Ringtail in Rats

Published Jul. 3, 2024
Pet rat held in hands with tail in front

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In This Article


What Is Ringtail in Rats?

Ringtail, also known as annular constriction, is a painful and potentially debilitating condition that affects a rat's tail.

The condition is characterized by constricting rings around the tail, caused by a lack of proper blood flow and dehydration in skin tissue. While not as common as other health issues in rats, ringtail can become severe if left untreated.

Early stages of ringtail in rats might not be an immediate emergency, but seeking veterinary attention as soon as possible is crucial.

Left untreated, ringtail can lead to tissue death (necrosis), requiring partial amputation of the rat’s tail. Tissue death and infection may also lead to sepsis (full-body infection) and possible death. Early medical intervention offers the best chance for a full recovery without permanent damage to the rat’s tail.

Why Are Rat Tails Important?

A rat tail is a crucial appendage essential for a rat's physical and sensory well-being. Ringtail disrupts these vital functions, causing discomfort, hindering movement, and potentially negatively affecting a rat's mental state.  Because of the tail’s importance, early treatment is crucial to avoid the need for amputation.

Rat tails act as:

  • A counterweight for balance during acrobatics and climbing

  • A natural radiator to dissipate heat through the tail’s sparsely hair-covered skin

  • A rudder for swimming

  • A sensor, because tail neurons convey valuable information about surroundings

  • A self-defense mechanism used for lashing out at predators

  • A communication tool

Symptoms of Ringtail in Rats

A watchful eye on your pet rat's health is crucial for early detection of ringtail. Here are some key signs to be aware of:

  • The appearance of constricting rings around the tail, often accompanied by swelling and redness

  • Partial loss of the tail

  • Lethargy and loss of appetite due to pain

  • Difficulty maintaining balance due to tail discomfort

  • Grooming issues secondary to pain, including an increased amount of porphyrin around the eyes and nose. Porphyrin is a red-brown secretion that naturally occurs in small amounts but can dramatically accumulate during times of stress or disease.

In severe cases of ringtail, the tail may turn blue or gray, indicating a lack of blood flow.

Causes of Ringtail in Rats

Ringtail in rats develops due to a lack of moisture in the rat's tail skin. This can happen for several reasons, including:

  • Low environmental humidity: Dry air is a primary culprit. Dry climates or seasonally decreased humidity, such as in the winter in many areas, may increase the risk for dry tail. Pet parents should be extra vigilant at these times to ensure proper temperature and humidity. Humidity levels below 20% can cause skin dryness and contribute to ringtail. Dry skin loses elasticity and becomes more susceptible to cracking and infection.

  • Dehydration: Dehydration from insufficient water can worsen the effects of low humidity.

  • Rough bedding: Too-absorbent bedding can wick away moisture from the tail, especially if the bedding is not changed frequently.

  • Repeated tail handling: While rats are generally tolerant, excessive tail handling can irritate the skin. Handle your rat's tail gently and avoid unnecessary grasping or pulling. Never pick your rat up by their tail.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Ringtail in Rats

Diagnosing ringtail is usually straightforward. Veterinarians typically see this condition more often in young rats, but rats of any age may acquire it.

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and ask you about the rat's environment. Pet parents should be prepared to discuss their rat's age, diet, and previous health issues. Veterinarians will also want to know specifics about the enclosure, including type of bedding, temperature, and humidity.

In some cases, veterinarians may conduct additional tests to rule out other skin conditions. Those tests may include:

  • Skin scrapes to rule out external parasites such as mites or lice

  • Cytology to identify any additional infection

  • Fungal cultures to identify skin fungus

How To Treat Ringtail in Rats

The primary focus of treatment is aimed at improving the rat’s care and addressing contributing factors in addition to any medical treatment the rat requires.

  • Environmental changes: Use a humidifier to increase humidity levels to around 40–70%. Ensure proper ventilation to avoid respiratory issues. Consider using a hygrometer to monitor humidity.

  • Bedding changes: Switch to soft, safe bedding like Carefresh® Bedding or fleece fabric. Change bedding frequently to maintain cleanliness.

  • Diet changes: Switch to high-quality rat food, along with fresh vegetables and fruits. Avoid diets with seeds, as they can cause obesity and other health issues.

  • Hydration: Ensure your rat has constant access to fresh clean water. Consider a chew-proof water bottle instead of a bowl, to prevent accidental water spills.

  • Medications: Pain relievers such as Meloxicam® or antibiotics may sometimes be prescribed to manage pain and prevent infections. Omega-3 fatty acids may also be beneficial, but check with your veterinarian before adding new medications or supplements to your rat’s diet.

  • Surgical removal of the tail (amputation) becomes necessary only if the infection is severe or if the tail becomes severely necrotic (dead tissue) and cannot be saved.

Recovery and Management of Ringtail in Rats

Most cases of ringtail respond well to environmental changes and early intervention. Recovery usually takes several weeks and veterinary follow-up is crucial. Early cases are managed on an outpatient basis at home. More severe cases may require hospitalization.

If ringtail is not treated at all, it will likely lead to:

  • Amputation of the tail if the condition progresses          

  • Infection due to open wounds

  • Death, if the infection spreads to the rest of the body

Prevention of Ringtail in Rats

The most important thing a pet parent can do to prevent ringtail in their rat is to maintain proper humidity. Use a humidifier and hygrometer to keep humidity levels within the recommended range of 50–70%.

Choose your rat’s bedding wisely and opt for soft, non-absorbent bedding like Carefresh® or fleece. Change bedding regularly to avoid respiratory irritants and waste buildup. Ensure your rat has constant and ample access to fresh, clean water. Avoid excessive handling of the tail and avoid holding your rat by the tail.

By following these tips and monitoring your rat's health, you can significantly reduce the risk of ringtail and keep your furry friend in the best shape possible.


Leck, Susan, DVM ABVP. Veterinary Information Network. A Quick Reference Guide to Unique Pet Species: Rat Pet Care. January 2011.

Pollock, Christal, DVM, DABVP. LafeberVet. Basic Information Sheet: Rat. February 2010.

Saxton, Brandi. Lafeber Company. Why Rat Tails are Important. January 2024.


Lauren Jones, VMD


Lauren Jones, VMD


Dr. Lauren Jones graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 2010, after receiving her bachelor's degree...

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