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Rat owners looking for quality health care, or possibly ANY health care, are faced with what can be a serious dilemma. I live in a university town with a vet school, and the inability to locate a vet on a weekend who would treat a rat cost me the life of my beloved Blossom, a blue hooded dumbo doe with the sweetest temperament I’ve ever encountered in the species. Why? Because my excellent vet was with her dying father in another state and could not be reached by phone, because none of her associates felt comfortable treating a rat, because the vet school emergency clinic currently lacks a resident who treats rats, and because the additional emergency vet clinic had no one on staff treating rats that weekend, either.

This seems so bizarre to me, since rats only really get about three or four serious medical conditions. Really. You’d be hard pressed to find an easier species to deal with. They get mycoplasmosis, they can develop abscesses (including bumblefoot if they are housed inappropriately), occasionally their teeth get knocked out of alignment and need trimming, and they are prone to tumors late in life. With a very few exceptions, that’s largely it. And because of the importance of healthy rats to scientists in laboratory settings, the guidelines for dosing and treatment are well-established for rats. Vets have easy access to the guidelines. A weekend studying up should prepare any person who actually completed vet school to treat just about any illness a rat will present that doesn’t involve surgery.

And I’m sorry, but here’s the part where I yell: ALL I NEEDED WAS A BLOODY REFILL OF BATRIL, EASILY ONE OF THE MOST COMMONLY PRESCRIBED ANTIBIOTICS IN VETERINARY MEDICINE. My regular vet’s associates could have called one in for me if I’d thought to ask that my vet leave a note in my file to that effect in the event she was unavailable, but I didn’t know to request that she do so.

Now I do know. Now I have a refill for Batril  (enrofloxacin) and liquid Vibramycin (doxycycline) tucked away in my rattie meds kit so that I never have to experience a weekend like that one again. Unfortunately, by Monday morning Blossom had been laboring heavily for breath for over sixty hours, and she was done in—as was I, having not slept longer than two hours at a stretch since the previous Thursday night. Blossom even seemed to rally somewhat on Sunday afternoon: her breathing opened up a bit, the audible congestion in her lungs dropped from a death rattle to what I would describe as an asthmatic wheeze, the color improved in her cyanotic tail, ears and toes, and she began to eat baby food on her own. She seemed to be past the crisis and on the mend.

I was so relieved to have won a round against this blasted scourge that I made the news of her survival “facebook official.” My vet thinks her improvement may have been due to my decision, born of sheer desperation, to nebulize Blossy with a mixture of saline and a few serious hits from my albuterol inhaler.  It probably enabled her to hold out long enough for the doxy to get a foothold on the infection in her lungs. It probably also exacerbated what proved to be her final complication, congestive heart failure. Blossom’s heart just couldn’t take three days of the immense exertion it takes to sustain such extremely labored breathing, not with her incredibly high metabolic rate. I couldn’t get enough food down her throat to keep up her strength, and the muscle tissue just melted off of her bones. Finally, pulmonary edema set in. Soon enough, her heart just didn’t have room to function, and she faded away. It was heartbreaking after all we’d been through, but I was just grateful she didn’t literally drown in her own congestion, the more usual outcome with serious cases of mycoplasma. The sight of an animal utterly panicked for breath, thrashing and clawing and rushing around in a desperate search for air, is simply horrific—if your views on euthanasia are in the least conflicted, experiencing such a thing even once will clarify your thinking. As hard as she had fought, I was grateful beyond words that Blossom’s end was peaceful.

And yet a few 10ths of a ml of Batril might well have prevented the entire event. It seems to be antibiotics in combination that do the trick against mycoplasma. Now, I follow a regimen that includes doxycycline in peanut butter medicine balls, which I give regularly to all of my rats as a preventative, with the addition , whenever anybody seems to be developing upper or lower respiratory symptoms, of a 2-step combination of albuterol (this time dosed properly for rats!) and then Gentocin (gentamicin) in the nebulizer to open up the airways and deliver that excellent antibiotic right to the source of the bacteria. Just a few nebulizations seem to knock mycoplasma back into dormancy where it belongs.

