Mary Ann Isaksen
From the July/August 1998 Rat & Mouse Gazette
When and how to euthanize your beloved pet rat or mouse is always an intensely difficult decision to make. No matter what you decide to do, you most often walk away feeling like you have made the wrong decision, let your pet down, or generally feel like you are the cause of your petís death. These feelings are normal, but can be lessened by learning everything you can about this subject.
Euthanasia has been the topic of many flame wars on the Internet. The mere mention of the word starts emotions flowing and puts many people on the defensive, but it is something that is extremely important to be familiar with. For the comfort of your pet, as well as for your own peace of mind, you owe it to yourself and your pet to learn what to do prior to the time it becomes necessary.
This is always the hardest decision for pet owners to make. In my opinion, most people make the decision to euthanize their pet too soon or too late. I believe this to be true with all pets, but even more so with rats and mice because they are such stoic animals. By the time you notice that your pet is ill, chances are pretty good that he is very ill. Being at the bottom of the food chain in the wild, our domestic rats have retained the trait of masking their symptoms for as long as possible to avoid being the Ďweakestí who is most often eaten.
Nevertheless, you should not assume that it is too late to do anything about it and that euthanasia is the only option; you should always try to treat your pet first to save his life. Remarkable recoveries have been made by animals that have appeared to be on the brink of death. I have seen this happen time and time again. Even in cases of advanced respiratory disease (after longtime chronic illness) when a rat begins to have gasping attacks, I have seen him live for several more months, although it is a normal reaction to think he should probably be put down right then. I have to stop myself from thinking that way and remember that there is a good chance, as long as the rat is still eating, drinking, and active, that he will recover from his gasping attack in a short amount of time and will go on to continue his life as usual, at least for a while. Daily doses of Prednisone have helped in cases such as this.
I have seen my husband go through many asthma attacks in which he looked as miserable as many of my rats have while going through a gasping attack. We would never consider euthanizing a person during a severe asthma attack, so as long as the rat is leading an active life, why should we consider it for them?
There are also cases in which the rat dies in a gasping attack, and when that happens, I feel guilty that I did not end his suffering at that point, but how could I possibly know whether or not the rat would survive. I feel much better knowing that many of my rats have gone on to live happy lives for extended periods because I was not so quick to euthanize them immediately upon noticing they were having a gasping attack. However, when the attacks begin happening every day, for longer periods each time, I feel it is best to end their suffering.
Under all circumstances, in reality, when is the right time to euthanize your beloved pet? It is when all medical alternatives have been utilized to no avail and the rat or mouse is no longer enjoying his life. This is most commonly evidenced by a pet who is no longer active, stops eating, drinking, and generally looks miserable. This does not mean that a pet who has just been through a surgical procedure, has received a painful injury, or is very sick should be euthanized if he is not active and loses his appetite - time for healing must be given before making that irreversible decision. I cannot reiterate this point enough.
HOW - METHODS OF EUTHANASIA
There are many different methods of euthanasia, but very few that are suitable for use with rats and mice. Many vets do not even realize the inhumanity of some of the methods. Certainly, most pet owners do not think about that aspect of euthanasia and will leave their pet in the hands of the vet, trusting the vet to perform it in a humane manner.
The normal method used for dogs and cats is by giving an injection of a euthanasia drug directly into a vein, but this cannot be done on a rat or mouse due to its size. Finding a vein large enough to inject into is not an option, so the injection is given either directly into the heart or into the peritoneal cavity (belly). Both of these injections are extremely painful, thereby making them inhumane. Yes, it is true that, in most cases, the pet will just go to sleep and dies within a matter of minutes, but why would you want your pet to have to go through that painful injection in its last moments when it is not necessary? (I have also heard of cases where a second injection was necessary!) It is enough that your pet has to go through the trauma of being taken from its comfortable home to the vetís office in its final moments, so you should make certain that the rest is painless.
Making euthanasia pain free is as simple as insisting that your pet be anesthetized using an inhalant anesthesia prior to being given any fatal injections. A fatal injection may not even be necessary if the rat or mouse is given an overdose of the anesthesia. Anesthesia overdose is also a method that can be used at home if you have a source of obtaining Halothane in your state.
