Rats are naturally very tidy animals, generally needing baths only once or twice a year unless a medical condition or an owner’s allergies necessitate more frequent bathing. Some male rats require more frequent baths due to their sometimes strong odor, which comes not from the rat itself in most cases, but from a habit of sleeping in urine or feces. Females tend to be more fastidious about their environment and do not normally marinate in the litterbox.
If you do need to bathe a rat, start by getting your supplies together before you grab the rat. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Dawn dish detergent, original formula (yes, really!)
- A towel large enough to wrap the rat in
- A soft toothbrush
- Infant nail trimmers or nail clippers specially designed for small animals
- Olive oil
- Consider wearing elbow-length rubber gloves if you must wear short sleeves the next day
Start by trimming your rat’s nails.
This is step one both because it reduces the chance of scratches during the actual bath, and because it’s easier to trim nails when the rat is dry and not terribly slippery. Keeping your rat’s nails short is good hygiene for both you and your pet. If you haven’t trimmed a small animal’s nails before, try to get someone who has done so to show you how to find the quick and where to clip to ensure you will not cause a bloody toenail. If that’s not possible, make sure that you look at the nail and locate the pink area, and clip each toenail separately, only trimming away the sharp tip and leaving plenty of wiggle room past the quick. It may be easiest to have someone else hold the rat, letting one foot at a time dangle for trimming.
Run the tap until it is lukewarm, testing it on your wrist. Bathe rats (and all small pets) in water the same temperature as you would use to bathe a human infant. You should feel neither hot nor cold on your wrist. Bring your rat to the sink once the temperature is satisfactory.
Next, run the rat’s body under the water, taking care not to get water in his or her ears and eyes. Get a small drop of Dawn, and massage it through the rat’s coat, again avoiding the ears and eyes. If the coat is very dirty, use the soft toothbrush to brush particles of dirt away.
Soak the tail in the water thoroughly, and use another drop of Dawn to remove any grease or dirt from the tail. Be gentle, and rub only towards the tail-tip, never back up the tail. If you are too rough or pull the skin the wrong way, the rat may sustain a degloving injury, which is exactly what it sounds like– the skin of the tail comes off like a glove. For this reason, only wash the tail if it is necessary and if you are confident that the rat will stay still and refrain from wriggling. Some rats, like my Gideon, actually enjoy a good tail-wash, while others hate to get their tails wet.
When you’ve finished washing the rat’s body and tail, rinse thoroughly. Be sure to remove all soap. Dawn is harmless if a small amount is ingested, but it’s still far better to remove every bit of residue.
After the Bath
Wrap your rat in a towel and gently pat and rub the rat until the coat is dry. Make sure you are drying the rat in a warm room where he or she will not catch a chill. Most rats will happily hide inside a fluffy towel while wet.
Once the coat is fairly dry, leave the rat’s body wrapped in the towel, but let his head poke out (as shown above). Take a Q-tip and very carefully clean both ears. Most rats remove earwax on their own, but older rats may lose dexterity of the hind legs. Also, cleaning the ears with a Q-tip helps to ensure that any water that got inside the outer ear is dabbed away before it has a chance to do any damage.
Finally, rub the rat’s tail in olive oil. This encourages the rat to groom away any remaining dirt. If you have multiple playful young rats living together, it may be best to separate them until each has groomed away the oil on its tail, to prevent fights over the right to lick away the oil! In addition, the ingestion of olive oil helps to prevent buck grease (an orange substance found on the skin of male rats). If your rat is hairless, you can massage olive oil into his skin, like lotion.
When your rat is completely dry, he can be returned to his cage; but there’s no sense in returning a clean rat to a dirty cage, so put the rat in his or her secure play area for a few minutes and clean the cage. It’s easiest to bathe all your rats at the same time, using the same soap, so nobody is picked on or singled out for smelling differently when they’re returned to the cage.
Other Hygiene Considerations
Some rats need extra hygiene help due to medical problems like hind limb degeneration or malocclusion. If you think your rat has special hygiene needs, see your vet for help mitigating the original medical problem and advice on maintaining his quality of life through regular care.
Rats with malocclusion may need to visit a vet for tooth trimming when their teeth become too long. Most rats grind their teeth down by bruxing (grinding the teeth together when happy or relaxed), but if the teeth do not meet properly, this isn’t possible. Tooth trimming should be performed by a vet.
Some male rats need help removing waxy secretions from their penile sheath, which can form a “plug” and cause infection if not removed. Rats normally remove these secretions during daily grooming, but a sick rat or a rat with hind limb paralysis may not be able to do so. It is important not to pull back the sheath too roughly, as there is a risk of bruising or injury to the rat. Have your vet show you how to perform this hygiene task before attempting it yourself.