by Karen Marcroft
Karen Marcroft is a volunteer with Rattie Ratz Rescue in the bay area of California. Each month KRL will be featuring a column from Rattie Ratz.
There is no doubt about it–the hardest part of keeping pets is saying goodbye. It comes too soon for all of our furry friends, but especially so for our ratties. This is the story of the “hospice” months for my three ratties. Warning: it may be a bit of a tear-jerker.
Cast of characters: Cortez was a neutered boy dumbo, the oldest and most mellow of my rats. I adopted him first and then quickly adopted two younger girls to keep him company. Yuba Girl was the smallest (and bossiest) of the three, and the “middle child.” Pearl was the youngest and went from baby to the largest of the trio during the time I had her.
We had many months of active happy rattie activities before the first signs of declining health started to appear. Cortez was first, but eventually all three developed progressive hind-end weakness.
As Cortez became weaker, I lowered the shelves in the cage he shared with the two girls to make the ramps less steep, so he could still get to the top level and snuggle with the girls in their favorite hammock. I lowered them more and more until it became clear he couldn’t resist climbing the ramps, but also couldn’t do it without falling. So I moved him to a single-level hospice cage. When he could no longer hold food in his hands to eat (because he couldn’t balance on his rear feet), I made “lab block mush” by soaking his dry food in a bit of water before giving it to him. I also discovered other soft foods that he loved (mashed potatoes and oatmeal, for example) and I started keeping a supply of baby food on hand for treats. He especially enjoyed the coconut water I fed him from an oral syringe.
In the last few days we had together, I spent a lot of time holding him and helping him get the best angle on his food dish to help him eat. I kept him as clean as possible with a washcloth soaked in warm water. Finally one sad morning, he clearly had an appetite and was trying to eat, but was just pushing the food around with his snout, and I knew he needed my help to go. I was lucky to be allowed to be with him in his last moments. He went to sleep easily and then we waited until we were sure he was gone. I was sad but also relieved–I had no question that it had been the right decision made at the right time, and that he knew he was loved and cared for at the end.
Almost a year later, the middle (and don’t forget, bossiest) rat started to show symptoms of hind-end weakness just as I was getting ready to move from California to Indiana. I considered re-homing both of the girls in California –after extensive research I knew that the only way I could take them with me was to drive them. In the end that’s exactly what I decided to do, bring them with me on a 2,500 mile drive across the country (maybe I’ll tell that story sometime!).
Just a few weeks after I moved them into their new home, Yubie started to decline more quickly. I followed the same progression with her that I had with Cortez–lowering shelves, providing a soft diet, and finally giving her a cage that was all one-level. When she appeared to start having trouble pooping one night, I knew that if she wasn’t feeling better by morning I would have a decision to make. When I woke up the next morning she was gone. She always wanted to do things her own way, so it was no surprise that she didn’t wait around for me to make up my mind.
One way to help surviving rats adjust to the loss of a cage mate is to show the rat’s body to the living cage mates. Rats do seem to understand death enough for that to help. Yubie and Pearl had never been what you might call “close” (finding ways to tease each other and inflict mild pain like nips to toes when they had the chance to sneak up from behind and underneath).
When I showed Yubie’s body to Pearl, she put her paw on Yubie’s face, gave it a little push, saw there was no reaction and then scampered off. With Yubie gone, Pearl stopped wolfing down her food. She started to drop some of her massive weight (almost 2 pounds!) and seemed generally more relaxed and happy than I’d ever seen her. Sometimes it’s not so bad to be alone in one’s old age – it really depends on the rat, so it’s important to let your rat show you whether it minds being alone.
A couple of months later, Pearl’s hind end weakness started and then progressed quickly. After a few months of lowered shelves, soft food and dragging her rather large self around by her front legs, it was clear she was within a couple of weeks of the end. I had to go out of town and didn’t feel I could put her through a car trip in that condition in the summer heat. I didn’t have anyone else I could ask to provide hospice care in this small town in Indiana, so I made the decision to euthanize Pearl at least a week too soon. Even though she would have long ago been dead by now if I hadn’t done that, I still sometimes feel guilty about factoring my own travel plans into that decision.
I loved them all and miss them all, but it’s that possibly premature decision with my last girl that I still question. However, I never second-guess my decision to bring the girls with me across country, or question my decision to care for them until the ends of their lives. It was hard at times, but it was the right thing to do. For me and for them.
Almost every human-pet relationship ends with the humans having to make health-care choices for their animal friends. It’s part of what you sign up for when you love an animal. If you find that you need support with that, Rattie Ratz can provide tips for making it a rewarding experience. For all kinds of animals, you can turn to the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care for support: www.iaahpc.org.
Check out this short video of Yuba Girl stashing edamame. Shows why I had one fat rat and one thin one: while Pearl was off dining on her first pod, Yubie was removing all evidence of the rest! Yuba Girl flattening herself.
If you would like to know more about Rattie Ratz Rescue you can visit their Facebook page. If you are interested in adoptable rats or volunteering for Rattie Ratz Rescue you can visit their website: www.rattieratz.com.
Check out more animal rescue stories in our Pet Perspective section & watch for more stories from Rattie Ratz every other month. We have several pet rat related articles this week to celebrate World Rat Day on April 4. Advertise in KRL and 10% of your advertising fees can go to Rattie Ratz.