Medical Corner: Choking

Mary Ann Isaksen
From the May/June 2000 Rat & Mouse Gazette

After a scary experience last night, I decided to drop you a note about choking. I fed my rats some nori seaweed, which they love. They love it so much that they steal it from one another. To keep it away from the others, one of my rats started eating her portion really fast and choked. She ended up needing veterinary attention because rats cannot vomit.

I was hoping you might include something in the Gazette reminding readers that rats can choke on any sticky food (such as nori or peanut butter), or on things that can be compacted, such as bread. I also wanted to mention that an emergency is not the time to try to find a good vet. The majority of vets I called did not have the expertise or equipment for treating rats. I would encourage your readers to find a vet skilled with rats before they need one.

I think my rat is going to be okay, but I wish I had been more careful. Thanks for considering the above.

~Harmony O. Meryt

Choking is not terribly common with rats. In fact, due to the arrangement of the rat's throat, true choking is rare, but it does occasionally happen and can be an extremely harrowing experience for the rat owner, not to mention the rat. For the most part, a rat who gets something caught in his throat will work it out given time. However, in rare instances, veterinary intervention is necessary to clear the obstruction.

Most often, when a rat has something caught in his throat, he is still able to breathe, and what you will witness will be the rat drooling and pulling his head back in a gagging motion (chin to throat), flattening his ears. Most people don't recognize this as choking right away and panic. But, once you recognize the symptoms, you can normally stay calm and try to assist your rat in clearing the obstruction, if he can't clear it himself. The first thing to do is to make sure the rat can breathe. As long as he can, your best option is to leave the rat alone and let him work it out himself, checking on him periodically to be sure the condition has not worsened.

If the rat cannot breathe, it is imperative that you assist quickly. You can try the Heimlich maneuver, pressing sharply up and in underneath the rat's ribcage in an attempt to dislodge whatever is stuck in the throat, but I believe this to be dangerous if performed by someone who does not know exactly what he is doing. Another method, which Debbie Ducommun of the Rat Fan Club calls "The Fling" uses centrifugal force. This, too, can be dangerous, and should be done very carefully. Debbie's method is as follows:

"Hold your rat firmly around the neck with one hand, and by the base of the tail with the other to hold her securely. Make sure there are no objects within an arm's length. Lift the rat overhead and bring her down in a rapid arc, so that at the end of the path she's tail up and head down. This can be repeated three to four times, then give the rat a rest, check her breathing, and see if anything is visible in the mouth. This is extremely effective in dislodging objects in the throat. However, do NOT use this procedure if your rat can breathe, or you might make it worse."

If your rat can breathe and you're patiently waiting for the rat to clear the obstruction on his own - stay calm. It may take several hours for him to be able to accomplish this. Most rats will clear the obstruction without assistance within one to four hours. My cutoff time for allowing the rat to do it on his own is at about 12 hours. I have only had this happen once many years ago. Big Mac McBurger, an Agouti Jumbo male who liked to chow down quickly, choked on a piece of dried fruit (apricot, I believe, part of a special premium mix I used to feed as a treat). After 12 hours I took him to the vet who promptly anesthetized him and cleared the obstruction by placing a tube down his throat. Big Mac was fine and I was able to take him home immediately. Chances are very good that you will never have to do this, but you should be prepared ahead of time just in case.

Think carefully about what you feed your rat. Although I have heard of rats choking on things such as pizza and bread, I have never had one of my own choke on these kinds of foods (and they've had plenty). The most common culprit is peanut butter, but anything that is thick and gooey, or things that can get very sticky are a threat. We all know how much rats love peanut butter, so if you plan to give your rat some as a treat now and then, either spread it very thinly on a cracker so that they do not get a glob of it in the mouth, or mix it up with some jam or jelly which will thin it out. I've found that my rats really love it this way, and I know that Diane Newburg even uses this method to get her rats to take a Baytril dose!

One afternoon, I fed my rat, Shoes, a bite sized Nutter Butter cookie, as a treat, before we left for the day. Unfortunately the peanut butter got packed all the way down her throat and up into her nose. Later, I found out from the vet that the cookie dries out their mouth and the peanut butter is already very dry, which makes this a dangerous combination. I believe that rats are unable to vomit, which make this situation that much worse. My husband and I found her very weak and struggling to breathe when we arrived home that evening around 6:00. We went to your website and searched for choking. Your information was great, so we took your advice and brought her to the vet. We stayed there for many hours with little improvement. The vet even took Shoes home with her that night, so she could keep a close eye on her. She died at around 2:00am. Please pass this warning about Nutter Butter cookies on to your readers. It may save someone else the agony and guilty feelings I experienced as a pet owner.

~ Elizabeth R. Swanson
(added August 2002)