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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Little Joe Still Lives

As to my previous post about tortoises, I’ve recently learned that Little Joe is alive and well at 25 years-old. He’s full grown at about 14 inches long and weighs over ten pounds. He’s still used in educational presentations at America’s Teaching Zoo and is scheduled to appear in this year’s Spring Spectacular. He’s also available for adoption through the Zoo. Just visit this link:

Above is a likeness of what Little Joe looked like when I first saw him in 1987. The next picture is close to what he looks like now.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Our Rat has only a Few More Months

Carrie is a black, Rex rat we bought from a breeder ( in March of 2010. Rex rats have curly or crimped hair. She was eight months old at the time and had already had a litter of babies. Her name was Carolina, but we shortened it. I don’t like to change the names people have given their animals even after they’ve become mine. Sometimes we call her Blackie. We had another rat at the time that was in her last months, so Carrie appeared so energetic and fast. Now it’s her turn to be the old one. She has a small growth under her right arm and just the other day we noticed a small, hard, more worrisome lump on the side of her head. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain so we just have to wait for things to change. When she looks like she’s having trouble breathing or acts uncomfortable, I’ll take her to our vet and have her euthanized.

I suspected a few weeks ago that she had lost her vision. She started grabbing food out of our hands in a very rough manner when she used to be so gentle. She also would get startled when we’d go to pick her up. Now we just have to be very gentle with her.

I’ve witnessed the euthanasia of many pets so I know what to expect. It doesn’t bother me anymore. Actually, it’s quite a peaceful transition and I’m comforted knowing my pet won’t have to linger and suffer. It was hard when I had to put my cat to sleep, but I was still grateful to be with her at that time. She could have died in any number of the tragic ways that cats die, but she lived a good, long life as my best girl until her kidneys started to fail and we had to say goodbye.

I’ve never had a rat live past three years of age and Carrie will be three in July. I’m pretty sure she’ll be gone by then. We’ll bury her in our yard as we do with all of our small pets. Then we’ll probably get a new rat to keep Sugar company. Until then, we’ll give Carrie all her favorite things and try to keep her happy and comfy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Should You Call the Vet?

“It’s a lousy hamster.”

“It’s just a rat.”

“It’s just a parakeet.”

“I only paid twelve bucks for it.”

That’s what I’ve heard so many times from clients at the animal hospital who balked at leaving a deposit to have their little, inexpensive, sick pet treated. Often, this was after we’d already started to save its life. If the animal died ten minutes after arrival, while the doctors and technicians were working on it, the client naturally didn’t want to pay a dime. This used to make me so mad. Even more frustrating was that, most times, an animal was brought in on death’s door which made everyone extra tense.

Here’s the thing. When you have a pet like a dog or cat, you have many years to get attached and grow your human/pet relationship. These pets are considered “more worthy” of the expense of seeing a vet. With the smaller animals, a pet owner may not interact as much as they would with a more sophisticated pet or they’ve had it for only a few months and feel it’s too early to encounter any kind of illness. Maybe they bought it for their kid and didn’t expect any health problems in the first place.

I’m playing devil’s advocate here because the very frugal part of me understands these situations. I don’t like spending money at the vet either and I try not to, but I also can’t watch an animal suffer. The best thing to do is provide the best care in the first place, but even with love, attention and proper care, animals do get sick. Here are just a few tips for trying to determine if your pet needs to see the vet.

With caged animals it’s hard to recognize when the pet is sick. The advice I offer most often to new pet owners is to check your pet every day, at least in the morning and evening. Once you know a pet’s normal behavior, you’ll know better when things aren’t normal or seem out of place. If you suspect your guinea pig is scratching more than usual, he probably is. When he starts to develop a bald spot, that’s further proof and a good reason to call the vet.

Anytime a guinea pig, rabbit or rodent stops eating, it’s serious. Guinea pigs and rabbits have the type of digestion system that works continually. If there’s a stoppage, often called G.I. stasis, medication and syringe feedings may be prescribed. When rats or mice stop eating it’s highly unusual. This is pretty much what they seem to live for so there’s usually an underlying cause.

