but, as I mentioned before, I’ve been on the end of trying to, unsuccessfully, help rats recover from heat stroke and I can attest to the fact that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – for certain.
It’s imperative to have supplies on hand that won’t require electricity (in the case of a power failure). I always have ice and frozen vegetables in the freezer. Rats will drink a lot of water when they are hot so make sure there are plenty of water bottles available. I keep glass mason jars with metal lids so I can fill them with ice and put them in the cage. Rats will chew through plastic bottles and ice melts to water so, if you intend to keep your habitat dry, glass mason jars are the best route. I also keep ceramic or stone tiles. I personally have 12” x 12” granite tiles but any stone or ceramic tiles will work. Stone and ceramic retain their temperature longer so you can put an ice-filled mason jar onto a tile and the tile will take the coolness from the jar and that makes a better surface for rats to flatten out on to help cool down. There are commercial products like ChinChillers but I find it’s more cost effective to just buy the tiles from a home improvement store.
Offering frozen things to eat will also help them cool off from the inside out. Frozen peas or mixed vegetables are common favorites. Some people like to freeze grapes and offer those too. Frozen grapes or just grapes in general, are also great for liquid supply while travelling too since we all know that water bottles will leak all over the place! If you can crush your ice and put some in their water bottle so they can get ice-cold water, that is also very refreshing. I also keep misting bottles and hand fans because you can mist the rats to kind of mimic sweating and use the hand fans to help with the evaporative process which can help them feel cooler as well. In cases of extreme heat stroke, you can even go so far as bathing your rat(s) in cool water to help lower their body temperature. Unfortunately, there is a point when all is lost and there is nothing more you can do so it is definitely best to focus your time and energy in preventing heat stroke rather than trying to help a rat recover from it.
Rats are very similar to people when it comes to heat and the things that you would do for yourself to get cooler, they would likely benefit from as well. Using the tips and tricks listed above as a preventative to heat stroke will ensure a more enjoyable summer for both you and your rats!