Friday, December 08, 2006

Losing Tiny Lives

Today at our staff meeting we had a grief counselor who specializes in pet loss talk with us. She gave us insight on some of the things we can do so that we don't inadvertently make the process more difficult for clients. She reminded us how we can get "compassion fatigue," dealing with so much death at times. We also can become rather callous, since this is our daily job - since we see these situations so many times, and we often have to go see another patient moments after helping another to die. In the end, the counselor wisely allowed her visit to become a bit of a group counseling session, with many staff members sharing stories of pet loss.

My last appointment of the evening was a rat. She was losing weight and had stopped eating - a very poor prognostic sign of advanced disease in a rat. As prey creatures, these little guys do everything they can to appear normal, even expiring in their food bowls.

This little patient was a hairless rat. She was so ugly - worse than that hairless cat on Austin Powers - but she did have a certain charm, as well as curly whiskers. Her hairlessness accentuated her rapid sudden weight loss, and her owners could even see the bulge of a tumor on her abdomen.

"I read that sometimes rats can have benign mammary tumors," he said hopefully. Yes, but this tumor was ENORMOUS, stretching across inside her cranial abdomen. It felt attatched to the intestines, and was lumpy-bumpy - all really bad signs. "This isn't a mammary tumor; its in her abdomen," I said. "It has a much poorer prognosis. I could do surgery and open her up, but if I can't remove it we'd have to euthanize her on the table. Even if I could remove it, most likely it would come back. I wouldn't do the surgery if it was my own rat."

Enricka, rat lover extraordinaire, came in at this point to meet the patient. As I gave the owners a scary estimate for surgery, she agreed that for this problem she wouldn't put one of her rats through the stress of surgery. She told them that I have operated on some of her rodents with cutaneous tumors, but she would euthanize in a case like this.

Eventually they did give consent for euthanasia. They were grief stricken for this tiny, hairless creature, who seemed healthy less than a week ago. The suddenness of the loss made it worse. Even though she weighed less than 300 grams, they loved her and felt her loss deeply.

I gassed her down into unconsciousness then gave the injection to stop her heart. Afterwards, I opened her up to peek in her abdomen. A huge, gnarly, lobulated mass completely blocked her stomach, shutting it off from the intestines. It was attatched to the liver and the dorsal body wall. Totally inoperable. They had made the correct, though excruciating, decision.


EdamameMommy said...

I really have no words for this. Nothing smart or funny to say in response to your euthenasia of a hairless rat with a massive tumor. You are definitely more loving of all creatures than I with your rejoinder "but it really was cute Steph, with it's curly whiskers" Cute and rat do not go together. Ending the suffering was good, though. RIP Templeton.

Emily said...

It's so hard to make that decision, but it's such a gift to be able to relieve the suffering.

A.Norma said...

Yes! I'm with you on that,Emily!

Leigh-Ann said...

Have you seen the compassion fatigue blog? It's at

The owner doesn't post very often, but you might find the site interesting and even helpful.