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by Alison Campbell

Historically within the rat fancy in the UK, quarantining of new rats (or post-show rats) has generally not been practised or considered necessary. Rat shows were generally seen as low risk affairs, as they were gatherings involving a moderate number of breeders to exhibit their rats. Rats attending shows were usually in the peak of health and physical condition and major outbreaks of infection were rare.

Over the past 10 years the nature of many rat shows within the UK have changed, in many ways for the better. The fancy has expanded and many pet owners now also enjoy travelling to gatherings with their rats. Shows have become social events, often involving large numbers of people and their rats. Many rats that attend these shows are not there to be exhibited, but to be enjoyed by their humans throughout the day and perhaps participate in some of the fun events that will be organised. These rats are often called shoulder rats.

Another major change over recent years is the free movement of rats around the country, often via shows and gatherings. Rats have always been transported in this way but never before in the numbers seen today. Many of these rats are rescues going to their new homes.

This progression within the fancy is in the most part positive and beneficial to all of the rats and humans concerned. However, with increased movement and socialisation of large numbers of rats have come increased outbreaks of infection. These are by no means limited to rats that attend shows. The movement of any rats from unknown sources into established colonies poses a significant infection risk, and transfer of infection will always continue to occur randomly, perhaps during a visit to the vet or via other animals we have had contact with.

Within the current climate in the UK rat fancy it is wise to at least consider the need for quarantine in a number of situations.

Bringing home new rats
If you source your rats from a reputable breeder who you know practices sound quarantine restrictions then you probably don’t need to quarantine them, unless you collected them at a show – in which case the post show considerations (below) will apply. If you bring in any rats from an unknown background, pet shop, rescue that doesn’t quarantine or breeder that doesn’t quarantine, you would be wise to consider quarantining those animals prior to introducing them to any other rats.

After a show/gathering
If you attend a rat show with your rats they will obviously (potentially) be exposed to any pathogens (micro organisms that cause disease) that are present at the event. In view of this you may wish to consider quarantining these rats on return, rather than exposing all of your rats to any possible illness.

Transporting, fostering, holidaying
Many of us from time to time have visitors to our homes in terms of rats. These might be rats we are involved in moving to their new homes, rats needing short-term foster care, rats on holiday or similar. Unless you can be absolutely sure of the background of these rats, and can make an infection risk assessment then it is wise to treat them as a risk to your own rats.

How to quarantine
A complete quarantine is only possible when you keep the rats that are a risk in a completely separate air space to your own rats for example a garage that isn’t accessed via the house, or the home of a rat-less friend. For many people this simply isn’t possible, and puts them off quarantining at all. In reality, any attempts at quarantining are better than none and will decrease the likelihood of infection being transferred.

Principles to follow:

  • Keep the two groups of rats in separate rooms, and in rooms that are as far apart form each other as is possible.
  • Do not free range the two groups in the same area of the house.
  • Do not move equipment from one group to the other.
  • Always visit the ‘clean’ group first, and then the group that might pose the risk.
  • After visiting the potentially infectious group always change and wash carefully/shower before visiting the clean group again.
  • Keep the doors to the rooms you have rats in closed. A fitted draught excluder on the base of the door will keep air movement to a minimum when the door is closed.
  • Ventilate the rooms well. Keep a window open as much of the time as is possible.

Quarantining your own colony
There are times when your own rats pose an infection risk to other rats and will need to be quarantined in the sense of keeping them at home and having no contact with other rats, or allowing other people who own rodents to come into contact with them.

Any time your rats are exposed to a potential infection threat you should quarantine them for a two-week period to ensure that they remain well.

Any time that you have a rat suffer from an acute infection (that is where the rat has been generally well and suddenly becomes ill, or a rat with a chronic condition suddenly becomes much worse), you should immediately impose a quarantine restriction on yourself. If the rest of your rats remain well for a two-week period then the quarantine can be lifted. If any more of your rats become ill then the quarantine should be maintained until two weeks after the last rat recovers/dies. The only exception to this is if you have litter of babies within your colony at the time of the infection. Then you should maintain the quarantine for at least 4 weeks after the babies are fully weaned, or two weeks after the last rat to be sick in your colony recovers/dies (whichever is longer). This is because babies have increased passive immunity from antibodies in the mother’s milk, and may not become sick for a few weeks after weaning.

When to impose quarantine on yourself

  • Whenever you bring in a rat from an unknown source; a rescue, pet shop rat, rehome of uncertain background, or breeder rat from a breeder who does not quarantine routinely.
  • After attending a show or gathering with your rats.
  • Whenever you have a rat suffer from an acute infection (that is where the rat has been generally well and suddenly becomes ill, or a rat with a chronic condition suddenly becomes much worse), or you have a rat die unexpectedly.
  • Following one of your rats visiting your vet.
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