Tiny Little Pawprints on my Soul

Winter

Winter

“RIP Winter. She was a good little rat. Loved her bananas and was the more brave and adventurous of my last two babies. She chattered contentedly in my hands and was calm when the vet took her from me.” This was the simple obituary that I wrote for Winter on my Facebook page this past Saturday.

Yes, my Winter was a rat of the rodent variety, and I made the decision to have her humanely euthanized this past Saturday.  I was able to hold myself mostly together and calm so that she would not be scared until the vet took her from me.  Then I sobbed like a little girl – huge wrenching sobs that shook my body.

Too soon, always too soon… Unless you’ve been owned by a domestic rat, you will not understand.

Gwen and Abby

Gwen and Abby

I adopted my first rats, Guinevere and Abigail, about 4 years ago from a military family being deployed.  I mostly went to see them because I was curious about rats. Because I am an animal lover, many people had told me that they thought I would really like their personalities.  I’ve had rabbits and guinea pigs and hamsters and, while I loved them and cared for them and played with them, I never really bonded with them in the same way as I have bonded with my cats and dogs.  Not to say that they didn’t provide me with love and enjoyment in their own squeaky little ways…  People just kept telling me that rats were different, smarter, quirkier, more interactive – that they were like dogs in rodent bodies.  All I kept going back to was “…but that TAIL… how do you get past that tail?”.

I set up an appointment with the family that had Abby and Gwen, fully intending to meet the two girls, see what my reaction was to the tail, and likely say thanks but no thanks.  That didn’t happen.  I didn’t even see the tail as they gave me sweet little rattie nose kisses and crawled into the pockets of my jacket, chattering away as rats do when they’re happy.  I quickly learned how much fun they are.  They are inquisitive, love being out with their human, have varied personalities and can actually learn tricks and be housetrained.  I kept their cage in my family room so that they would get to interact with everyone and interact they always did.  If there were people in the room, you invariably would see their tiny hands grasping the bars as their wriggly little noses and whiskers enticed you closer.  When I would have parties they were always a hit, winning rattie converts right and left.  At one party, a line of about 6 people stood arm in arm (you know, kind of like getting ready to do a can-can dance) and Gwen and Abby ran the length of everyone’s shoulders from person to person, stopping to tickle their ears with their whiskers or scramble on top of their heads for a rat’s eye view.

Unfortunately I learned all too soon the down side of rats – they only live about 2 years.  When Gwen died of respiratory failure only one and a half years after I got her, I was devastated.  And poor Abby seemed completely lost.  Rats are communal creatures and her forever friend was no longer around.  I adopted Summer and Autumn from Wee Companions Small Animal Rescue in Imperial Beach, California.  I figured that they could keep Abby company and ease my own pain when it became Abby’s time.  We brought Abby to the rescue house to let her meet other rats and see who she seemed to bond with.  She didn’t really jump for joy at anyone and seemed uncomfortable around rats her own size, but didn’t seem to mind the two babies.  The three never really fully got along but, as rats do, kept one another warm in their hammock and took turns cleaning each other when it was needed.

Summer and Autumn

Summer and Autumn

Summer and Autumn played constantly – little games of tag, or wrestlemania or redecorate the cage.  It was fun to put in various items – paper towel rolls, toilet paper, childrens and bird toys – to see what they did with them and where they put them.  One time they actually stacked paper towel and toilet paper rolls end to end from their food bowl on the bottom of their three story cage to the very top.  When they didn’t want the dogs to bother them, they took paper towel pieces and shoved them in the bottom rungs of the cage to create a little wall and then would duck down conspiratorially behind their little fortress, peeking over occasionally to see if the dogs were still watching.  Other times, they would entice the dogs over with little clicks and squeaks and then, when the dogs put their noses on the edge of the cage, they’d slam their little hands down on top of the exposed nose and titter gleefully when the dog leaped backwards in surprise. Of the two, Autumn was my special little girl.  She had a vestibular disorder that caused her to have a permanent head tilt.  It was as if she was constantly curious about what you were saying and you had the sense she was paying really close attention.  She enjoyed a good cuddle although she didn’t do a lot of running around on my shoulders since her balance was not good.  She died suddenly and too early, probably due to related issues.

