The Family we choose

When I started this blog, I imagined it as a professional space for me to write about what I’m doing in terms of teaching and research. I have deactivated the majority of my social media accounts in response to the disgustingly shady practices of these for-profit tech companies which mine and sell our data to influence elections at worst and bombard us with ads at best. As a result, I curate this site as my main web presence, and recent events in my personal life made me feel the need to blog like it’s 2002 and I’m on LiveJournal.

This past week and a half has been exceptionally rough on my wife and me, and I’m still honestly not sure when this emotional tumult will be over. Robin, one of our ferrets, took a terrible turn in health. The long and short of it is that my wife and I spent about three days cycling through the various stages of grief, and decided that it was probably time for Robin to “cross the rainbow bridge”. I have a tendency to write a lot, and plan on cataloguing Robin’s life here, so I won’t hold you in suspense: as you’ll see by the end of this post, dear readers, Robin is still with us, and she’s feeling much better than before.

Before I get into her present state, let me establish a bit of background:

Adopting Robin

In September of 2017, when my wife and I had been dating for a little over a year, we decided to adopt a pet together. Due to our living arrangements, dogs and cats were unfortunately out of the question, despite our inclinations and pet-rearing experience. Neither of us was particularly fond of the idea of pet fish, and we ended up deciding we would look to adopt a bird–I had had parakeets when I was younger, so we wouldn’t be too out of our depth. We drove around to a few pet stores, but none of them had any birds left in stock. By the third store, we gave up on the bird idea, and one of the workers offered to let us play with the ferrets. We immediately fell in love with a tiny ferret with grey-and-white fur. We picked up a “How to care for your ferret” pamphlet, read some posts online, and walked out of the store with a cage, bedding, litter, a handful of toys, unhealthy treats, and the some trash-tier ferret kibble the store stocked (more on that later).

Although I was apprehensive about adopting a ferret, since I had absolutely no experience with small mammals to speak of, Nia convinced me to give it a go. Besides, she had guinea pigs and chinchillas when she was younger–how different could a ferret be? Plus, ferrets live around seven years, so we’d have a pet to love for a good amount of time. We brought Robin home, set up her cage, and played with her for hours. I fell in love, and Robin became my baby girl.

We absolutely spoiled her, too. We bought a travel carrier so I could bring her back and forth to Nia’s appartment in NYC (where ferrets are still illegal because of former mayor Rudy Giuliani, trash-tier human being known most recently for inciting a right-wing insurrection at the Capitol, and solliciting sex from an undercover journalist who presented herself as an underage girl). We bought more toys, hammocks, bendy tubes, and a ball pit.

Little John

Ferrets are very social animals, though. We kicked around the idea of adopting another ferret to be a companion for her, and only two and a half months later, on a routine trip to the pet store for some food, we saw a lonely ferret whose friends had all been adopted. The pet store employee told us that only after the last ferret from a batch is adopted will they order a new shipment of ferrets (yes, “shipment”, because, despite my “adoption” framing thusfar, this is a huge, for-profit, chain pet store–more on that later).

Even when we first got him, Little John was a chonker of a boy, being twice the size of Robin, hence the ironic and thematic name. As soon as we opened the door and brought Little John inside, Robin perked up to see what the source of the new smell was. The two took to each other immediately.

The two of them became thick as thieves, getting into trouble together as well!

Messing about (in low-resolution)

One time, I kid you not, Nia and I found our passports and loose cash stuffed into a ferret hoard under our bed. I don’t know what they were planning, but we didn’t let them get away with it!

Our Family

So Robin and Little John have been with Nia and me for the past four years, which comprised some pretty rough times. We form our own little family, though. Robin is still my baby girl, and Little John is her bigger little brother. Nia and I got married during the first pandemic summer (July, 2020), and moved out of state into a cozy house we bought soon after. Our living conditions had been unstable since 2016, and that meant that the ferrets had more or less space at any given time due to these circumstances. But in our house, they can roam so much more.

Their deluxe, multi-tiered cage sits in our living room right by the window, so they can look out over the road or just profit from some direct sunlight. This also helps with ventilation, since they poop about 7000 times per day and have a particular musk (fun fact: ferrets are related to skunks!), even when the litter boxes are empty. We don’t let them in the bedroom, the hall closet, or the bathroom, but otherwise they can run around the hallway, dining room, and kitchen. Little John especially is a pro at climbing stairs, so we have to keep a toddler gate up, otherwise he finds his way into our home offices (which are absolutely not ferret-proof!). We had to train them not to crawl under the oven, but they still sometimes sneak behind the refrigerator. I thought their days of raiding the pantry were over, but a few weeks ago, Little John climbed into a case of seltzer I had on the shelf!

I read a tweet some time ago that, for millennials, plants are the new pets, and pets are the new children. The way Nia and I have treated Robin and Little John really validated the second part of that tweet in my mind (and one of our friends absolutely gushes about how wonderful her houseplants are doing–validating the other part of the tweet!). That’s what made it so painful when Robin got sick at only three and a half years old.

