Hind Limb Paralysis in Elderly Rats — Causes and Symptoms

Hind limb paralysis is a fairly common problem in older rats, particularly males. Fortunately, the paralysis process is a gradual one and this allows the rat to compensate to his disability. As a result, most paralyzed rats can remain happy throughout their golden years (or, properly stated, golden months.)

Causes of Rat Paralysis

Spinal cord degeneration is the cause of hind limb paralysis in rats. In the wild, rats have a fairly short lifespan — approximately one year. Pet rats have a significantly longer lifespan of approximately two years. In other words, as a pet, the rat lives for nearly twice as long as its wild counterpart, but the rat’s body has not evolved to accommodate this longer lifespan.

Wild rats die long before the onset of paralysis, but it’s fairly common in older rats, especially males. Over the years I’ve owned dozens of rats, and I’ve only seen hind limb paralysis in males. This is an observation that’s echoed by many other rat lovers. It has been theorized that the male rat’s high hormone levels cause damage to certain body systems, including the spinal cord.

An injury from a fall or a broken back can also result in sudden onset paralysis at any age. Though generally, severely injured rats are euthanized as most owners do not want to pay expensive veterinary care, procedures and pain medication.

The paralysis that affects elderly ratties is not painful and the onset is very gradual. With proper care, a paralyzed pet — even a rat — can still enjoy life.

Signs of Paralysis Onset in Pet Rats

The early signs of paralysis can be observed as early as 12 months of age. The symptoms vary in severity; they are as follows:

  • Tail Dragging — A young, healthy rat will hold his tail off the ground when he walks. As the rat ages, his tail will start to drag. The more pronounced the dragging, the more the spinal cord damage has progressed.
  • Eating Posture — Young rats will eat while in an upright position, while sitting on their haunches. They will use both hands to eat. As the rat ages, he will lose control of his hind quarters, which makes it difficult to eat in this upright position. A paralyzed rat will eat while standing on three legs, while using the fourth front leg to hold the food while he eats.
  • Shuffling Gait — Younger rats enjoy climbing, jumping, running and in general, they tend to be very active. As the rat ages and paralysis sets in, he will run and jump less and less frequently. As the spinal cord degeneration gets worse, the older rat will exhibit a “shuffling” gait in his hind legs. In addition, he may struggle to climb ramps inside the cage, so you may find that your older rats are spending more time on the lower levels of their cage.

In advanced stages of paralysis, the rat will be unable to use his hind legs. His hind legs and tail will drag behind him. But this doesn’t stop most rats from remaining active! My paralyzed rats loved to explore the world outside their cage and they also loved cuddling! Since the paralysis process occurs gradually, the rat has the opportunity to get used to his disability over the course of several months.

If you’re so inclined, you can construct a small wheelchair for your paralyzed rat! I will provide instructions in a future post. It does take a couple weeks for the rat to become accustomed to the little cart, but once they learn how to use it, it provides them with an opportunity to explore the world outside their cage more effectively!

In tomorrow’s article, we’ll explore tips for caring for an elderly rat who suffers from hind limb paralysis, along with information on how to ensure that they remain safe, happy and healthy!

Stop by our archives for additional rat care articles, including an article with advice and  tips for caring for an elderly rat, in addition to  directions for bathing a rat.

Photo Source: Kai Kuusik-Greenbaum on Sxc.hu

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Mia Carter is a professional journalist and animal lover. Her furry family members include 6 dogs and 12 cats. She is also a feral cat colony caretaker. Carter specializes in pet training and special needs pet care. All of her animals have special needs such as paralysis, blindness, deafness and FIV, just to name a few. She also serves as a pet foster parent and she actively rehabilitates and rescues local strays and feral kittens.

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