Loving a pet is like nothing else. The bond we form with our fur kids is uniquely special and fills our lives with purpose. In a perfect world our pets would live forever, but having to say goodbye is a sad, inevitable reality. Loving an animal with a short life span, like a rat, means saying goodbye way too often. This year alone I have lost two of my boys. Undoubtedly, I will lose another before the year is over.
Saying goodbye is one of the things you really have to learn on your own when you start with rats. Intellectually you know that a creature whose life spans two to two and half years won’t be with you for long. But it takes firsthand experience to understand how quickly and fully attached you become to them during that time. By the time rats are seniors, you’re absolutely not ready for them to go. The time has been too short, and the impact of their loss is greater than you imagined.
So how do you deal with the emotional pain afterward? To be honest, one right answer to deal with grief does not exist. We all go through grief in our own way and at our own pace. It never gets easier. Here is what I’ve gleaned over the years that has helped me keep going loss after loss.
An Addition To The Five Stages Of Grief
I’m sure you’ve heard of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While I think they are applicable to losing a pet, I believe that one emotion/stage has been left out.
For decades owners have come to me seeking advice and affirmation after losing a rat. The thing I consistently hear from them is overwhelming sentiments of guilt. Guilt that they didn’t notice symptoms of illness sooner or at all. Guilt they didn’t have enough money for treatments. Guilt they didn’t euthanize their rat sooner or euthanized too soon. And even guilt over not spending enough time with their rat.
They aren’t alone either. I go through the same thing every single time I lose a rat. Guilt is a very powerful emotion that we carry like an anchor. It gets heavier every time we chastise ourselves over all the “what ifs.”
Learn From Your Pet Loss
What I’ve come to realize is that this process of guilt, as awful as it is, is totally unavoidable. Even when you’ve clearly made all the right choices for your rat. Yes, you may have missed some symptoms. Yes, extra or continued treatments may have prolonged your rat’s life. But that doesn’t mean you failed your rat. Even the most experienced rat owners miss symptoms, and some treatments aren’t financially feasible for anyone.
Because feelings of guilt seem to be intrinsically tied to losing a pet, I’ve learned it’s better to face this feeling head on and then analyze it. Run all the nagging “what ifs” through your head. When you’re done, list everything you did right for your rat. Seriously, it’s important! Learn from your choices, good and bad, and then apply your experiences to your other rats.
If money was a factor, start a savings account for future vet funds. If signs of illness are now coming to you in hindsight, it means you’re learning to spot them. Continue researching rat health and observe your other rats’ temperament and quirks so it’s easier to pick up on any changes.
Try to find some comfort in knowing that rats have a natural talent for hiding illnesses and ailments. It’s not uncommon to finally notice signs of trouble once it’s too late. It would be helpful if rats always told us when they are sick, but they just don’t.
Emotions From Euthanizing
You’re guaranteed to feel turmoil when it comes to euthanasia. Even when you’re quite experienced with the process, it’s impossible to feel completely at peace about it. Should you do it? Should you wait? Did you wait too long? Will they suffer? These are the mind-numbing questions that play on repeat in your head even after your rat is gone. Uncertainty easily melds into guilt and can turn into depression.
This horrible decision never gets easier, either. Even when you know, without question, that euthanizing is the kindest thing to do for your rat, self-doubt will whisper to you. It’s human nature to waver or regret choices we’ve made during difficult times.
If you’re facing this choice right now, discuss options with your vet and evaluate the quality of life your rat has left. Then listen to your heart. Most of the time you will know deep down what you should do. Trust your instincts. Then remind yourself later when you’re feeling guilty about whatever decision you made, that your choices were in your rat’s best interest.
Honor Your Rat
Depression is an awful part of grief. The depth and length of time it lasts is often dependent on how bonded you were to the rat. Some are harder to get over than others, especially if you lost a heart rat (a soulmate).
No quick fix exists for this, but finding a way to honor your friend can definitely help.
Back when I was producing It’s a Rat’s World magazine, I wrote a goodbye to every rat that I lost. Each one was different and highlighted the type of relationship I had with them. Sometimes I used the goodbyes to educate readers about rat illnesses or lessons I had learned from them. Sometimes they were comical and lighthearted, and other times they were sad and revealed the pain I was experiencing. But they all emphasized how each rat was special and why they would be missed.
I found it extremely cathartic to put my feelings to paper when I was facing loss. It’s almost like these goodbyes served as a diary. Over the years I have reread my goodbye articles, and I can’t help but smile when the memories of these amazing ratties come flooding back.
Now I create photo collages for my social media and write a short tribute to my rats when they leave. For years I’ve been making clay paw prints after a rat has passed away. There’s something about having a physical object from them that brings me comfort.
You can honor your rat in so many ways. From homemade headstones to tiny shrines in your house where their cremains are kept. You can keep clippings of their fur or whiskers and preserve them in something special like a tiny glass vial or an urn necklace. Urn necklaces are also perfect for holding tiny amounts of their cremains. You could also commission an artist to draw your rat or donate money to a rat rescue in their name.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice what you do. I highly encourage you to find some kind of memorial project to focus on. It keeps your rat’s memory alive, while being a welcome distraction.
Seek Rat Comfort For Pet Rat Death
If you still have other rats, turn to them for comfort. Don’t underestimate the power pets have in offering support. Spend some extra time loving on yours and remind yourself why you chose rats in the first place.
Remember The Life You Gave Them
Whether you’re a longtime owner or a newbie, once you’ve gone through your first rat loss, that short life span really hits you. Every time I lose a rat I question if I can continue doing this. I won’t lie, it gets very difficult to go through it again and again. I took a break once. It lasted all of two months before I broke down and adopted three baby rats. One of which became a heart rat so dear to me that I had him tattooed on my left shoulder and use his nickname for my Instagram. I felt gutted when he died. Had I not adopted him, I would have missed out on one of the greatest rats to ever live.
When you lose a beloved rat, I think it’s important to concentrate on all the ways you made each other’s lives better. Rats are so often mistreated, dumped, neglected, or used as snake food. So, when a rat finds its way into a loving forever home, that’s a win! Your rat most likely spent life with you being spoiled, cuddled, and fed yummy food. He or she got to be silly and naughty as they played. You probably got to teach a few people about the awesomeness that is rats. Knowing that I made a positive difference in each of my rats’ lives is probably the main thing that keeps me going through all the losses.
In the end, if your rat got to live a life being cared for, feeling safe, and being loved in a forever home, then pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Because I bet your rat was really thankful for all that you did.