Most people at some stage will have had a pet. Be it a dog they’ve raised from a pup, a plodding tortoise that meanders across the kitchen floor, a cat that insists on using our laptop as a bed or the ever popular goldfish. I’ve had pets most of my life, and I feel somewhat empty not having them around. Just having another life form close by can keep an endless loneliness at bay. When I was younger, a child of two, my grandparents had dogs. A lot of dogs. There was rarely less than three in the house, and on occasion there were as many as five or six. They were mainly mongrels, but they were all beautiful and loving creatures (except Patch, he was kind of an arsehole). I remember the first time I cried over a lost pet. It was a female dog called Bella. She was my grandparents and the matriarch of a sizable family. She simply got old and sick and had to be put down. It really hit my Nan, in truth I’m not sure how much of my upset was because of the loss of Bella or seeing my Nan’s reaction. But I was upset, and still a child.
One dog I remember lovingly was Judy. She was a rescue dog my parents got. She had been treated horrendously by her previous owners. Her tail had been docked and she sat in a slanted position and upright, leaning back as she had been shot multiple times with a pellet gun. She was a beautiful dog, when she died I had already left home but even today I still expect to see her when I visit my mum. When my Nan died, she left behind a young dog called Remy. Remy was a fluffy white dog with brown patches and was oh so full of life. Too much life, truth be told, for an older person to keep and when my Nan passed and she was taken in by my granddad I don’t think he had the energy for keeping up with her. She had this hilarious reaction when you blew on her snout where she would playfully jiggle and try to bite at thin air. She was still alive after my Granddads death and went to his neighbour. Due to her age I can’t imagine she is still alive, but I can continue to think she is as I have never been- and will likely never be- told that she has died.
When I moved to Edinburgh I found myself in a fairly long period of not having pets until I’d been here for almost three years. I bought a chocolate coloured hamster we named Bert- though we later discovered he was a she, but the name suited her so well. Bert’s bum used to wiggle when she ran across sofas or the carpet. She only ever bit once, and that was when I took a photo of her in my partners hands but didn’t turn off the flash- she got startled and bit my partner. Bert started to slow down, gradually she got old. Before when she was younger her energy knew no bounds and her gymnastics scuttling across the room of her cage were of Olympic proportions- Olympic for a hamster that is. It was a Monday when Bert died. She had been ill for a little while and she had to have daily doses of medicine, administered via a plastic syringe into her mouth. She didn’t like them, but always took them. The last few days before she died she slept a lot and we frequently had to take the roof off of her hut to get her the medicine. She died in her sleep, in her bed. And that hit me. Really hard.
Some people might think it ridiculous someone, a grown late 20 man, would shed tears over a rodent that barely lived long enough to watch two consecutive seasons of Sherlock, but we form bonds with our pets. Our pets are our family and their death can hit you hard. We buried Bert in a friends garden, she’s still there now, even though the garden and connecting flat are owned by someone else. If anyone were to dig up the garden I’d hope common sense at finding a sealed card box would come in to play else they will find a mummified hamster surprise. I loved Bert. She had her own personality, maybe some would say that’s anthropomorphic projection, but so be it. Bert was a unique individual and even if she was never able to fully understand her situation at being a pet, she acted in a way that suggests she felt safe around us.
Which brings us to Tish and his team of fellow Degus. People still ask when I mention I have Degus, just what are they? They are from Chile, and became popular in the 1980s, though still aren’t as common as other rodents. They have a fairly long life for their family of mammal clocking in at up to 8 years, some pushing 10. Not as long as a dog or a cat, but certainly a decent length of time and chunk of life. We had three- Crackers, Bitey and Tish. Originally owned by a friend, we (my housemate and I) ended up taking them off their hands when they were all relatively young. We renamed Crackers and Bitey to Edgar and Poe but Tish seemed to fit. They were a father and two sons, however the father- Edgar- is quite domineering and wont accept any challenge to his authority. Sadly, Tish decided to challenge that authority before he was fully grown meaning he got his tail handed to him by his father. Literally. His tail was almost off after one scrap so for his own safety we had to move him into a cage by himself. Poe was the docile one and wouldn’t challenge anyone, though Tish tried to, on occasion, dominate Poe, so the only option was to separate Tish for his safety from Edgar, and Poes safety from Tish.
Tish spent a year in a cage by himself, a large cage on two levels and my housemate frequently gave him attention- I tried, but he never really took to me. Though eventually he became very friendly and would raise his front paw, eyes closed and what in humans would be a smile (In Degus it was just the way his face moved) as my housemate rubbed his tummy. After which Tish would groom her hand back as if it were another degu. It was so sweet to watch. We knew that Degus left alone can be depressed so tried to spend as much time with him as possible, we were advised against introducing another Degu to him, despite the toll it was taking and several attempts to reintroduce him to Edgar and Poe resulted in fighting. But with our attention he seemed to get by alright, and he took to us (or at least our hands) as other Degus. He was happy, energetic and curious as Degus are wont to be.
Sadly, in the past week or two he began to deteriorate, he lost a lot of weight to the extent that he was little more than skin and bone and didn’t eat or drink much.
It became clear that this was not depression brought on by being by himself but something physical. We took him to the vets as soon as we could get an appointment. There were some options- his molars could have grown in causing pain and stopping him being able to eat or drink, this was the ideal diagnosis as it meant after the teeth were fixed we could nurse him back to health. The other options were that he had an infection or a problem with his liver as the vet felt his liver was enlarged. So today we managed to get an appointment for a full check up on the back of the initial consultation. The vets put him under an anaesthetic to check his teeth but they were fine.
He had liver failure.
The vet phoned me (I had to leave him there in the morning for the surgery/ investigation) and broke the news he would not recover and asked what I wanted to do. I did the humane thing, something the vet agreed on, and told her that whilst he was under the anaesthetic to not let him wake up. To let him go peacefully and without pain.
We could have sent him for a biopsy, but we were told he would not survive it. We were also told we could bring him home and let him live out his life in his own space but that time would be short and painful and we were not going to let him suffer. Because of the liver failure we were told physically he would have felt like he had a hangover, a devilish headache and unwellness. It would have been selfish to bring him home and have him in agony just so we could spend a few more days with him. I couldn’t finish the phone call, obviously we had to talk costs and its looking for all the tests and the putting him to sleep will be about £100 but I just told the vet to call me tomorrow and deal with it then. I was too choked up and had to hang up. I burst into tears. Tish was a lovely wee animal and only lived a short life for a Degu- less than 3 years. But he was loved.
What caused the liver failure? We’ll never know as a post mortem would be too much, but it is likely “just one of those things”. Sometimes animals just get sick and die, just like people.
Our pets are our family. They are part of our lives, our friends and companions as we journey through the barren wasteland that is life. Pets won’t shout at you for getting in late, they wont berate you for holding a political or religious opinion, they won’t slander you and treat you like scum, they will only break your heart once. When they leave us. They rely on us, and we on them, though admittedly for different reasons. Their loss can leave a chasm in your heart and as I look at Tish’s empty cage, his food bowl still filled with nuggets, his bed made in the way that was comforting to him, I can’t help but shed a tear again and try to face the fact I’ll never see that satisfied look on his face as I rub his tummy.
Pets are odd things, humans are the only species to domesticate other species in the way we do and to the extent we do. But they are such an important part of our lives that their loss can knock us and leave us a mess. The pain of losing one almost makes me consider never having any more of any species, but the joy they bring is worth the pain their deaths wring from us. Go and hug your dog, your rabbit, your rat, your lizard if it will let you. Because they will break our hearts before we break theirs, and you can never know just when that will be.