Barney's tale

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

The first symptom noticed was some sneezing. Barney’s caregiver thought he had probably just inhaled something bad smelling or irritating to cause it. After all, Barney was constantly sniffing around investigating his cage or exploring when he was out playing in his owner’s room. However, the sniffling and sneezing persisted and sometimes Barney would sneeze and snuffle continuously in prolonged bouts that appeared quite distressful to him. In other ways, Barney seemed to be his normal happy self. He enjoyed eating his food pellets and was eating his usual amount of food each day. He still loved to come out and play for a bit when his owner returned from school in the afternoon.

One morning when Barney crawled out from his little bed in the corner of his cage to greet his owner, he seemed to be having a hard time getting his breath. He was making very exaggerated movements of his rib cage, attempting to take in air. With these new signs of illness, Barney’s owner knew that help was needed. When she told her parents about the new developments, an appointment was made for Barney to be seen by a veterinarian.

Barney arrived at the animal hospital having travelled in a small pet carrier with some of the litter from his cage at home on the floor of the carrier. A bit of his food was in a small bowl in the carrier. When Barney’s appointment was made, the animal hospital receptionist had suggested these travel details and stressed the need to be sure Barney did not get a chill when leaving the house and during the car travel. Waiting for his examination, in the reception area, Barney sat in his carrier, near his owners, in a quiet corner of the room. These arrangements were important to help Barney experience a minimum of stress associated with his visit to the veterinarian.

The examination that Barney received differed very little from the examinations given to the other patients visiting the animal hospital on that day. In the examination room, with his owners nearby, Barney was taken out of the carrier and sat on the table. The veterinarian first asked some questions about the nature of the little pet’s problems and how he was behaving. This history taking is extremely important. A veterinarian is very dependent on an observant owner being able to supply accurate, pertinent information relating to the pet’s appetite, bodily functions, behaviour, signs and duration of illness and any other changes from normal. If anything, this kind of information is even more important with a pet like Barney.

Next, the veterinarian gave Barney a general physical examination. He weighed 670 grams, quite a healthy weight for someone of his species and age. His teeth were healthy and gums appeared normal. His eyes were bright, but a small amount of red staining and discharge was visible at the corners of the eyes nearest the nostrils. Similar appearing secretions were also noticed at each nostril. Barney’s owner had noticed these changes and thought it was blood accumulating in these places. In fact, the condition is known as red tears and had resulted from porphyrins secreted from glands located behind Barney’s eyes. Although not a disease on its own, red tears are often associated with an acute onset stress, such as that caused by pain or illness in animals of Barney’s kind. The most significant signs noticed on physical examination were associated with Barney’s respiratory system. Barney snuffled throughout his examination and was mildly dyspneic ( laboured breathing). Other findings on examination were unremarkable. Based on these findings, a diagnosis of respiratory disease was made. Respiratory disease caused by infectious agents is the most common health problem for his species. The two major syndromes that can result are called chronic respiratory disease (CRD) and bacterial pneumonia.

Barney was started on a course of antibiotics given by mouth. It will also be important to keep Barney’s environment clean and fresh to minimize ammonia levels in the cage. Occasionally other drugs, such as steroids and bronchodilators, are used in treatment. A favourable response to this therapy is expected. Unfortunately, depending a bit on the combination of infectious organisms involved, antibiotics may alleviate clinical signs of CRD, but not cure the disease. In such cases, therapy for flare-ups will be required. Barney’s owner took him home, very happy to be able to help her very special friend, her little hooded rat. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past pet Tales can be found at