My Rat Wuzzy
I offered to write a blog series for Omaha.net on the health and veterinary care of dogs, but right now, all I can think about is my two year old rat, Wuzzy.
Wuzzy has been bleeding for a couple of weeks. We just located the source of her bleeding two days ago and have set her up for major abdominal surgery two days from today.
Fuzzy and Wuzzy are our female Hairless Dumbo Rex Rats. Dumbo because their ears are larger than normal and on the sides of their heads instead of the top. Rex because if they did have hair, it would be curly. All they’ve got are whiskers, and they look as though someone set them with a tiny curling iron.
When we adopted Fuzzy and Wuzzy, we also brought home their littermate, Cookie Roo. She was a gift for our niece’s birthday (notice the lack of the words petstore or surprise in that sentence.)
One of the first nights the three baby rats were in our home, they became chilled, and we woke up to three unconscious rats. Russ rushed their habitat to me and said, “Something’s wrong with the rats! Do something!” I never use exclamation marks when I am quoting Russ. He is steady. He is calm. He is my voice of reason. He was not calm, he was desperately worried, and for good cause.
The three fastest physical examinations I have ever performed revealed that none of the three rats were breathing, and Baby Wuzzy did not have a heartbeat. I was sobbing. I picked them up one by one and did mouth to nose resuscitation. I rotated through the three of them, and when I got to Wuzzy, I also gently pumped her tiny ratty heart. Whoosh…pump, pump, pump, pump, pump…woosh…pump, pump, pump, pump, pump…next rat. Russ watched for a few cycles like he was watching double dutch jump roping and then jumped right in.
In between ratty breaths I said, “Time us!” Sadly, I knew that if we had to perform CPR for longer than five minutes, the prognosis of our three little friends would seriously worsen. And I had NEVER successfully performed CPR on a patient without a heartbeat. But these were our new babies. Three days in, and we were already in love.
Fuzzy started breathing first, then Cookie Roo. I ignored the time constraints I had asked Russ to make sure I respected and cradled Wuzzy in my cupped hand, trying to warm her and also convince her little cardiovascular and respiratory systems to restart. Before each set of heart pumps, I would gently feel her little chest on each side with my thumb and first finger, and after several minutes, I felt the faintest little flutter. With renewed energy, I sent Russ to warm Fuzzy and Cookie Roo and kept up with the mouth to nose on Wuzzy Rat. Slowly she started breathing on her own and then looked up at me with her beautiful beady eyes, and…rats don’t smile, but…heart-to-heart she smiled at me, and then laid her exhausted little head down in my hand, and we went to join Russ and her littermates in the much less scary, and much slower paced, rewarming and rehydrating processes.
While we were reviving the rats, I was completely, obsessively focused. Afterwards, I held them each individually and apologized for not understanding their metabolic needs well enough to know they needed more warmth than a heated house. They needed more help eating and drinking than we assumed they did. In hindsight, we realized they were much younger than we had thought. Probably only three weeks old, and not completely weaned. And while adult hairless rats can usually do just fine without supplemental heat, baby hairless rats are still developing their thermoregulatory systems and need help. I felt horrible and negligent, yet those intense and valid emotions were so overshadowed with relief that I was, in the end, holding three happy, goofy baby rats, and the memory of that morning now is a very good one.
That was a Sunday morning two years ago. I remember it was a Sunday morning because one hour later we had to leave for church, and I was NOT going anywhere without our rats. So all of Westwood Church was honored by the presence of three baby hairless rats, who just earlier that morning, had all been dead. I have rarely been more emotionally exhausted than I was that morning. I didn’t care what anyone thought; I hovered over them and monitored them the entire morning. Turns out, what people thought was that the rats’ survival was cause for tremendous celebration. They were just as relieved as we were that the babies were OK, and kids and adults alike came in a steady stream to check on us and check on our rats. I love our church family.
Two weeks later, our niece received her birthday rat, but it was several months before we were able to tell her of Cookie Roo’s scary start.
Over fifty of the church’s preschool children and all of their teachers later came to my veterinary hospital in a daylong parade of tours to see Fuzzy and Wuzzy again.
Fuzzy and Wuzzy have spent a morning at a daycare where forty toddlers each gave them one Cheerio and either held or petted them, depending on the comfort level of each child. I believe that was one of the happiest days in the lives of my rats.
