About five months ago we became aware of rats in our loft. I was amazed how noisy such a small animal could be, scuttling across the plaster board at night and then scrabbling around, along with a rapid thumping noise that’s probably bonking. The ‘scuttling’ is a startling noise that jerks you awake each time it happens, however familiar it becomes … after five months.
I am a rat lover. I have enjoyed them as pets in the past. Whilst I didn’t want to let them chew through electrical wires and reproduce in the loft, we are animal lovers and there was loads of advice on the internet about getting rid of rats safely and humanely. There was no need for poison.
So, Julz went up ladders to block up any tiny gaps he could find where they might be getting in and soaked cotton wool with peppermint oil and distributed it in the loft. Next we bought the ultrasonic beeper, a strobe light, and even some product containing fox piss that is supposed to deter rats. Then Julz tried boiling up his own brew of rat deterrent and sprayed it around up there. We also had humane traps baited with Nutella, including one that claimed to catch multiple rats as there is a double trap door and they tend to follow each other, and of course humane traps involve regular loft visits in case anything has wandered in. We heard a litter of rat babies up there but it seemed a shame to disturb them – then a couple of nights where they seemed to be fighting, before it went quiet. They had used the loft insulation as a cosy winter nest but now they had gone. Julz disposed of the filthy, stinking patch of loft insulation and that seemed to be the end of it … until the familiar rat-a-tat-tat returned and seemed to expand. Neighbours also had rats, so it seemed we were shooing them out of our loft into theirs, and then they were coming back again. We had removed the compost bins and bird bath and anything that might attract rats, so our garden was now quite bare; but looking out of an upstairs window across a row of small gardens we sometimes saw a rat eating from beneath a neighbour’s overloaded bird table.
We had tried everything, including prayers and energy work and even advice from a professional dowser – but I ended up calling in Pest Control. They came and put poison in the loft and left a ticket with a box ticked to indicate there were adults, children or pets at risk. A phone call to get clarification on this reassured us that a dog would have to eat lots to be affected, and they tended not to because it tastes bitter. Our dog weighs 45 kilos and doesn’t go upstairs. I didn’t worry.
That night I listened to the rats scurrying around excitedly, and I felt like a murderer. But then life went on and I somehow started to think of them differently, so as not to feel bad about calling in Pest Control. Someone (or a combination of people I had talked to) told me that this type of rat was cannibalistic and that nothing deterred them because they had such short lives anyway. The same day the Pest Control guy had visited, Julz found what appeared to be a cannibalised rat inside the garden shed, with its guts spilled open. It made me feel less guilty, if that was the lack of respect the rats had for each other. After a day or two came a sense of relief that the problem had been handed over to the professionals, so I no longer had to worry about the rats.
About ten days after the Pest Control visit, on Saturday evening, Gandalf was keen as ever to go on his evening walk. He listened patiently whilst I had the usual phone chat with Mum and Dad, and when I said “Lots of love” for the second time he knew the call was finished, got up and stretched and led me up the road like a man on a mission, following some interesting scent he had picked up. I wondered if there was a bitch in season somewhere, especially when he seemed unsettled after his walk and wasn’t interested in his evening food. A wedding party was going on up the road in a marquee in a field, and of course they had to have bloody fireworks. This was a particularly massive and wasteful display, and of course it freaked him out. When he gets like this we have found the best policy is to carry on as normal rather than make a fuss which might reinforce his stressy behaviour.
About three o’clock in the morning I heard a bit of a whimper and he was at the door wanting to go out – not unusual. I shone the torch on the garden and he stood for a while, sniffing the air with his tail sort of lifted up a bit.
Later on Sunday morning he was still restless and panting and hadn’t eaten, and his rear end seemed swollen. Enlarged prostate, possibly? I asked the neighbours if their bitch was in season and when she wasn’t I was suddenly worried, thinking maybe he had an infection. I phoned the vet who asked lots of questions to ensure it wasn’t something that could wait until after the bank holiday, then asked us to come along to the surgery. I put his collar on and he went to the door and got in the car good as gold, maybe relieved that we were going to get this sorted out.
He’s never really minded going to the vets and sniffed around the surgery, interested in the new smells, whilst I bibbled on about how he gets like this with fireworks etc. She said his heart was racing far too fast for a dog his size. “Isn’t that because he’s panting and hyperventilating?” I asked, and she shook her head and showed me the bright red blood vessels showing in his gums.
