Warmth isn't necessarily the best thing if your rat is gasping for air.
I'm not sure if I got confused or what, but when a human is sick, generally a human tries to keep the surroundings warm as one means of battling the illness. This trick does not apply for rats who are having a really hard time of breathing. Of course there are different kinds of sick rats so you'll have to use common sense, but if their illness seems to be pneumonia, if their sides are caved in and it seems that they are breathing from their belly rather than their chest, if their nose is clogged up and they're breathing through their mouth, don't use the heating pad, don't hold their chests in an attempt to keep them warm, and don't crank up the heater. Rather, give them a big towel, a small snug box, and, depending on the weather and temperature in the room, put a portable heater at least 6 feet away from them. Do check up on them often though and rub their skin so as to promote a little internal warmth.
When they are having problems breathing, it is usually due to a liquidy/phlegmy build-up in their throat, nose, or lungs. When they get really warm as they would with a heating pad, nearby heater, or simply an environment over 75 degrees Fahrenheit, this phlegm starts to thaw at a rapid rate, much faster than they are able to clear it out. Unlike humans, they can not cough, so they slowly try to draw such liquids out, be it through their nose, their throat, or by simply digesting it. In such a circumstance it is best to give them some kind of injectable antibiotic (such as Doxycycline) and let the cold try to run its course, checking on your rat frequently and making sure that his tongue stays wet so he remembers to drink and ultimately eat. More often than not they will survive the first few courses of the illness and although their health will rarely completely improve, they are still alert and functioning. If their environment is too hot and/or stifling, however, they will most likely drain enough that they will block their air passages until they are no longer able to breathe.
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Disclaimer: There are many non-sarcastic accounts and tips on the web regarding rat care. This is not
one of them. These are merely accounts of our experiences with rats, our perceptions of these experiences, where we've failed
and where we've succeeded. These accounts are here for two purposes: