American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association

This article is from the WSSF 2011 AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales news-magazine.

Beginners’ Corner

Rat With Nervous System Problem

By Karen Robbins

Harriet Clayton, e-mail
Q I really need some information urgently. As you are probably aware, vets don’t always know a lot about pet rats, and unfortunately, no information can be found on the web (the people on Allexperts aren’t taking my questions).

My Hooded dark brown and white rat female runt over the half year mark, has had spasms on and off for about 6 months, very infrequent, but being a seasoned rat keeper I have been looking out for signs. To start, it was a very occasional bowing of the back, when her sisters jumped on her (during in heat and maturity). She naturally is very hyper, very friendly with me but terrified of other people, very jumpy, etc., but none-the-less a lovely little girl. I got her from a pet store where she had been left alone in a cage at 8 weeks entirely surrounded by birds, so maybe her constant frantic skittishness is just ingrained? The other two are sisters but not related to the little one. I only got the other two because I rescued her on her own as a little one.

With the other two, one is very friendly and confident but gets a bit scared at the bag rustling, knocks moving things, etc.; the white one is still petrified due to back pet shop experience (I am gradually working on building trust with her but its been put on the back burner since a recent surgery of mine), but the black and white one goes from terrified, to realising its me and being absolutely fine. I think the reason for her complete reversal in behaviour is one of the things that teamed with the last supposed fit is what got me worried. They do feed off each other with the fear so this doesn’t help. She seems fine again, apart from usual frantic behaviour, no apparent fits. As for all the girls, all three get on pretty well, they all pick on each other at times, and she would be the technical outsider, as the other two were either sisters or at least housed in the store together, and she is more likely to be on her own, but they all sleep together most of the time.

However, she is now having moments when her head shakes/ tilts left to right very quickly. It just happened today, two times, and her back bowed again, after I picked her up. She has had no major falls that I know of, and out of the three I have she is the most agile and brave, always trying to climb as high as possible and at times I have to stop her from trying to tackle things like a dado rail or a tiny window ledge. I have read that apparently rats have ticks. Problem is when they happen, she won’t let anyone touch her and gets even more hyper.

I read the epileptic account. She has no one-side head tilt nor falls to one side. My last Hooded black and white rat had a brain tumor which ended up affecting her movement. We had her put down due to cancer and her deterioration started with the head tilt so I’m aware of what it looks like and haven’t seen that in her.

I’ve also read that a rat can have seizures and then look like they don’t know who you are. This often happens in her being distant and skittish.

I was told by someone that this back bowing which looks like freezing or fitting is just being in season? I didn’t realise as I have never seen the other two do this.

That is why I’ve been trawling the internet for opinions and info as I know myvet will not be able to tell. This isn’t happening that regularly but little things have come to my attention every two months or so and being that I have a general understanding of normal rat behaviour, is why it stuck out as weird.


  • Is she in pain? (she doesn’t make any noise but I know this is not always an indication)
  • What are my options? I don’t believe in medication for little ones.
  • Are there any other things that I should watch out for?

Any help would be great as I am devastated. I don’t really know what to do.

A Sorry to hear about your little rat. It’s hard to tell by your description what it might be so can’t answer on if she is in pain or your options. Your rat should be seen by an experienced vet if possible though if she only does this occasionally, her spasms may not happen where a vet could observe them.

Are the spasms brought on by loud noises, do they only happen during certain times of the day or night, what kind of food and bedding is she on, is she able to eat and drink normally, if you have a wheel in the cage, is she always on it (you say she is very hyper), when she bows her back do you mean arched up or sinks down towards the ground, how is this different from when she is in season?

Rat in Season
A female rat in season.

Not all females will demonstrate the signs of being in season when they are (vibrates ears, sinking of the back (lordosis), raises the tail, freezing, jumping around, harder to handle during this time), while some will show these signs quite definitely when they are handled or around other rats. If you notice this behavior every 4–5 days (in the evening especially), then I would say she is in season. At our shows, just being at the show with new male rats in the same room will set off some females into full signs of being in season. Your description sounds more like the rat is in season than having a medical problem, but I would need to see the rat to be sure.

One way to get the rats to not be so jumpy with strange noises like bags rustling, is to get them to associate that noise with a favorite treat. Every time you are around the cage, give them a treat after you crinkle a bag, so a crinkly-bag-scary-sound means tasty treat.

It does help to have at least one of the bunch to not be afraid so that teaches the timid ones that everything is okay. Also, handling as much as possible and exposing them to different things helps. Some people will keep the timid rats on them in their pocket or shirt for several hours at a time while they go about their business at home to get them used to different scary sounds.Wehave an article on Trust Training if you haven’t read it yet that has additional tips.

Regarding possible medical issues, according to Dr. Booth, if your rat is under 2 then it is unlikely she has a brain tumor. An x-ray could confirm some types of brain tumors. It could be epilepsy as there are two kinds—one they twitch, the other they sit still. If you notice these spasms progressing, you would need an EEG to see the abnormal brain wave patterns for epilepsy.Agood small animal veterinarian can do a neurological exam and take radiographs. An EEG is not something most veterinarians have, only Veterinary Schools. There are medications to control epilepsy though it is harder to dose a rat and a compounding pharmacy would have to make the rat appropriate dose. If the symptoms are bacterial, then she would need medication to treat the problem. If not treated, epilepsy can progress to having seizures all the time.

Hopefully your rat does not progress into anything more serious and these episodes remain few and far between. *

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Updated February 14, 2015