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Choking (and Gasping in General)

I've successfully avoided writing anything on the topic of choking for 10 years because I figured everything was covered already anyway and I'd dealt with choking so few times that I really shouldn't even bother opening my yap.

But...It recently occurred to me that, much like dealing with advanced upper respiratory illnesses, what we may be doing (although with good intention) may not be in the rat's best interest.

So what this choking schpiel is about is intervention, or rather, lack of.

We humans think that consoling our furry friends during time of crisis is helpful. After all, if we're sick we generally enjoy the doting and attention. But rats aren't us. And I'm not trying to debate whether or not they have feelings and I certainly have no physiological evidence to prove whether or not they appreciate the attention, but I can tell you that when you try to be helpful by holding your rat when he's gasping (because he's having trouble breathing due to illness or blockage), you're actually just adding stress to his overall picture...or distraction.

In the case of severe respiratory illness, if your rat is gasping, constraint makes him (or her) even more tense adding to the stress of the situation. When you're having trouble breathing, the goal is to relax (it makes breathing easier). When rats are panicked, stroking them, consoling them, hugging them...that stuff makes him (or her) panic more (particularly the hugging - it makes them warm and it makes them feel trapped). When your rat is panicking, he (or she) is beyond reason and as such he (or she) is not comprehending of (or even tolerant of) your kind attempts.


If your rat has a respiratory illness, make your hands into a rat plate and be prepared for a dive (but don't cup him/her). Head over to your freezer and hold him in front of the open door. If the panicked breathing lessens, he's likely got a lot of fluid in his lungs so your next steps are to:

    1. Place him in a cage in a cool room/area and give him a piece of dark chocolate.
    2. Call your vet.
    3. Come home with 3+ weeks worth of antibiotics and, if your vet agrees with your assessment (wet lungs), a steroid or diuretic to help do something about that fluid.

The freezer test may fail. If the gasping seems to get worse, head immediately to your bathroom, close the door, and turn on the hot water and shower. If the cold didn't help, the moisture should. If the moisture helps, his lungs are too dry so your next steps are to:

    1. Set up a cage in the bathroom and run the hot water/shower for 20 minute sessions every 2-3 hours (or set up a humidifier by his cage)...and give him dark chocolate.
    2. Call your vet.
    3. Come home with 3+ weeks worth of antibiotics and, if your vet agrees with your assessment (dry lungs), a bronchiodilator (e.g. aminophylline) to help relax his breathing.

If your rat is choking you will see phlegm on his (or her) chin. He will look 'like he's dying.' Again, resist all desires to mess with him, console him, poke him, hug him, pet him. You must be strong! The only thing you do want to do is to raise his chin and check the coloration of his lower lip if the contorting and gasping behavior slows down.

In other words, if he's choking:

TIP: A choking episode usually lasts 20-30 minutes IF YOU DON'T INTERVENE! Really, rats choke a lot more than you see them choke! So if your rat is choking and he's not slumped on the ground barely moving, assume that your 20-30 minute clock starts at that moment in time and use that 20 minutes to get a bowl of water, a handful of swabs, and a print-out of the choking schpiel linked above (and READ IT!). They may go an hour or two. Once you get close to that two-hour mark, the rat's going to start to get tired and you will need to lift his chin every few moments to get him back on track (and to check for blue).

What's happening: Understanding what's happening makes it a bit easier to avoid panic yourself. They coat the obstruction with saliva and then they try to "cough" it up (all that weird body motion is them trying to move that thing around by flexing muscles in their throat - it's not truly a "cough" as we know it). Sometimes you'll see them jerking their neck or body around in weird manners - they're breaking up the obstruction, shifting the obstruction, moving the obstruction (up or down, they don't care). And that can be a slow process.

If you pet them or hold them or pick them up, you're distracting them and they stop "coughing." They are then using their energy to remain calm to show that they're OK. Choking uses a lot of energy so you want them to apply all they've got to eliminating the obstruction.

But, again, if he turns blue, that's a direct invitation for your help so be ready to quickly inspect and fling! You may also be able to see the obstruction by peering into his mouth. If you feel like you can swipe from right to left (or left to right) without shoving it back down his throat, you can take a dampened cotton swab and wipe from right-back to left-front (or left-back to right-front) to help pull it out. But he's better off doing it gradually himself (less chance for tissue damage, resulting infection, etc)....just don't let him get spooked (if he has crazy roommates, let him hang out on your couch or floor by himself for a bit or something). And yes, it looks ugly with the drool, the scooting, the weird body arching, the gasping....but if he's not turning blue, leave him be (just trust me on this).

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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:

    1) To entertain.
    2) To help avoid repetition of mistakes

  Remember! Your rat is not a science project, he is your friend!

All content contained herein © 1996-2007 by Andrew Waltz, Nathalie Baldwin, & the rats of RatRaisins, Inc.  
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