Ashley and Jet marked another departure for us – the concept of overlapping groups or pairs, and of introducing new rats to an established community. They came to us in a bit of a rush over a Bank Holiday weekend, after Clara’s sudden death left Heidi alone and pining. Ash and Jet were sisters but very different from one another in looks and personality – Ash was a blue agouti, similar to Clara in appearance, and Jet was a black rex. I have a weakness for black rats, especially rexes. Can’t help it, I’m afraid.
We drove down to Weston-super-Mare with a newly purchased pet carrier (we did already have one, but I saw one with cutout pawprints on the lid and had to have it. Yes, I can be that shallow) to collect the new girls. They were our second breeder pair, and came with extensive family trees. From the off they were friendly and confident, and we drove home again both excited about the new rats and a little apprehensive about intros. Estelle, the breeder, had given us lots of advice and we had a big new cage which would also help, as Heidi would be unfamiliar with it and less likely to view it as her territory. When we put all three rats together for the first time, Heidi immediately took to Ash but was more wary of Jet and this was the social order for the next several months. There was no fighting or arguing, they just didn’t have much to do with each other. All three would sleep curled up together sometimes, but other times either Heidi or Jet would be alone. They didn’t seem to mind, and as long as they didn’t, we didn’t either.
Jet quickly began to demand our attention. At that time the cage stood on the dresser in the dining room, and while we were sitting having our breakfast she would decide that we should be talking to her and developed tactics to make us do just that. The first was ‘Help, I’m stuck’. The cage has a sort of mini hayrack on the inside of one of the doors – we never really worked out why, as rats don’t generally need hay. One morning Jet climbed into it and sat there, apparently stuck, looking pathetic. I went over and fished her out of it. The next morning she did it again. I said ‘I’m not falling for that again – you know how to get out of there.’ She sat there for a moment, but when it became clear I wasn’t going to help, she did indeed climb down all by herself. The next morning, she started chewing the cage bars. Again, this stopped when she realised she was just going to be ignored. She got plenty of attention and fussings anyway – she just thought if we were in the room, we must be there to do something connected with her, and was a bit put out to find that sometimes we weren’t.
For several months all went well apart from a bit of enforced separation when Heidi had to have her op (which I’ve mentioned before). Then in March 2004 Ash sprouted a lump. We had little experience of mammary tumours – Ginger had had one, but that was it – but luckily our vet was quite no-nonsense about them and Ash’s lump was soon whipped off with minimal fuss. Unfortunately a week later she seemed to have acquired another, in the same place. Back to the vet, to find that it was a haematoma, which was a relief. But the stress seemed to trigger something else and within a couple of days Ash was wobbly, unbalanced and walking in circles. These can be symptoms of either an ear infection or a stroke, so she was treated with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics and made almost a full recovery, being left with a slight head tilt.
Her separation from the others for ops and vet trips meant that Jet and Heidi only had each other for a few days, and to our relief this led to a thawing of relations between them. From then on, all three were fine and dandy together. During the summer, Ash started to behave a little oddly and occasionally aggressively – she was the first rat to draw blood from me, when I was fussing Heidi and Ash decided my hand was an intruder to be dealt with. Luckliy I saw her start to pounce and pulled my hand away, so the result was only a couple of deep scratches from her upper teeth, but we started to wonder if all was well. Not long after that, we found her bleeding from one ear. All efforts by ourselves and the vet to work out why and make it stop failed. The best guess from the vet was that it had been an aggressive brain tumour. Like Clara a year previously, it was a sudden and sad demise and she was too young – not yet 2 years old.
Jet was still well, however, and now she and Heidi kept each other company. But we were worried about one of them popping off and leaving us with a lone rat again, so we paid Estelle another visit and came back with Iona and Thalia (of whom, more in another post). At first there was tension between Jet and Iona – Heidi was clearly alpha and Jet didn’t see why she shouldn’t be next in the pecking order, but Iona had other ideas. On one occasion I saw Heidi drag herself across the cage (she had advanced Hind Leg Degeneration by now) and put herself between Jet and Iona as they were arguing. As Heidi became more frail Thalia started to pick on her, so we separated the two pairs for the last week or so of Heidi’s life. Jet was so close to Heidi by now that her loss was quite a blow, but re-introduction to the other two went smoothly and with Jet as alpha the group settled down again.
By spring 2005 Jet had needed a lump or two removed, and we started to get quite familiar with the whole process. Then a new challenge presented itself – she started to have difficulty eating, and her teeth became overgrown. This mean tooth clipping, which she hated and began to find quite stressful (as did we). Sometimes there comes a point where a rat will give you the look that says “No more” and in May 2005 Jet gave us that look. I was the most upset I had ever been to that point about the loss of a rat – even crying at the vet’s, which I’ve never done before or since. She was one of those who looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal – some rats are more like grown-ups in their behaviour and some are more like cheeky children, and Jet was definitely one of the grown-ups.