Birds will sometimes crouch in the bottom of their cage if they’re sick or sit on the perch puffed up. Sometimes, this means nothing, but if it continues for more than half a day, then there’s likely something going on. Small birds are tricky because they can go from just a little sick to dying in a matter of hours. Keep a close watch on a bird that’s acting lethargic and start looking for a vet that sees birds in case you have to take him there in the next 24 hours.

Reptiles, on the other hand, can be sick for weeks without showing any outward signs. You might notice their mouth or eyes looking different or ragged. They might show one eye stuck shut or you might notice less droppings in the enclosure. Iguanas that aren’t getting the proper nutrition in their diet can develop a noticeably crooked spine. The disease process, by this point, has usually progressed too far, but the iguana can still get back on track and continue to live with an improved diet.

I’ve only touched on a few illnesses here, but the point I want to make is that many of these things are treatable when the pet is in the care of a competent exotic veterinarian. Whether you want to spend the money or not is going to be a personal decision.  I try to weigh how veterinary treatment is going to extend my pet’s life. Will it give her a few more months? Is the pet young enough to benefit from treatment?

For instance, I recently had my two and a half year-old rat treated for mites knowing that rats only live three years. This particular rat, named Carrie, didn’t have any other problems, which is unusual for a rat that age. Usually, a rat can have at least one growth or the beginnings of a respiratory condition by then. These are the two things from which they generally die. I went ahead with mite treatment because the other younger rat had to be treated anyway and because I wanted to get Carrie as close to her three year lifespan as I could. It’s kind of a mission of mine. The other thing I had to ask myself was whether I could watch her continue to lose fur and scratch herself so maniacally. I couldn’t. So for my own peace of mind I had to bite the bullet and pay for a vet visit. It was worth it to me.

What will it take for you?

This is our rat, Sugar. While our other rat, Carrie, was showing hair loss and scratching like crazy, only Sugar tested positive for mites. Still, both pets had to be treated along with a thorough cleaning and de-miting of the cages.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


I’m not big on reptiles, mainly because they need a lot of set up with heat lamps, heat pads, night lights and a special substrate that won’t cause digestive problems. And then there are the salads, crickets or other live food depending on the species.  Since I met my first tortoise, I’ve always been kind of fond of them and would someday consider having one as long as I could provide it with the right environment.

As a new first-year student on a tour of the animal compound at Moorpark College, I remember being shown the littlest leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis). He was housed in a small drawer that was part of an old dresser or some big, old china cabinet. This and other boxy enclosures were kept in a heated, walk-in shipping container known as “The Reptile Room.”

His name was Little Joe and he probably could have fit in the palm of my hand. I wouldn’t really know because first year students were not allowed to touch or talk to any of the animals. Little Joe was a good eater and sported a pulchritudinous, geometric design on his shell. I also loved his name.

Little Joe grew quickly and ended up having to leave his drawer within the year. After another year, he was big enough to walk around on the floor or sun himself with the other tortoises.  When I visited the compound nearly ten years later, someone pointed to Little Joe walking around in an outdoor training ring used for large mammals. He looked to be about ten inches tall and maybe 16 inches long. I was happy to learn that one of the animals I once cared for was still alive. That tortoise must have had over 500 different students make him a salad over the years.

That’s the thing about turtles. If you’re not willing to make a salad for yourself or your kids nearly every day, an herbivorous reptile like a box turtle, tortoise or iguana might not be the best pet for you. Tortoises also get around fairly well and can move faster than you think.  One of the vets at the animal hospital told us he finally had to paint a bright pink “X” on his tortoise’s shell in order to find him in the yard. That tortoise even got lost in the clinic one day. We finally found him in an office corner, under a desk.

So, after my birds and other animals eventually die off, I will strongly consider adopting a tortoise that needs a good home. Then, maybe we’ll all benefit from eating more fruits and greens. Who has got tortoises out there? What kind?

An adult leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) grazing. It's easy to see how they can blend in with the environment. A well cared for tortoise can live up to 40 or more years, depending on the species.