By Sandra Conti- Todd of Allexperts.com
Safety with surgery
We all fear it, but every rat owner, at one time or another, is going to hear the dreaded words from the vet: Your rat needs surgery!
Be it a tumor, a cesarean section, or perhaps even elected surgery such as a neuter or spay, which experts highly recommend spaying female rats between 3 and 5 months old in order to prevent the growth of mammary tumors that are usually fueled by high estrogen levels after estrus cycle ends around 18 months and older. Sometimes a nasty infection of the eye that cannot be controlled requires enculeation. Some rats even have to have a limb amputated because of a severe fracture that cannot be repaired, cancer of the bone , etc..and so on. There are many reasons why your rat may need surgery but many reasons why you need to make sure the vet you have is well prepared to operate on your rat.
Many people come to me and tell me that their rat needs surgery but they are terrified because they either lost a rat during surgery or know someone that has. Even their own vet tells them its dangerous to operate on rats due to their small size. I have even lost my own beloved double rex rat due to complications several days after the surgery. Some of these deaths are natural. The rats vital organs were not able to handle the surgery. Perhaps they had a bad heart or bad lungs. Perhaps they had bad liver. This is a major cause of death from anesthesia. However, complications are caused by error and poor judgment and most of all, lack of experience, knowledge and the biggie, lack of PROPER sized equipment for the small mammal.
Unfortunately, there are not very many exotic vets to go around. Why do we lack these vets who are so valuable to our rats health? There is a brand new specialty which is titled "Exotic companion mammal specialist" and although I was so excited to hear that our small mammals would FINALLY have a vet to call their own (up until now there has never been such a thing as a small mammal vet, or a so called "rat vet") The sad truth is, many vets are not interested in pursuing this specialty and bothering with the internship and the state boards they have to pass in order to become certified as an exotic companion mammal specialist because there are not many people that own small mammals seeking medical attention for their rat or other small pet. Those of you that are reading this are saying out loud "I will go! I want this kind of vet!" and I know hundreds more just like us that say the same thing.....but the Vets don't realize just how many of us there are out there willing to bring our rats in to see the vet, as long as the vet knows what he is doing and isn't a waste of hard earned money and isn't more of a threat to my rats health than he or she is of any real help.
So, what is going on? What is up with all of these vets that see exotics? They are simply trying to help, but the truth is, many of them are not skilled, equipped or knowledgeable to treat these little pets and cause more harm than good.
Lets start with anesthesia. There are two types of anesthesia that is very safe for use on small mammals. Isoflurane and sevoflurane. Iso is less expensive than sevoflurane but sevo is a little bit different, a little bit safer because they wake up a little bit easier. But either one is safe enough for use with our rats. So......why do rats have a chance of dying while under anesthesia if its so safe?
It is not properly dispensed and monitored with the correct equipment. Blood pressure, body temp and heart rate should be monitored every single second the rat is under. Failure to do so can result in death of the animal. This is why there are complications during surgery. If there is trouble with an artery that is bleeding the vet needs to have the proper implements to clamp it and be able to stop the bleeding.
Some vets have the misconception that rats, like dogs and cats, should have their food withheld after midnight before surgery. If you are told to do this by the receptionist, chances are she may not be aware of the fact you do not do this for rats so just ignore it. However.... if the vet told you this, cancel the surgery. He doesn't know enough about rats to be trusted to operate or in fact, do much of anything else for the rat either.
With rats, holding food before surgery will
deplete their energy reserve. This can cause low blood sugar,
dehydration and when the rat is starting to dehydrate, this leads to hypothermia
(low body temp that drops fast) this can turn into a serious and often
fatal complication for anesthesia. Vets may not realize this and they
just say the rat died from complications because he or she couldn't
handle it due to their small size. Chances are most of the time if the
vet retraces his steps backwards, the fatal error will surface. Do
they want to do this and risk a possible law suit (which in most cases
the client wont win anyhow)
Body temp and heat. Big big deal when its a small mammal.