Health problems

Around November/December 2020, Robin started losing some hair on her tail. We read online that this could sometimes happen while they change their fur coats for the season. We had just seen an exotic vet (right around the corner from us–what luck!)–Robin and Little John had their yearly wellness check-up in September, and got a clean bill of health, so we couldn’t conceive it to be anything too grave. I also called my sister, a vet tech, who confirmed with one of the exotic vets she works with that the hair loss sounds seasonal based on the patterning. Additionally, Robin’s behavior was otherwise unchanged, so we didn’t suspect the actual cause: adrenal cancer. By January 2021, she had full “rat tail”, and we noticed some peculiar behaviors. Namely, she was less energetic than usual, and she occasionally would stare out into space. We scheduled an appointment with our vet.

But Robin had her first seizure before the appointment. She was staring off into space and drooling, and started pawing at her jaw, which appeared locked open as if she were silently screaming. She writhed around, constantly pawing. Nia and I looked on in horror and fear. We didn’t know what to do. By this time, Robin would only walk around for 5-10 minutes before she lay down–Little John, in contrast, would still be bursting with energy after 30 minutes of prancing around the house.

When we got Robin to the vet, we explained all the symptoms. The vet suspected insulinoma (a cancer which results in overproduction of insulin, leading to hypoglycemia, the effects of which include lethargy, tremors, seizures, comas, strokes, and brain damage. He checked her blood-glucose levels and confirmed. The diagnosis: adrenal cancer, insulinoma, and six months to live. He called a ferret specialist to make sure the medicine we were eventually prescribed would still be effective given the two concurrent cancers. We walked out with liquid prednisolone, a steroid which would help to counteract the insulin.

The diagnosis caught us completely off-guard. When I had read about insulinoma, it seemed to be a common end-of-life disease for elderly ferrets (5+ years old)–not my baby girl of 3.5 years. And a prognosis of six months to live? I was devastated. We had a follow-up appointment a week later to check her blood-glucose levels. Thankfully, the medicine was effective. It was a struggle to give it to her–so we bribed her with treats, especially Furovite (which is basically just corn syrup and chocolate–so think: Ferret-grade Hershey’s syrup).

After a couple of days, we noticed Robin was more and more active. She wasn’t spacing out. Day by day, she played more and walked around more. She started wrestling Little John again. Everything was great for a couple of months. You see, Ferrets in the wild typically consume whole prey–bones and all. The trash quality food from the pet store (like most pet foods in the US), is cut with an unhealthy amount of grains (for a ferret). Furovite and other popular ferret treats are mostly sugar. This was having a knock-on effect with the insulinoma. We had no clue that we were inadvertently instigating additional insulin production by feeding her such a high-sugar/carb diet.

Robin started dragging her hind legs as if she had no control over them. Her activity dropped back down to 10-15 minutes at a time. She had difficulty climbing up the cage (they both absolutely refuse to use the ramps). She often wouldn’t make it to the litterbox and ended up leaving a mess on one of the medial platforms in the cage (or, if she wasn’t in the cage, right on the carpet). To tie it all up, she had another seizure when we were back in New York when Nia’s grandmother passed. Maybe it was the added stress of an eight-hour car ride, or the change in routine, but it was a clear decline.

When we got back home, we switched vets to a Ferret/small mammal specialist (now 30 minutes away rather than 5) instead of an exotic vet with a different specialization. We transitioned to Wysong kibble, which is supposed to be a top-tier mixture with a similar macronutrient profile to their natural diet. We cut down Furovite as much as possible (it’s still very effective to get Robin to take the prednisolone), and switched the other treats to one with no carbs or sugars. The new vet modified the concentration of the prednisolone, so we now administer a smaller volume, but twice daily. We also get it compounded with different flavoring, like beef or chicken, to help coax her into taking it.

The months came and went, and Robin stabilized again. We’ve been reluctant to change her routine, though. Although I’m back to work in person, Nia still works remotely, so there’s always someone home to give Robin her morning or evening medicine. One of us is tied down to her, though, which meant that I missed Nia’s grandma’s funeral in Georgia, and Nia missed my Nana’s 101st birthday party in New York. We organize trips and even date nights around Robin’s medicine schedule.

But Robin has been happy and (relatively) healthy, despite her lowered activity levels. Even in late June (around her prognosticated death), she was wrestling Little John. When we finally got a couch, she was playing around under it (and inside the boxes, of course!). And when we put the Halloween decorations up, she played with a spectre.

Full-body, convulsing seizure

Then, a little over a week ago, we noticed a further decline in activity. Robin would only walk around for a few minutes before lying down. She couldn’t walk on our tile floor, and was usually waddling back and forth on the carpet. She would just stick her head under the couch like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Instead of snuggling up in her little blanket, she just sprawled out on the floor. The drooling episodes were becoming more common. She couldn’t make it to the litterbox, or even stand long enough to urinate or defecate without soiling the bedding and herself. On Saturday, she didn’t have the energy to groom herself, so her coat was greasy and sticky with urine and feces.

