This morning I had quite the scare! One of my rats did not come to greet me, and I found her lying toward the back of her cage. I picked her up and could see something was wrong. I put her down to observe her, and found she had slightly labored breathing and kept opening her mouth. I was worried this could be a respiratory issue, but I also knew from experience this could be a choking episode.
Choking for a rat is very different than humans. Their throat anatomy makes it difficult to block the airway completely, although an obstruction is possible. They also cannot vomit. So when a rat chokes (often times on something like bread or peanut butter) the main things you will see is a gagging action where they bring their chin down toward their throat and flatten their ears. They can also produce a lot of drool. Their chin can get wet, and they may wipe their mouth on surfaces as well.
It can be terrifying to see, and a rat caretaker may think their rat is dying. Years ago, I witnessed my first choking episode and I rushed my rat to the ER. But by the time I got her there, she seemed fine. The doctor did a brief exam, said she looked good, and could not explain what had happened since they did not see it themselves. I couldn't understand since just 30 minutes ago she looked so awful. Other pet owners may also bring in their pet in a similar panic, or call the hospital wondering what is wrong and what to do.
If the rat is able to breath, the best thing is to leave them alone. I know it is tough, but staying calm is really important since it helps the rat stay calm as well. Usually, the rat can remedy it themselves within 30 minutes, although it can take up to a few hours. The longer the rat struggles to clear their throat, the more exhausted they become. This morning, my rat took about 20 minutes to clear her throat which was marked by a long string of phlegm. I picked her up, cleaned up the mess, and then let her recover on my hand for a few moments. I knew all was okay when she started to give my fingers kisses. I think it took her sister longer to recover from all her worry!
I stayed home a couple more hours to keep my eye on her, but it was as if nothing ever happened. I fed her some almond yogurt and she ate it up with zest! Although I've had 20 rats in my life so far, I have only experienced choking with three of them. I have no idea if or how often I miss other choking episodes, but it doesn’t seem to be too common.
This condition is hard for a veterinary professional to witness and diagnose, since often the situation is resolved before the rat can be seen. But there are occasions when veterinary interference is needed. If a rat is not getting enough oxygen due to an obstruction, you may see blue lips, paws, or arms, or their temperature may drop. If the rat is unable to breath, quick action is needed. It’s always a good idea to freshen up on rat specific first aid for emergency situations.
I am so happy that my rat recovered quickly and is doing well. I wanted to share this experience so the veterinary community can be aware of choking in rats, since it’s not widely known. Witnessing a choking episode is very scary for the caretaker, even for one who has experienced it before! Knowing the signs of choking can be incredibly helpful to veterinary professionals and to those who have the privilege of taking care of companion rats. Understanding what is happening allows the process to resolve faster and lessen the stress of the rat. Then, more time can be spent having rat parties and cuddling with these incredibly smart and social animals.