Euthanizing a Pet Rat: A Veterinarian's Advice on Deciding If and When - Pilny

Anthony A. Pilny, DVM, DABVP

When it comes to euthanasia, the hardest part is deciding when....

Most pet rat owners will eventually face an emotionally painful and difficult decision to euthanize their beloved pet. Understanding the idea that euthanasia is right, necessary, and the most compassionate and loving decision you may ever make for your rat may be much easier than deciding when. All pet owners want to have the most time possible with their pet. However, we also want to make the decision for euthanasia before the rat is in distress, giving our rat the best chance for quality of life until the end. My cardinal rule is to never permit prolonged suffering – either by being too emotional or too selfish to accept that the time for euthanasia has arrived. This article describes the approach and decision making process from my point of view as the veterinarian. I can honestly say I know exactly how it feels, having personally been through the euthanasia decision process many, many times.

My approach is a blend of emotions, understanding, and medical training. When I know that a pet has a terminal condition, understand the course of disease, and know that medical options for successful treatment are not available, I can accept that euthanasia is the best option at that point. One of the most important parts of helping owners make these decisions comes from obtaining a definitive diagnosis of the rat's medical condition. This major point eliminates doubt, lessens guilt, and provides the owner with a higher level of comfort when making future treatment or non-treatment decisions. Not understanding why your rat is ill, why he or she isn't getting better, or simply being told euthanasia is the best option without good medical reason makes the entire experience so much harder than it has to be. Of course, we can't always have a definitive diagnosis, but a capable rat veterinarian can do a better job trying to reach one. Determining diagnosis can involve proper testing, medical therapies, and/or surgical procedures. Having a diagnosis can make a big difference during this difficult time.

Secondly, knowing that your rat has a terminal condition (e.g., cancer, kidney failure) means they are not going to get better. The time for euthanasia may be right then, or may be imminent. Or, from this point on, we can develop a plan for hospice care for a period of time. Determining the "right time" for euthanasia may ultimately be a personal decision. Some people just need a diagnosis to feel comfortable and others don’t wish to watch a pet decline further. Some may feel it is unfair to provide high levels of invalid care such as forced feedings or forced medications, long term fluid therapy, or new (likely unhelpful) medications. Others want to have as much time as they possibly can with their rat. However the owner proceeds, my rule here will be to offer a plan to insure NO PAINFUL ENDINGS. The rat should be put on a daily painkiller as needed and which is medically appropriate to ensure the highest level of comfort until the time comes. Your veterinarian can offer several options in light of your pet’s illness and condition.

Another consideration is making the decision before a crisis develops. Wanting to wait as long as possible needs to be balanced against making the decision before a significant turn-for-the-worst scenario occurs. No one wants an abrupt, crisis-type euthanasia. Crises may include: the pet becomes so distressed that euthanasia needs to happen ASAP, but it is now midnight, the emergency clinic is the only option, everyone is stressed and panicky, and the entire situation will be remembered with pain and guilt. Of course no one can predict when the time for euthanasia may arrive, but everyone can be educated and reminded of the issues to consider, to help decrease the likelihood that a crisis will happen. We also should not wait for a sign like stopping eating or crying in distress. Rats can be different than other pets in this manner; not all rats will signal that the time has come. This means we have to rely on our connection and understanding of them. We are privileged in that we can decide if our rat's quality of life is fading, or is almost gone. Many owners know when quality of life is gone; while others may need more guidance and understanding.

Lastly, I explain to owners that they should look inside themselves to decide what the rat would want based on his or her personality, and medical or physical condition. Some less social rats wouldn’t want to be handled, medicated often, force-fed, etc. Others who are very outgoing and social may increasingly want to be left alone. When most of the things that made the rat happy and joyful are gone, like not wanting favorite treats or to be scratched behind the ears, then one can know it is time. Your relationship with your veterinarian and trusting his or her opinions must always be considered. As your veterinarian, to help you decide, I will ALWAYS answer the question “What would you do if it was your pet?”

Being educated about the medical condition, knowing your rat, understanding the limits, and avoiding a crisis-type euthanasia are important considerations. They can help make the final decision to euthanize feel right. Having all of these in place gives us the best possibility to peacefully, compassionately, and lovingly say goodbye.

After we have humanely let our pet rat go, dealing with emotions can be difficult. Some people just need time, space, and support. Others may choose to seek bereavement counseling with a trained pet loss support counselor or meet with a pet loss support group. Still others may need to talk to the veterinarian or other hospital staff after some time has passed. Online rat groups can also offer support and empathy to help with common feelings of guilt. Understanding the stages of grief and healthy emotional reactions can lead to acceptance and ultimately peace. Choosing euthanasia is a most unselfish act of compassion and love. Making this choice may often be enough to ease your emotional burden.

Anthony A Pilny, DVM, DABVP
The Center For Avian and Exotic Medicine
562 Columbus Avenue
New York City

(Permission to host on granted by Anthony Pilny)
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