But back to my original query: who the hell do you have to sleep with in this town to get a rat treated on the weekend? I thought I’d found a solution in a veterinary practice that boasted four vets who all treat rats. Then the weirdness began. Visit number one nearly ended in tragedy when the vet put my albuterol refill into the vial of Batril I’d brought to also have refilled. I’m pretty sure that .25 ml of undiluted albuterol administered orally to a rat weighing under one pound, if given to a human being in a comparable dose, would manage to finish off even Keith Richards. But I overlooked that incident as a freak accident. It was the end of the day. Mistakes in dosing happen. I was on the alert and caught the mistake before we left the examination room. No harm, no foul.

But then, something similar happened. When for whatever reason their injectible Batril, theoretically suspended in a syrup for oral dosing, was too acrid for the rats to tolerate, a doctor gave me the oral tablet version suspended in Pet-tinic, which would have been fine, except that she dispensed it in the same bottle without giving me a new label and then didn’t write down the change on my chart. Additionally, in spite of the size of this busy, busy practice, they still hand-write prescription labels and leave out required information, such as the strength of the medication and its expiration date. What they do include is often illegible. All of this is a recipe for disaster, and I nearly got one. While arguing on the phone with the vet tech and then the vet, herself, I suddenly realized that the bottle was improperly labeled and that I’d been significantly underdosing poor Henslow, a big, squishy male topping out at just over two pounds, for nearly two weeks. I’d been giving him the .25 dosage of Pet-tinic w/Batril once daily, rather than the prescribed .5 – .7 ml twice daily. At that point, I threw up my hands. I am furious. Once is a mistake; twice is malpractice.

I intend to have a sit-down meeting with the practice manager to go over the chain of events, both as a courtesy and because I did so want this practice to work out for me. The vets are kind and interested and do not discriminate against non-cat/dogs. Heck, they treat tortoises and snakes and volunteered that they’d even have a go at my koi if the need arose. But their dispensary protocols are a nightmare and are in blatant violation of state regulations and quality of care standards across the profession. I expect they’ll be entirely too busy to take my complaint seriously, which means I’ll then have to file a complaint with the state board. Which I will do. Which I must do, as a responsible pet owner. But I don’t want to. I want them to fix it. I want this relationship to work.

Oh dear, it’s the old, old story, isn’t it? The boyfriend you take back when you shouldn’t… The engagement you keep fighting to sustain when everyone knows you are making a terrible mistake… Why do you do it? Because you think “he’s the one, and I’ll never again find anyone else I can love as I love him.” Because his intentions are good. Because you’re afraid of being alone on a Saturday night. Check, check, and check: good relationships work for any number of unique reasons; bad ones all crash and burn in accordance with the  same template.

So the search goes on. I DON’T want to be alone on a Saturday night, not with a desperately sick rat and no vet to call, not ever again! As sometimes happens in the case of romantic relationships, I may go back to an old flame and see if we can reach an accommodation—in this case, regarding options for treatment in emergencies when my excellent vet is unavailable. Perhaps she can encourage her associates to suck it up, do a little homework, and TRY treating rats–in theory, they are fully qualified to do so. Perhaps they could assist on a tumor removal and a neuter or two until they are actually even comfortable with surgery–do what it takes to get over their case of the vapors and begin to fulfill their physicians’ oaths. Perhaps she can prevail upon them to at least refill a prescription in her absence, especially given that rats only do get a very few ailments, and those of us who love rats, unfortunately. know mycoplasma when we see it. Even were it an ailment other than mycoplasmosis, protocols are largely the same for most respiratory infections, and it’s the secondary infections that usually do the poor beasties in, anyway—as they would quickly realize upon doing just a little bit of reading.

Rat lovers, I hope you have had better luck than I in finding good veterinary support. If you own a rat and you haven’t yet located a vet, DO IT NOW, while your pet is healthy. You DON’T want to be on the phone at midnight on a Saturday night with a dying rat in one hand, a phone book in the other, and no idea what to do or where to go. Trust me—you truly do not want to live that moment.