It was on that day we watched her have a full-body seizure, convulsing and twitching uncontrollably in her own feces. In the same fear and terror that gripped us when she pawed at her mouth in January, Nia and I just looked at each other, unsure of what to do. The convulsions lasted for what felt like forever, but what was likely around two minutes. When she stopped, she just lay there, breathing shallow breaths, splayed out on her side in excrement.

We waited a bit before positioning her more comfortably on the floor of the cage, near her food bowl (since the seizures are brought on by hypoglycemia, we hoped she would eat and get her blood-sugar levels back up). She ate a bit, took her medicine, and seemed stable enough for me to bathe her. It’s hard enough to bathe a squirmy ferret when they’re not violently ill and likely terrified that their body is failing them. With all of the strength she had in her front two legs, she tried to climb out of the shallow basin of lukewarm water. A quick bath with a little shampoo, then I dried her off as best I could. She had enough energy to fight the bath and the towel, so I let her walk around and roll around on the carpet for a bit to dry herself off.

She spent the next two days in what I can only assume was terrible pain. Nia and I deliberated over what to do. We didn’t want Robin to be in pain anymore. It seemed like it was time. The drooling worsened. She wasn’t eating or drinking regularly. She yelped in pain in the middle of the night while just lying in the hammock with Little John. She wouldn’t walk around–she couldn’t walk around. She rolled and dragged herself in circles, and lay in positions that looked uncomfortable (even moreso than the usual odd positions of ferrets).

We called all of the vets in the area. The office of our regular vet only told us they had a relief vet in, one who didn’t handle exotics. Our old vet left the practice around the corner from our house. We called emergency vet hospitals, regular vet hospitals, vet clinics that advertised caring for exotics. None of them had anyone on staff who handled animals that weren’t dogs or cats. The office staff gave us numbers to other clinics and hospitals, none of which had exotic vets on staff anymore. We left voicemails and a few places told us they would call us back. I cleared my schedule. Monday came and went, and we had no clue if we would be able to even find someone in the state who would perform the euthanasia. I gave Robin some extra prednisolone, hoping it would hold her over.

Our regular vet’s office called us back and said they would do the euthanasia Tuesday afternoon. Throughout Tuesday morning, though, she had bouts of clarity or strength, where it seemed like she was okay. I told myself not to get too hopeful. I had deluded myself into thinking that, since Robin had outlived her prognosis, she would have a healthy, if less active, but full life of around seven years. I experienced and re-experienced the stages of grief cyclically: first in January, then in March (the trip to New York), then over last week leading up to her seizure, and again when she had the seizure. I didn’t want to cling onto a tiny, hopeless hope that would send me spiralling again.

The Princess Bride, 1987


But she was improving. She was eating and drinking more, which gave her more strength. The extra prednisolone isn’t hurting either, I’m sure, though I’ll admit I have absolutely no idea if that’s a tenable, long-term solution, since I am not a trained vet. Nia and I took turns bawling like babies in the hours leading up to our appointment. I hit the “bargaining” stage. I looked up insulinoma surgery again–something that our vet didn’t really address whenever I asked him. I read a proceedings paper by a DVM on insulinoma and the effectiveness of the surgery: 52% chance that she would remain hypoglycemic post-surgery, but on a lower dosage of prednisolone, and reports of successful patients with up to two years of additional life span. Seeing as she’s 4 years old now, I’m assuming she would fall on the far end of that range.

We went to the vet with the express purpose of asking about the surgery first before going through with the euthanasia. While still lethargic, Robin had stabilized. We figured it was our last option to try out. We found out that our vet had actually left that practice, and it would be a non-exotic vet who would perform the euthanasia. She met with us, and said she couldn’t actually advise on the surgery, so we should continue looking around for exotic vets, and underscored that we had options beyond euthanasia. The only clinic she could recommend was one we had called the previous day, who no longer had an exotic vet on staff.

We called the megacorp pet store, which advertises veterinary services. They said they didn’t have anyone who could treat ferrets–nor did they know of any vets in the area who handled ferrets. They didn’t even name one of the dozen places I had already called who used to provide exotic pet care. How supremely unethical is that? They’ll sell you chinchillas, gerbils, hamsters, ferrets, mice, guinea pigs, parakeets, and cockatiels–which are supposedly given a clean bill of health before sale–regardless of whether there will be anyone in the area to give wellness exams or treat them if they get sick.

We finally found a part-time exotic vet who specializes in ferrets when he’s not working his full-time job elsewhere. He doesn’t even have his own office, or staff, but takes appointments by gmail and operates out of a local veterinary hospital that rents him the space. He said he performs the surgery, and he can see us Monday.

I’m so very glad we didn’t go through with the euthanasia. Not only are things looking up for long-term with the possibility of the surgery, but Robin’s health is improving short-term. She’s been much more alert and active–back to the level of being on the medicine, anyway. She’s eating and drinking regularly, she’s making it to the litter box, and she’s grooming herself again. She’s walking very well on the carpet, and even took a stroll around on the tile without any problems.

We went out and bought them some early Christmas presents, which they’re both enjoying.

Unfortunately, neither of them really likes wearing their new outfits 🙁

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