Many traditional vets are used to dogs and cats, who do not drop body temp half as fast as small mammals do.
the rat is under general anesthesia, their body temp drops and they
cannot regulate it on their own. After they are awake, it takes
several hours before they are capable of producing their own body heat
and regulating their own temp. This means the rat is in danger of
hypothermia, which is anesthesia induced, another complication from
anesthesia that can be prevented if the vet has experience with small
mammals. The rat is so tiny so they need to be warm during and after
surgery. If the vet is indeed the right vet for your rat, he will have
a way to keep the operating table warm, alot of them even use a hot water pillow
during surgery or heating pad which is all acceptable, while some even have a more fancy table that gets warm
by controls. After surgery, the properly equipped vet will keep your
rat in a temperature controlled incubator or on a heated pad etc...and should NOT be released
until he or she is able to regulate their own body temperature. Too
many rats die from hypothermia because the general vet did not realize
this about rats and their body temp and its a shameless, unnecessary
death for certain, it should never be allowed to happen.
My advice to you is to ASK QUESTIONS! Ask the vet how many SUCCESSFUL surgeries he or she has done.
Here are some things to look for to be sure your rat will have the best available to him during and after surgery to help ensure their safety.
1. Anesthesia: The ONLY anesthesia that is safe for small mammals is either Isoflurane or sevoflurane.
2 Pre surgical exam: Be sure your rat has a complete physical exam and lab work such as a CBC, plasma chemistry panel as well as a urinalysis which is advised when dealing with older rats.
3. Proper equipment: Be sure your vet has the proper equipment to monitor the rats vital signs. Not all vets that care for rats are equipped with fancy instruments and to be fair, they have successful surgeries without all the fancy hype. However, it is plus should they be equipped with small scale implements that are found more at an all exotic clinic than they would be found at a general practice mainly because it simply is not cost effective. This in no way means your rat will be at risk without the fancy stuff, but as I said, its an added place. This includes a pulse oximeter that is adapted for small mammals. Doppler units can be used to monitor blood pressure. An EKC monitor can also be used but the alligator clips are not sufficient for the small mammal and small needles can be used instead. The equipment must be able to measure heart rates as fast as 300 to 400 bpm. Body temp can be measured by use of a rectal thermometer. The rat is asleep, so he wont be mad about that unless you tell him :)
Clyde, my newest baby that I am ready to adopt.
4. Controlling body temperature: Again, here were are about body temperature. I cant stress enough that it
is VITAL to provide warmth during
procedures requiring anesthesia. Thermal water blankets used for small
animals will work well for small exotics. Heating pads can be used, thermal beds, thermal water pillows/blankets. When the rat is recovering it should be done in a temperature controlled incubator / isolette if possible,and body temp is checked until the rat is able to sustain his own body temp and it is at a normal level.
5. Pain medication: Although the rat is given narcotic pain medication before surgery, it is important he or she is kept out of pain during recovery as well. Pain causes stress. Stress weakens the immune system. A weak immune system hinders recovery. There is NO REASON for the rat to be sent home without pain medication. Some vets feel if the rat feels too good from the pain medication they will "over do it" which is foolish. Rats arent stupid. They know when they move a certain way it hurts and they will stop moving the way that hurts them. Metacam is ok to use but its not much better than advil which reminds me, its wise to avoid advil, ibuprofen or tylenol because of the chance it can cause bleeding.
6. Stitches: This brings me back to pain medication again. If the vet is going to pull the stitches too tight, the rat is going to pick at them. If the vet is paranoid about pain meds, the rat is going to pick the stitches with the assumption that the stitches are causing pain. Again the key is to avoid pain and I promise he wont pull the stitches, staples or pick at the surgical glue.
7. Cage mates: The vet may suggest not to put the rat back with his cage mates. For the first 24 hours this is ok, but after that, do it. If you don't, the rat will be stressed from not being with his family and this hinders recovery. In all of my experience I have never seen or heard of a rat mauling another rats incision unless you have a huge mischief of rats that are aggressive and if that is the case, you need to separate them into smaller groups regardless.
8. Antibiotics: This is not something to ignore. Surgery is invasive. The body is being opened, germs from the outside are getting in. If your rat isn't given antibiotics post op, chances that he or she will end up with some form of infection is high. I know alot of vets frown on this but I cant tell you how many letters I get from people that have a rat with a nasty infection even from a very simple tumor removal that needed just a few drops of glue to hold the incision shut. A round of antibiotics for 5 days is not going to hurt! Benefits outweigh the risks.
For info on finding the right vet, please go to this page:
The right vet for your rat