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In 2013, a boy was tragically killed from rat-bite fever, which a lawsuit states was contracted from a pet rat he had been given 2 weeks prior. The rat had been purchased from a pet store; in this incident, a Petco. According to the article, the "lawsuit alleges that Petco failed to ensure it was selling healthy rats or failed to prevent them from becoming infected."

How can we ensure that a pet rat we purchase from a pet store is healthy and will not transmit this sort of terrible disease?

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I'll summarize a bit from the Advanced Health Check from ratguide.com

While it's hard to say sometimes with animals, as some types of illnesses are difficult to see from the outside, there are some things you can check in the store, and some other things you might be able to check once you bring it home. Although it's not a bad idea to take any new pets to get checked by a vet as soon as possible.

Alertness:
A rat that is perky and energetic is a good sign of a healthy rat. Look for a rat with clear, bright eyes, and perked up ears.

Ears:
Make sure there are no obstructions or discoloration in the ears. They should be a clear pinkish color. Also make sure that they are soft, with no crusting or hardening occurring.

Tail and Feet:
Make sure that there are no signs of inflammation or sore on the tail or feet.

Fur:
The fur should be clean and well groomed. If the rat is not keeping itself clean, then there is a problem. Also watch for excessive itching.

Balance:
Place the rat on a flat surface and lift it's chest with your finger. The rat should be able to maintain its balance.

Teeth:
If possible, check that the teeth are growing normally. A slight yellow color is normal (they don't brush they teeth), but you want to make sure they aren't growing abnormally. They should be pretty straight. The gums should be a pinkish color, not white.

Nose:
Make sure their is no drainage from the nose, and that the rat is able to breath freely. Rats normally breath quietly, at a rate of 71-146 depending on the size.

Heart:
A normal heart rate is in between 250-493 beats per minute (though a rat's heart might beat pretty fast if it's not used to being held).

Feces:
Diarrhea, discoloration, and unusually foul-smelling feces are a sign of illness. Though you might not discover this until you've brought the rat home.

Housing conditions:
Most pet stores keep rodents all together in the same cage, and also in a glass aquarium (which is not healthy for rats). These obviously aren't the best conditions and if you notice one or more rats in the same aquarium that are showing signs of obvious illness, then I would avoid getting any rat from that group, as they've all been in close exposure to the illness.

Another thing to look at is how clean the cage is. A cage that isn't kept clean is begging for bacteria growth.

Diet:
What food and water do you see available in the cage they're in at the store? Are they out of water? An empty water bottle could mean that they are not given water frequently enough, and they could be suffering from dehydration. Although that is minor, and easily fixed by giving them fresh water when you take them home.

More importantly, what kind of food do they have? Is it a good diet? It might not matter too much if the rats don't spend a long time in the cage, but if it's an unhealthy diet, any rats that spend a decent amount of time in the cage living off of the food might be suffering from malnutrition and/or be overweight. This might be relatively easy to solve once you bring them home, but it might take some work to introduce healthy food to them as they might reject the taste.

Weight of adult rats:

  • Male: 250-550 grams
  • Female: 225-400 grams

[Note: It's not a bad idea to weigh pet rats on occasion after purchasing them, because weight loss is a good indicator that something is wrong.]

Temperature:

About 37.5-38 degrees Centigrade (99-100 degrees Fahrenheit)

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