They have been to eight sessions of Camp Kindness, the Nebraska Humane Society’s summer kids’ camp, and are scheduled for four more sessions this summer. While I stand in front of the grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers and go on about the importance of doing well in science on the noble path of becoming a vet, the kids are all completely elsewhere, spellbound and enamored of my gorgeous rats as they pass them carefully around the entire room. It is one of the few times I don’t mind being ignored because I know that they will remember these gentle creatures far into adulthood and are learning lessons I could not put into words.
Two days ago, Russ, who was in the middle of paying bills for the week, and also feeling pretty crummy because of his rat (and cat) allergies, said “lifespan” and “rat” and “cost” to me.
Let me explain that in context so you understand just how great Russ is.
My youngest daughter had just discovered the source of Wuzzy’s bleeding. The mysterious spots we had been finding were not porphyrin staining from the tears or nasal secretions of Fuzzy or Wuzzy, as we had assumed. If rats are stressed for any reason, physical or otherwise, they often produce tears containing a pigment also found in red blood cells called porphyrin. It is often mistaken for blood, even by experienced veterinarians and rat owners, but is a very different substance. When I see porphyrin, I look for stressors.
So, we had been looking for what could be stressing Fuzzy and Wuzzy. We had been hyper-vigilant about their habitat cleanliness, thinking that ammonia levels may have been an issue. We had discussed “quiet time” with the dogs. We had tweaked their diet, increased their treats, and watched their water bottle levels to make sure they were drinking adequately. It turns out that this time, the redness really was blood, and the source was Wuzzy’s reproductive system.
As I processed the mortality of my little friend, and the seriousness of her condition, Russ let me do so, but also gently steered my processing.
I said, “Hairless rats live eighteen months, and Fuzzy and Wuzzy are twenty-four months old.”
Russ said, “Do not consider their lifespan. Tell me if surgery could give Wuzzy more quality time.”
I don’t know if it will, but it could. And I had fallen into the trap every pet owner of a senior pet falls into. I equated a lifespan with a death sentence. A lifespan (and even an estimate of the time an ailing patient has left to live) is not set in stone. It is a Best Guess of a Fallible Doctor. It is an average. Every average has outliers. Most average lifespans of our pet friends are steadily increasing as husbandry and medical knowledge improve. And Wuzzy is not your average rat. She is not even your average hairless rat. She is Wuzzy.
At that, I said, “Wuzzy is a rat.”
Russ said, “Would you do the surgery if Wuzzy were a dog?”
I was completely indignant and even yelling at this point. “I am not saying Wuzzy is worth less than a dog! I am not saying…”
Russ said, “You know surgery would be warranted for this condition in a dog. Do it for Wuzzy.”
I said, “I need to find out how much this is going to cost.”
Russ said, “Find out how much it will cost, and we will make it work. Let’s decide now if this is the best thing for Wuzzy, before we know what it costs, so we are careful to make the decision apart from finances.”
I realized today that I am as depressed by the necessity to think through every angle of Wuzzy’s illness as I am about her illness itself. My compassion for pet owners has once again grown, and my judgment has quieted a bit more. This is really hard.
Russ and I have decided that surgery can be done with minimal pain, could provide a diagnosis, and could possibly treat or manage Wuzzy’s condition. We have decided to pursue diagnosis of Wuzzy’s condition, and if it is possible, treatment. I am telling you this now, because I have not yet heard back on Wuzzy’s estimate, and her surgery is still in the future. I am telling you this now because I think it is important you know I wouldn’t only tell you this story if it had a happy ending.
I know you have waited before at the beginning of a scary medical journey, yours or another’s, and being here is not fun. It’s easy to tell a silly story about a silly rat. It is more difficult to say that I am starting a medical journey with a good little friend and I am scared because I don’t know how it ends.
Working through what we value is important, though I know we will each have a different set of priorities and treasures. Hopefully the different aspects of this strange little tale of my strange little pet will help gently walk you through strange parallels in your own life, much the same way that passing Fuzzy and Wuzzy around the room at a summer camp helped children in ways I couldn’t quite articulate. At the very least, you can say “a hairless rat, well that’s weird.”
And honestly, I have always loved that reaction, too.