by Debbie "The Rat Lady" Ducommun
Grieving is a natural process that occurs whenever an individual experiences a loss. The loss of a loved one, whether it be a human or non-human, can result in particularly intense grieving. Fortunately, it is becoming more acceptable in our society to mourn the death of an animal companion. However, the stages of grieving are not always well understood, and lack of support from friends and family can delay or interfere with the grieving process. And unfortunately, some people don’t understand why the death of a rat can cause feelings of grief.
Support from other people is very important during grieving. A lack of support from others can interfere with the normal grieving process and result in the grieving person getting “stuck”and failing to move through the stages of the grief experience. This can lead to depression, overeating, substance abuse, and chronic illness. If you don’t get the necessary support from friends and family, make an effort to contact another rat person who will understand. This is one benefit to belonging to a club.
Characteristics of Grief
There are certain stages of grief that normally occur after a loss. These include denial, anger, guilt, and finally, acceptance. Physical manifestations can include weeping, loss of appetite, insomnia, pain, and changes in behavior. There may be a loss of concentration and it may take more time than usual to do ordinary or routine tasks.
The stages and physical signs of grief can occur in any combination and in any order. All of them are normal and should be allowed expression. I usually experience a great deal of guilt, since I feel so responsible for my rats’ health. Although it is painful to do so, I find that going over and over the circumstances of the death and going through all the “If only...” scenarios eventually helps me to accept the death and helps to relieve the guilt. I also find that an autopsy is very important as it usually confirms that nothing I could have done would have changed the outcome. Even in the event that the autopsy reveals something that could have been done, knowing for sure, instead of always wondering about it, also helps relieve the emotional pain of guilt.
Grieving in Rats
Rats can experience grief after the death of a companion just as humans can. Although rats may not have the intellectual ability to rationalize such a loss, it is clear that they recognize their companion is gone and they can show many of the same physical manifestations that we feel.
A grieving rat may eat less, appear depressed, or become restless. Lack of appetite, depression or lethargy may be symptoms of a secondary bacterial infection triggered by the stress of the loss, so rats with these signs should be treated with an antibiotic just in case. In my experience, amoxicillin tends to work best for secondary infections.
When a rat dies, I recommend that his companions be given the chance to examine the body. The idea is that it will be less traumatic for them if they recognize their friend has died instead of just “disappearing.” Place the body in the cage and allow his companions to sniff and interact with it. They may or may not appear to pay attention to it, but be assured they will be processing the death. Leave them together until they show no more interest in the body.
Next, give the surviving rats extra attention. Spend more time over the next few weeks talking to them, and especially, petting them. Just as for us, they need the extra support to help them through the grieving process. In fact, they may need even more since they can’t talk about it! This extra time together will be beneficial for both of you, since studies have shown petting and talking to animals lowers stress in humans.
If the surviving rat is now alone in his cage, I suggest finding him a new rat friend as soon as he is ready. You will find instructions for introducing a new rat elsewhere on this webpage. If the surviving rat is elderly, perhaps you can adopt another older rat. If you want to get a baby, I suggest getting two so they can play together and not pester the older rat too much. Then, when the older rat dies, they will still have each other.
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