Spring and Winter

Spring and Winter

Spring and Winter, my most recent pair, were an adoption from a couple that was moving to a smaller place and had accidentally had a litter they couldn’t house.  Hello! Don’t put a male and a female rat together ever.  They’re quick little buggers and can have litters of babies when they’re as young as 6 weeks old. They can have up to 10 litters of between 8 and 10 babies a year if left unchecked.  Yikes!  These were advertised as hairless rats and I was curious as to what hairless babies looked like.  The babies I saw (and adopted) had hair.  I am told that they are born naked, get some hair and then lose it later on.  They never did.  At this point I’m somewhat thankful for that since I became pretty attached to their scraggly furry little beings.  They’ve lived with me for less than two years but both developed mammary tumors (one of the most common causes of death in rats) about 3-4 months ago.

First off, there are very few vets who will treat exotics/rats. I’ve had to do some serious research to find good vets locally. The one that I currently use, I trust completely.  He was a recommendation from our own Dr. Edling, Director of Veterinary Medicine at PETCO corporate offices, but he sealed my own admiration when I saw how gently he handled my babies and how he seemed to know the right ways to put them at ease during his examination.  I’ve seen my share of vets that claim to treat rats and then seem freaked out at having to touch them. In checking over Winter and Spring, he commented that he has, in the past, tried removing the tumors surgically but that they invariably come back and more of them.  His best advice was to love Spring and Winter with all I could for the time that they have left and then to make the humane decision for them when it came to that point. I think it’s great that a veterinarian gave me love as a prescription…  Retroactively, he did mention that had I had them spayed when they were much younger, the chances of mammary tumors would likely have been reduced from 50% to 8% (http://www.ratbehavior.org/TumorSpaying.htm).

Spring died in her sleep about 6 weeks ago.  It was a blessing for her as her tumor was in a location that was causing her significantly more discomfort and distress than Winter’s.  While Winter’s tumor looked huge and uncomfortable, she didn’t seem to mind it and worked around it to go about her normal day.  She seemed to miss Spring and looked for her in her usual hiding places. She was more affectionate to me and eagerly came out for our nightly ritual of “where’s the ‘nana?”.  Increasingly, over the recent holiday week, she seemed to become more morose, rarely leaving her green fleece hammock.  I struggled desperately with the decision about whether it was “time”.  The last couple of days she only looked at me sadly when I asked her to come out of her bed and there was no happy chattering when we shared our banana.

I made the decision that keeping her alive was selfish on my part and inhumane. At the vet’s office, she leaned in to me and chattered quietly before settling to nap between the warmth of my hand and my chest.  I choose to believe that she was telling me that my decision was the right one for her.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop my tears nor how much I miss her little grey whiskery face, and it doesn’t plug up the hole in my heart where she had burrowed deeply inside. My rat cage stands empty for the first time in 4 years and, while I absolutely love having their tiny little pawprints on my soul, I’m not sure I’m strong enough to go through that loss so soon again.

Whatever the breed or species of your furry loved ones, in adopting them, we take on the responsibility to give them the best lives we can.  No matter how long they live, they always die too soon…

A lesson well learned is that rats (and dogs, cats, rabbits…) all live longer and healthier lives if they are spayed or neutered.  PETCO Foundation funds a variety of spay neuter programs nationwide, including those that work with rabbits, rats, ferrets and the like.  I intend to make a donation to PETCO Foundation today in honor of my sweet Winter.  I encourage you to do the same in honor of all the little souls that we can help to live a longer life.

(originally posted by me on PETCOScoop.com – 01/06/10)
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