I had hamsters back in grad school, but didn’t have any again for several years until someone I knew mentioned getting one and it reminded me how much I loved having them. I learned that the humane societies and animal shelters adopt out hamsters, and that week I found a three-yearold man named Lil’ Bill. Lil’ Bill was a friendly, old dwarf hamster and he was adorable. He especially loved carrots and it was hilarious watching him stuff his cheeks with them. That week I found another hamster that needed a home and I brought her home and named her Chicken. Unfortunately, after just a week Lil’ Bill broke his leg and needed to be surrendered and put down. Next I adopted my second oldest hammy named Marty McFly.
Among the hamsters that have made it this long there were two that didn’t make it long at all (Dwight Floof and Inigo Hamtoya). The loss of Inigo was the most traumatic and the loss of Chicken, this past March, was the most heartbreaking. It was after the traumatic loss that I wondered if it was worth it. I had tried to revive Inigo from what I found out (too late) was hibernation, by placing him on a makeshift heating pad and massaging his limp body. He took a few labored breaths, squeaked, and died in my hands. Chicken’s loss has been particularly difficult. Chicken was a plump, orange gal, and she was UNUSUALLY friendly for a hamster. She was gentle, she loved being held, and she was everyone’s favorite hammy. She died in my arms, in a blanket while on the way to the vet. She was already a year and a half old when I got her, and I had her for as long. She lived a full and spoiled life and died with me talking to her.
Before losing Inigo, I had a conversation with another small pet owner who was expressing fear and sadness in advance of losing their pet. The owner was concerned about the short life span of their pet and expressed that they may never be able to own another one after that. We explored this and together came up with some creative ways to handle the loss of our small pets. I reminded the pet owner that these small pets probably don’t think of their lifespan as long or short. They live each moment, running on their wheels, eating seeds, rolling around the floor in their ball, and bonding with their owner. We know their lifespan is short, but all they know is a good life and love.
So how do we prepare for the loss of a beloved pet?
1. If you have children, prepare them by letting them say goodbye to the pet. Ask them how their life will be different without the pet. Let them ask questions and answer them as appropriately and honestly as you can.
2. Take pictures of your pet – lots of them. They may be hard to look at immediately after the loss, but later on you will be so glad to have them.
3. Take your pet to do their favorite things (this applies more to dogs and larger outdoor pets) and cherish your last days with them.
4. Have a plan in place if you know the loss is coming. Have some friends on standby that can hang out to provide comfort. Dig out your favorite shows/movies (in my case Mean Girls or The Sarah Silverman Program) to help provide even a tiny boost in your mood.
6. Consult a therapist that specializes in grief and pet loss. They can help you work through the loss and guide you through the healing process.
7. Consider joining a pet loss support group.
8. Check out your local bookstore or go online to find books and workbooks on grieving and pet loss.
8. Ask your kids and other family members what they need to help heal. Perhaps singing some songs, creating artwork of your pet, or holding a family memorial could be just the thing.
For Small Pet Owners: Is it worth it?
These animals that live a year to three years if you’re lucky, are they worth it? My argument is a big, resounding YES. All of mine have been rescues and have come from the Humane Society. Marty was one of 200 hammies found in a hoarder’s home. Chicken was surrendered to the Humane Society after her owners left her with a friend and moved without taking her. Princess Zelda of Hyrule vigorously climbs to the top of her cage for me to pick her up when she hears my voice. And my newest one, Michael Scarn, he’s finally getting comfortable being handled. Plus he’s damned adorable. They don’t know their lifespan is short. And they need homes and love. Our hearts may hurt when we lose them, but I believe we gain so much joy from them. One thing I recommend is making a scrapbook and include pictures of your tiny pet and write a little blurb. Continue this for every tiny pet, it’s a way to both enjoy the journey but also memorialize and honor them as you go.
And if you don’t think you can handle the loss of another small pet just yet, that’s okay also. The best thing you can do for yourself is self-care. Don’t feel rushed – healing takes time.
— By Annen Weber, LPC