Thursday, April 3, 2014

"No offense, but it's just a rat."

No offense, but it's just a dog.

Most people, even animal lovers, aren't "rat people." I get it. Really, I do. Bald tails and bulging eyes aren't exactly features that overwhelm most people with the urge to snuggle. Guess what? Neither is drool, bad breath and the insatiable craving to eat cat poop.

Frankly, I'm a cat person to the extreme. I just don't get dogs. They're messy. They're smelly. They're needy. They hump the neighbor's leg. I do not fear them. I will pet one (and enjoy it) if it doesn't try to assault me. I've even been known to become attached to them if they're living in my home. I treat them with respect as long as they acknowledge that I am the Alpha Bitch and they don't pee in my shoes.

What you will not see me do is denigrate a dog person's love and concern for his friend by saying, "It's just a dog." I think it sometimes, really I do, but frankly a buddy is a buddy, and we all tend to treat our pets like children, worry over them, shower them with love and presents--no matter how revolting that pet is to other people. If an earnest dog-mom tells me Junior is sick and must go to the vet, I never question whether her love-muffin is worthy of medical care. She loves him, he loves her, he trusts her to take care of him. That's what pet ownership is all about. Pets aren't possessions. They aren't disposable. They aren't accessories that go in and out of fashion and end up in the back of the closet. We don't own them. We partner them. We parent them.

Even if it's "just a rat."

So, how does a fanatical Cat Lady turn into a Rat Lady? Am I bi-polar? Do I have multiple personalities? Was I on drugs? Er... a tentative "no" to each. I'm pretty sure I was of sound mind and body when I made the decision. The roots go back, way back to prehistoric times--you know, my college days. My boyfriend at the time, bless him, worked at a pet shop and "saved" a sweet little mouse from being fed to an African toad. I think it was my birthday present. I wasn't absolutely thrilled (I already had a cat) but it was indeed the cutest little guy and I remembered a mouse I had as a girl (named Captain Midnight). I had no recourse but to fall in love with him. I named him Mike. Mike turned out to be a girl. Mike also never stopped growing.

Mike was a baby rat.

When I moved back in with my parents, my mother forbade me to bring Mike with me. The first of many clues that the average person not only doesn't "get" rats but the majority downright loathe them. They tolerate (to varying degrees) pet mice, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs (ugh) but believe the outrageous slander that rats "carry disease." (FYI, although rats can carry strep, they don't generally pass it to people unless bitten and not always then. Also FYI "cat scratch fever" is a real thing, and about as common as rat bite fever. Rats do not carry plague. Fleas carry plague. If your rat is healthy and you keep its cage clean, you aren't in any more danger of becoming sick than you are from your dog [which is much more likely, since he's exposed to parasites every day just by walking around outside, on or off a leash, that can infect you.]) Anyway, Mike lived another year or so with the boyfriend and died of a tumor, which ends that story.

Fast forward to 2012. My beloved 15 year-old cat died of heart disease after a lingering illness. I was devastated. I wanted another cat desperately but we have a full household and other things stopped me, too: what if I ended up with one like my mother's (named Mouse, go figure, and an unfriendly tyrant)? Once adopted, you're beholden. You are that pet's mother. Besides that, I was still reeling from my loss, still looking over my shoulder for him, still feeling the pain of my frantic attempts to save him, watching him waste away and then the horrifying decision that I had to let him go. I didn't want to risk getting attached. I needed a little something superficial to fill the void without the danger of falling in love. I needed a 2 a.m. pet, so to speak, something to cuddle with and shower with affection when I was feeling lost and down but with no commitment and no danger of heartbreak. I thought a rat would be perfect. At full growth, they're about the size of a six week-old kitten. They're furry and warm. And of course...

No offense, but it's just a rat. How could I get attached to a rat? A rat should be safe enough...

Did you know that rats "purr?" I didn't. Or rather, I didn't know that was what Mike was doing way back when. I knew nothing about caring for a rat in college. I was a kid and I winged it. Now, I'm an adult and of course I research everything to make sure I'm doing it right. So I stumbled upon an article about "bruxing." That's what rats do when they're happy: they grind their teeth together. It sounds (and feels) as if they're chewing on a seed but there's nothing in their mouths. When a rat is truly content, he bruxes, just like a truly content cat purrs.

They also hiccup.

The first time Squirrel hiccuped uncontrollably, it worried me. He was just a baby and I was convinced he was getting sick. But he only did it when I was petting him. Squirrel is by nature very shy, so then I wondered if it was caused by fear. Maybe he was really afraid of me? More research confirmed it was natural, and many rats hiccup when they're excited and happy. Well, then... Have you ever held a warm little baby fuzzball that loved you so much he hiccuped with excitement every time you pet him? Have you?

The technical term for a baby rat is a "kitten." I do not wonder why.

Rats will groom you. Like with cats, it's nurturing behavior, but without the raspy tongue. Tiedye is a groomer. He likes to lick. He also leans into my hand when I scratch his ears and cheeks, closes his eyes and "purrs." He enjoys petting so much that if I'm giving Squirrel attention and ignoring him, he'll waddle over and push right under my hand to get between us. "Enough, Mom.  It's my turn."

Tiedye is supposed to be my daughter's rat, but since I'm the one who cares for him, loves him daily, talks to him and worries over him, I call him mine. Considering that I discovered (too late!) that I'm highly allergic to rats, that makes my willingness to do all these things that much more important. I do my best to make sure they feel as loved, wanted and respected as any of our other pets, despite my handicap and despite the requirement that they live in a cage.

Tiedye is my lump. He's bread pudding, warm from the oven. Yes, I'm attached.

And now, Tiedye is sick. His hind legs won't support him, anymore. He can't get in and out of his litter box, which means more frequent cleanings (achoo... wheeze!) and trying to figure out a cage setup that will still give Squirrel room to roam without danger of Tiedye falling from a ladder. And he does. And it terrifies me. And he keeps going up the ladder, even if he has to drag his 2-pound-something body hand-over-hand with his front paws. I'm worried it's a result of exposure to an antibiotic that Squirrel is on (and needs, because he has a respiratory infection). I don't think he'll get better. I wake up each morning and check on them, just to make sure they're both still alive. What will I do if they aren't? What will I do if they are, and I have to make the decision once again to end the life humanely of an animal who loves me and trusts me and wants me to make it better? Mom is supposed to make it all better.

"No offense, but it's only a rat."

Whether or not you consider a rat to be an inferior pet because of their short lives or because you find them repulsive, there is no such thing as "only a" unless you, the pet's owner, feel that way about your own pet. I find dogs generally disgusting (er... once they're no longer puppies) yet I understand how you can love and cherish one. I happen to love a dog (but only one), yet I still feel a certain restraint with him. I would not choose to own a dog if it was only for myself. Yet, I understand the reasoning behind choosing a dog and accept it.

Please, do not deride my ability to love and feel attachment for my pet, or to feel the urge to heal him when he's sick, or reassure him when he's lonely or feeling down. That's what you're really saying, when you suggest that rats are unworthy. You're telling me I love the wrong thing, or my love is unworthy. My love is wrong. There's something wrong with me. I should stop treating them as if they're worth caring about. I must be emotionally disturbed and I need professional help if this keeps up.

Loving the ratboys was unexpected, but it's not unreasonable.

It's time for an attitude check. It's time for you to ask yourself why it's so hard for you to imagine a person loving a pet, any living thing, and wanting to treat it as a pet--with dignity, caring, affection and respect.

It is not my attitude that needs adjustment.

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