by Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun
Epilepsy is not common in rats. I know of only a few cases. In one of these cases, the owner discovered that the seizures were related to the amount of sugar in the rat’s diet. Even the sugar in an oral medication was enough to trigger seizures. As long as the rat’s diet was low in sugar, the seizures occurred less frequently.
Some seizures may be caused by a deficiency of magnesium. This was the case for one husky dog. A supplement of dolomite stopped his seizures. If you have a rat who has seizures, try giving him a magnesium supplement. The normal daily requirement for magnesium for a rat is 10-15 mg, so maybe start with that much, and if it helps slowly reduce the amount. If it doesn’t help, try slowly increasing it to 45 mg.
A local member, Robbie, rescued a family of rats with epilepsy who started having seizures at 3-4 months of age. She worked with Dr. Barry Dohner, our vet, who tried several medications. They found that phenobarbitol was the best treatment, but was not able to eliminate the seizures. The first dose actually made the seizures worse, so they tried a very low dose and gradually increased that to the dose that controlled the seizures the best, which was about 0.3 mg/lb 2-3 times/day. For Ben, the rat who had the most seizures to start (about 7 per day), the medication reduced this to 1-2 grand mal seizures a day plus numerous petit mal seizures. Dr. Dohner wrote a prescription so Robbie could buy 100 tablets at a time from Walgreens so she could buy them at a reasonable price.
More recently, in 2016, I received a report from Charla Price, whose old rat Oliver started having seizures. Acting on advice from a friend whose husband has epilepsy, Charla starting putting a drop of frankincense oil on the bedding in Oliver’s cage every day, and that seems to be preventing his seizures!
Housing an Epileptic Rat
The main danger of seizures to rats is the damage they can do to themselves when thrashing around. Here is how Robbie housed Ben to minimize his injuries. “The living area for a seizure rat needs to be as padded and soft as possible. Ben lived in a plastic bin, and I put window screen cloth over the top so that he would not catapult himself out if he were having a seizure, and used a bungee cord around the bin to keep the screen in place. I hung a water bottle hanger over the edge of the bin and then wrapped the water bottle and hanger with a disposable diaper so that he would not injure himself on that when he was having a seizure. (Rat Lady’s note: You could also drill a hole in the bin and hang the water bottle on the outside with just the sipper tube through the hole.) I used a plastic rounded-top igloo for his house. I just put his food on the floor of the bin so that there wasn’t anything else for him to hurt himself on. I was able to put another rat in with him and she learned to get out of the way and go inside the house if he started a seizure. Before I moved Ben to the plastic bin he had a seizure in a cage and got his head thrust through the bars and he ruptured an eye.
I had Ben out I tried very hard to keep a protective hand over him. If he
caught me off guard and started a seizure he would fly off my lap and his body
was flung about on the floor, hitting walls etc. We would let him out in the
bathroom to get some exercise, but once in a while he would have a seizure and
hit the walls. He lived to be 1 ½ years old.”
I know of one case of lymphoplasmatic meningitis in a 6-month-old rat. His symptoms included turning to the right, head tremors, and violent rolling seizures that increased in frequency over several weeks until they were almost constant. Encephalitis wasn’t suspected and the only antibiotics given were amoxicillin and enrofloxacin. Prednisone only helped temporarily. After he was euthanized, an autopsy found atrophy of the muscles on the right side of his face. The pathologist suspected a low grade bacterial infection that had spread from the inner ear.
Brain tumors and pituitary tumors can also cause seizures. I had a rat with a carcinoma of the cerebrum, probably of pituitary origin, who exhibited circling, poor coordination, and after several weeks, seizures. Treatment with Baytril and prednisone reduced the incidence of seizures for 2 months, so it might be worth trying treatment with prednisone for seizures.
I also know of one case where one side of a rat’s face, including the ear, suddenly began to twitch rhythmically. The twitching continued for several months and then the rat slowly developed widespread neurological impairment. When he finally died, an autopsy revealed a sarcoma tumor in the brain.
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