Elderly rats are very prone to developing hind leg paralysis. Age-related paralysis in rats is a gradual process that occurs over the course of weeks and months, so while aging rats do tend to adjust to the changes very well, special care and accommodations are required to keep an elderly paralyzed rat happy, healthy and free of discomfort.
How and Why Paralysis Occurs in Rats
Simply stated, a rat’s body is not designed to live beyond about two years of age. In nature, rats rarely live beyond the age of 18 to 24 months. But pet rats who have robust genetics and who are provided with quality food and care can live to the age of three, or in some rare cases, age four or five.
Extending the rat’s lifespan beyond what occurs in nature does have one major disadvantage: the skeletal structure and joints – originally designed for one or two years of use – is used for two or three years or more. This leaves the rat prone to arthritis in the joints and skeletal degeneration of the spine, which ultimately leads to spinal cord damage and paralysis in the rat’s hind quarters.
Cages For an Elderly Rat With Paralysis
On a flat, smooth surface, a paralyzed rat can scoot along with surprising speed, but rough surfaces and multiple-level cages can pose a problem.
Cages with multiple levels are not suitable for paralyzed rats. It’s difficult for the rat to pull his body up hill. And when paired with gravity, the lack of control in the rat’s hind quarters can cause falls and slips. Paralyzed rats must be provided with one-level cages.
Cages must also have a smooth floor. Wire floors are not acceptable for paralyzed rats, as the hard, rough surface can damage the rat’s skin as he scoots around. Covering the floor with a large section of newspaper that can be changed daily is the easiest way to convert a cage with a wire floor – and the rat will enjoy shredding the top layer of newspaper to create a “nest!”
Bedding for Paralyzed Rats
Bedding material is extra important for rats with paralysis. The rear legs and sensitive skin of the stomach will come in contact with the floor of the cage, so it’s vital that the surface is soft and smooth.
Soft, fabric bedding is the best material for use in a paralyzed rat’s cage. Use old T-shirts, old sheets, fleece and other tight-weave fabrics as bedding. Like all bedding in an elderly paralyzed rat’s cage, the fabric must be switched out daily with clean, fresh bedding.
Some varieties of recycled paper bedding can also be used for a paralyzed rat. CareFresh Ultra is one example of a super-soft bedding material that is acceptable for paralyzed rats. Woodchips are not only dangerous to the respiratory system, but they’re much too rough for a paralyzed rat’s skin.
Daily cage cleanings are vital to ensure that the paralyzed rat’s skin is not exposed to urine or feces.
Other Considerations for Paralyzed Rats
When out of the cage, paralyzed rats should not be allowed to crawl around on carpeting for long periods of time. Carpeting, in particular, causes rubbing and friction against the skin. This can lead to sores and break-down of the skin, which can be difficult to heal.
For rats who like to explore carpeted areas, place a large piece of fleece fabric down on the floor to create a soft, friction-free surface.
Paralyzed rats should also be closely supervised when scooting around a couch or other object that’s above floor level. Especially in the early stages of paralysis, rats tend to overestimate their ability to jump and land properly, which can lead to falls and injuries.
Notably, paralyzed rats can live with younger, healthy rats, who will often help groom the aging, paralyzed rat, in addition to providing companionship.