Then Julz mentioned the poison, and the vet confirmed that these symptoms were classic. I went into denial – it couldn’t be anything to do with the poison – that was just an inconvenient coincidence that was leading her to misdiagnose the problem. “But the poison’s in the loft! There’s no way he could have got it. And look at the size of him, he’d need loads and he doesn’t eat rubbish – if you give him something new he examines it first…” I can still hear myself now, denying the possibility that I had poisoned my beautiful Gandalf, but then agreed that she could only treat the symptoms she was seeing. She was going to keep in him and put him on a vitamin K drip; but warned us that rat poison can take a long time to work and by the time the symptoms are displayed it is normally too late. She also told us that if a dog ingests a rat that has been poisoned, this it more potent to a dog than if it eats the actual poison. Why didn’t the Pest Control people tell us that?! And these were not what I would have imagined to be the symptoms of poisoning. I would have expected pain, vomiting, diarrhoea – not just panting and restlessness.
We went home stunned, trying to piece together what had happened. Gandalf wouldn’t eat a rat; we would have found remains in the garden. Then we remembered the dead rat that was in the shed. But the shed was always closed – how could he have got at that? The only possibility we can think of is that he found the dead rat in the garden (he wouldn’t catch one) and had a bit of a lick of its poisoned blood before it was dragged into the shed by other rats.
We waited around the house in a dreamlike state, but it was a horrible dream that we could not escape from. It is hard to remember the timing of events that day, or how long we had been home before the first phone call from the vet. Heads together on the phone we both listened to her explaining about blood platelets and internal bleeding, but we knew, by the tone of her voice what she was saying. I asked if it was possible he had a tumour. It was bad enough trying to accept that we were losing him, but not in this way! Not by something that could have been avoided. She agreed to do an ultrasound scan and found there was so much blood in the abdominal cavity that it wasn’t possible to get a very clear image of the liver, but there was no evidence of a tumour, and his system was shutting down. We went back to the surgery and cuddled him, telling him what a wonderful boy he was and I told him how sorry I was for letting him down. The vet exchanged the vitamin K drip for whatever it is that puts them to sleep. He seemed calm, the panting had stopped and he was cooler than usual to touch. The vet explained this was because he was going into shock.
I think we were also slightly in shock. The speed at which all this had happened made it feel as though he’d been killed in a sudden accident.
Back home, Julz removed and disposed of the rat poison from the loft and warned the neighbours to be vigilant of their pets, and since then we’ve mostly been grieving and analysing it all and replaying the past. We’ve been told that people in the locality who don’t have pets are buying poison from shops and putting it the garden. If Gandalf did die from licking the rat that was in the shed then the poison must have come from a source other than our loft, as the dead rat was found on the day the poison was put there, and it takes some time to work. This may sound crazy but I want to believe that it wasn’t the poison in our loft that killed him – although of course it makes no difference whose fucking poison it was – and imagine how angry we would feel with the neighbourhood if we hadn’t ended up resorting to poison.
I know I have rambled on a bit here and gone into too much detail but writing about this is helping in some way. This is day four after it happened, and I no longer feel so permanently choked up. Some people lose children and somehow manage to carry on, and I know this doesn’t compare. We are gradually disposing of the things that make us cry – brushes with his hair still in them – that kind of thing, but I wonder how long it will be before we stop opening door so carefully in case he’s behind them or turning to pick up his water bowl to fill it. That reminds me; I’ve learned that poisoned rats tend to go to water as it makes them thirsty. Poor rats. So, if you have pets in the garden beware of birdbaths etc. This also reminds me that when Gandalf went out at three o’clock on Sunday morning I noticed his water bowl was nearly empty and filled it up, but just thought it was all the stressy panting that was making him thirsty. Poor Gandalf. I take some comfort in knowing he had eight good years, and deerhounds don’t live to such a grand old age so he missed out on the last year or two that would have seen his decline. Looking at photos taken just a week before his death he is showing his age a little. It is chilling to think that on that lovely day the poison was already taking its insidious course and we had no idea what was about to hit us, and of course I am worried about all the other dogs and cats in the neighbourhood.
I want to spread the word about the danger of using rat poison. I have written to the Pest Control company, begging them to give their customers more information about the product they are using, the way it works and especially the hazard of dead rodents. I am amazed how widely available this stuff is in shops – when they will only sell two packets of paracetamol at a time.
I think this post has finally dried up, thank goodness. I feel strangely disconnected at this moment, as if I’ve been writing about something that happened to someone else, but will end this now with two of my favourite photos:
Gandalf: 7/03/2007 – 24/05/2015 Canerikie Celtic Chief.
Our beautiful darling doggy who will be loved and missed forever XXX