Now, I would not consider doing it any other way. Yes, it was almost impossible even to just think about doing it myself in the beginning, but, after seeing it done just once, I knew it was, for me, the way to go. It is still difficult to make the decision and carry it out each time, but the advantages are many.
Many vets will not allow you to stay with your pet which would make me wonder what really happened. Did it happen humanely? (Fortunately, I personally did not have to worry about this, but I hear it all too often from others.) I also do not have to worry about my vet not being in the office at the time my pet really needs to be euthanized (which always seems to happen late at night or on the weekend). Home euthanasia allows me to be with my pet during his last moments and ensures that my pet does not have to suffer waiting to get to the vet or waiting for the office to open. It also guarantees that my pet will not have to go through any more anxiety or stress in his final moments by being removed from his familiar environment and driven to the local vet hospital. I am also positive that my pet did not have to suffer any painful procedures, having euthanized him myself. This is all very important to me.
However, I would not even consider euthanizing a pet at home using any other method than anesthesia overdose. It is the only humane method, in my opinion. Let me explain this procedure.
When it is time, I settle down on the bed or the sofa with a nice, plush towel for the rattie to be comfortable on. I pour some Halothane onto a couple of cotton balls that have been placed in a clean and empty small baby food jar. I put the jar in front of the ratís nose. Halothane is not unpleasant, but the rat usually moves away from the jar at first. After moving it back in front of the ratís nose, he often sticks his nose into the jar and, in a short amount of time, just falls asleep while I am petting him, talking to him, telling him how much I love him, and making him feel completely comfortable. Slowly, and not afraid, he goes to sleep.
Once asleep, the rat needs to continue to breathe the Halothane until he stops breathing and his heart stops. To ensure that he has definitely gone and his heart does not start again, I leave the jar in front of the ratís nose and walk away for about ten minutes. This method has been a comfort to both me and the rats I have used it on. It is never an easy decision to end an animalís life, but I am at peace knowing that my pet did not have to suffer, and was surrounded by love in his last moments of life.
Many people who use rodents for reptile food use CO2. Dry ice produces CO2 and is readily available, but you cannot be with your pet in his final moments using this method. The dry ice must be put into an enclosed container. It gives off the CO2 gas, which sinks to the bottom of the container. The rat or mouse must be placed into the gas and basically dies from asphyxiation, although it is said to be quick.
One curious rat lover prepared a container for testing. Instead of using a rat, he stuck his own face into the gas for a very short period. He reported that the gas stung his eyes, which also would make this an inhumane method.
Hypothermia is neither short nor painless. Some time ago on the rats list, Brian Lee detailed an experience in which he almost died from exposure. He went through it step by step for us so we could all understand how inhumane this method truly is. Yes, in the end, a person or animal who has died from exposure appears to have died peacefully, but the steps leading up to that death, as described by Brian, are horrendously painful.
Think about how your bare hands begin to feel in the winter before they go numb. It is pretty painful. Imagine how you would feel if someone you knew, loved and trusted put you in a giant freezer, turned out the light, locked the door and went away. Imagine how terrified you would feel! What an agonizing and lengthy way to die. It is not my idea of humane, and that is exactly what your beloved pet would experience. Who could live with their conscience after using this method?
No matter what you decide to do, be it home euthanasia or humane euthanasia at your vetís office, research everything you can about this subject before you need to actually use the knowledge. Decide what you can and cannot live with. This way, you will avoid many of the guilt feelings experienced when making a hasty, uninformed decision in that stressful, confusing moment when your pet needs you the most.
Rathelp has been getting a lot of questions about how to obtain Halothane. Halothane CAN be obtained from a vet. It's not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish, but if you get a good enough relationship going with a vet and he fully understands your situation AND your capabilities a vet may trust you with it. Maybe not a whole bottle of it, but enough to keep around for the eventuality of putting down a few rats or mice.
Always consult your veterinarian regarding the appropriate application and storage of inhalant anesthesia for home euthnasia in pet rats. Be sure to keep any substances used for home euthanasia away from children or other animals.