Ectoparasitic Pediculosis in Rats
Blood sucking lice are common ectoparasites (parasites that infest the outside of the body) of wild rodents. Also called pediculus, these types of parasites are relatively uncommon in pet rats and are sometimes acquired when a domestic rat comes into contact with a wild rodent.
You can suspect a lice infestation if your rat is scratching much more than usual. Apart from causing uneasiness and irritation to the rat, lice infestation can also lead to enough loss of blood that a condition of anemia can develop. Left untreated, anemia can lead to death.
Lice infestation of rats is not zoonotic in nature, since the type of louse that infects rats is specific to rodents. Human handlers of infested rats are at no risk of becoming infested with lice.
Symptoms and Types
- Visible lice and eggs on the skin/hair
- Intense scratching
- Weakness (due to anemia)
Pet rats are known to acquire lice mainly through contact with wild rodents. This typically occurs when a wild rodent is able to come into close enough contact with your pet rat that the lice are able to cross over to your pet rat’s body or to its living environment (such as bedding, litter).
Lice infestation can be diagnosed by identification of the adult lice or the presence of eggs on the rat’s skin and hair. Clinical symptoms that are observed may give a general indication of the severity of the problem at hand. If your veterinarian suspects anemia, a complete blood count will show if your rat is suffering from a decreased red blood cell count.
Medicated powders and sprays are available for easy treatment of lice. As with other cases of ectoparasitic infestation, lice infestation is most often treated by topical (external) application of medicated lice-killing dusts and sprays. Sometimes the medication can be given in the form of a solution and administered orally through drinking water. Your veterinarian will advise you on what the best route of administration will be, depending on the severity of the infestation.
Living and Management
Follow your veterinarian’s advice regarding how to properly apply the medicated dusts and sprays to your pet rat. Re-infestation of lice is common unless you maintain a sanitized and hygienic living environment for your rat.
Even with conscientious care, some of the nits may be missed and recurrence of the infestation may be found. Check your rat’s skin for lice and nits on a regular basis, especially in the weeks following the initial infestation.
Cleaning and disinfecting the rat’s living area on a routine basis, and making sure that wild rodents cannot gain access to your rat's living environment are essential to keeping your rat free of this parasite. Another important routine is to wash your hands and clothes after handling another rat, especially before handling your own rat. Even if the other rat appears healthy and free of parasites, it is best to take precautions. Following these steps can help to prevent or control lice infestation -- as well as many other contagious disease conditions -- in your pet rat.