Anything For A Beloved Rat

The difficult part of being a veterinarian is dealing with end-of-life issues. It is, after all, inevitable. In general, people will outlive their pets. Is it difficult for owners to watch their pet age before their very eyes? Yes. It also is difficult for the veterinarian.

Tina brought in her 2-year-old rat Oscar for a physical exam. It was his first visit to our hospital, which is not unusual for a rat. Most dog and cat owners come in once or twice a year, but for exotic pets it can be a bit more sporadic. I listened intently as Tina shared her story about her special relationship with Oscar. All the while, I occasionally glanced at Oscar in his travel cage to make an initial assessment of his condition.

“He was a graduation gift from my father. I was not allowed to have pets growing up because Dad was allergic to cats and dogs. I think Dad felt bad, so he got Oscar for me. We’ve been best buddies ever since,” recanted Tina.

“It’s not usual to be allergic to pets,” I admitted. “I myself am allergic to cats, dogs and rabbits.”

Tina looked puzzled. “But you’re a veterinarian … that must make it difficult for you.”

Smiling, I replied, “I do what I can to sacrifice myself for my patients.”

I know. It was a cheesy response, but Tina laughed along with me.

Looking at the travel cage, I said, “It looks like Oscar is having difficulty breathing. Did he always breathe that way?”

“Actually, that’s why we’re here. He started to breathe hard about a week ago. It hasn’t gotten any worse, but it hasn’t improved either.”

After doing a physical exam, I explained to Tina that rats get a respiratory infection that can be quite serious. She went home with Oscar and two different antibiotics. The medications were in liquid form and fruit-flavored, which helped with administration.

Two months later, Tina returned with Oscar. The antibiotic treatment worked initially, then his breathing worsened. We switched to a different antibiotic, which worked for a month before Oscar’s clinical signs returned yet again.

“Doc, I’m really worried,” whispered Tina. “This time I saw red spots on Oscar’s bedding. I think he’s now coughing blood.”

I nodded in agreement and told Tina that Oscar’s respiratory condition is progressing. We were out of treatment options, unless she was willing to try something considered experimental at the time.

“You don’t understand, Doc,” she said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help Oscar.”

The thing is, I did understand, and it tore me up inside.

Tina went to a local pharmacy and picked up a nebulizer. Twice a day she would nebulize a strong antibiotic into a chamber with Oscar in it. Oscar didn’t feel any pain, and would just walk around in the antibiotic mist that was created.

The treatment was a success, and Oscar stopped coughing up blood. In fact, he lived another nine months before passing away. Tina was in tears when she brought him in, but through her anguish she thanked our hospital for helping Oscar reach his third birthday. Tina told us just how special he was to her.

She didn’t have to. We knew.