Love in a Small Package

I don’t know how something so small could contain so much love, but they do.  I have always been an animal lover, with an affinity for the more obscure critters.  One of those obscure animals that I happen to be fond of is the Degu.  A little rodent related to the Chinchilla.  This is going to be a post about my little guys and why I love them, and why it hurt so much losing one.


Degu Snuggle Puddle

Meet Carl and Steve, my little furry monsters (sorry for the video quality, filming conditions are not always the best in my apartment).  Steve is a bit over a year old and Carl was the same age when he passed.  Steve and Carl are Degus, a rodent species that is relatively new to the pet scene.  Initially kept for use on diabetes research these guys have been slowly emerging as exotic pets.  Intelligent and rambunctious they are fun to hang out with and make for some entertaining moments.

They are high energy and this doesn’t lead to them being the best cuddle buddies as they don’t sit still for that long.  They are highly social animals though and this makes them friendly and trainable.  They are one of the only non-primate animals to have been observed using tools.  They can also see in the UV spectrum, which doesn’t mean anything from a pet standpoint but is something I think is neat.

These little guys know their names and will come when called (sometimes).  I like to describe them as a cat like personality if you happen to have a friendly cat.  They will listen to you if they want to (or you have treats).  They are also dangerously curious, I say dangerously because they will chew anything and will get into a lot of trouble if left unattended.

They also have an abnormally long lifespan for a rodent.  With the estimated top end being over ten years.  That is why losing Carl was so hard, he was far too young.

We got Steve and Carl on a whim after seeing them at the pet store.  Originally we had stopped by the store to get a Beta fish, we walked out with a cage, bedding, food and two Degus.  They were just too cute and full of personality to leave there.

Carl was always the more outgoing of the two of them.  In fact, it was their different personalities that allowed us to tell them apart, they look very similar.  Carl would always come running up to the cage door when one of us got home.  Ready for some play time and petting.  He would crawl up your arm and sit on your shoulder to check out the little domain of our apartment.  If the Degu was jumping around trying to get your attention that was how you knew it was Carl.

If you sat with him he would sometimes crawl up your back, always trying to get higher and keep a look out.  He would also bounce around and play, if not with one of us than then with his brother Steve.  Carl’s outgoing nature brought Steve out of his shell and gave him more confidence in their constant quest to escape the cage and explore the apartment.

One time Carl managed to get out of his little play area.  My Fiancee was working from home at the time and Carl ran up to her leg and started pawing at her foot while she sat at the desk.  He escaped because he wanted attention and affection.  That is the kind of creature these guys are.

While not for everyone, I love my little Degus and feel the kind of attachment to them that someone would feel to a dog or cat.  I’ve had dogs and cats before and know that I feel the same toward Steve and Carl as I felt toward those animals.

That’s my problem with animals though, I grow too attached to them.  I really am an animal lover.  I know a lot of people say that but I find that most of them just mean dogs and cats.  I really do love my little guys just as much as I would love a dog or even a person.  I don’t know, maybe I’m on the spectrum, but I find I connect with animals in a way that I can’t with people.

This connection made Carl’s death particularly difficult.  I’ve had animals die before, but they would be old and their death was something inevitable, just part of life.  It was sad, but a cat dying of old age at 20 is different.  Simply put Carl was too young to die.

The problem with Degus being exotic pets is that getting proper care for them is difficult.  When Carl started losing weight we brought him to a vet that claimed to have dealt with these animals before.  Carl’s teeth were overgrown, a common enough problem in rodents.  We had them clipped and Carl started gaining weight again.  Then he started loosing weight, this time even faster.

We brought him back to the vet who gave us painkillers and antibiotics for Carl.  Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had to give a rodent medicine before, but let me tell you, it’s not easy and not pleasant.  They don’t know you’re trying to help, and they get scared and angry as you hold them down and force feed them meds.  We tried mixing it in food but he wasn’t even eating normal food, let along medicated food.

After a week of medication and no improvement the vet finally admitted he wasn’t sure and had never worked with Degus in a significant way.  We got a referral to a new vet, one who knew what he was doing.  This vet did some more work on Carl’s teeth, and tested his stool.

That was where the problem was.  Carl, in his weakened state, had contracted a parasite.  One that was making him lose weight and lose his appetite.  By this point we were syringe feeding him a mix of ground up food and medical emergency food.  We got medication for this new ailment and force fed him every fifteen minutes.

With these animals you have to keep food in their guts, or the intestines can shut down, they rely on fermentation to properly digest.  Force feeding even a weak rodent is still difficult.  Most of the food would end up on our hands or on his face.  So I don’t know how much we were managing to get into him every feeding.

Over the weekend he kept getting weaker, never really bouncing back from being put under for his second round of dental work at the vet.  I was getting up in the middle of the night to feed him, keep him warm and try to get him to come back.  We just needed him to live long enough for the medication to start working.

He was just skin and bones at this point.  Every time I picked him up to feed him it broke my heart.  This once active and loving animal had been reduced to a shell, barely alive, but struggling to hold on.  So I kept fighting with him.  Medicating him and feeding him as best I could.  It took a toll though.  He just wanted to rest, but I wouldn’t let him.  I felt like I was torturing him, shoving that syringe in his mouth every fifteen minutes, but it had to be done.

It was too little too late.  We needed another week, that’s all we needed.  If we had been a week sooner he would have made it.  Sadly, he had just lost too much weight, the parasite had taken too much of a toll.  There was nothing we could do.

I found him barely breathing in the morning and took him in my arms.  Steve was watching, running around his cage, confused and not understanding what was happening.  Most animals don’t have a concept of death, I wished I could explain to him.

With Carl on my chest, wrapped in my hands, my Fiancee holding his paw, like he used to grab our fingers when we tried to scratch his chin, he slowly faded.  With each bout of strained breathing becoming more and more distant, my little guy died surrounded by love.

We buried him later that day.


It’s hard to explain to someone how something so small can contain so much love.  People don’t understand.  They don’t know how hard it is.  But I loved him, and he was an amazing pet.  He died too soon and for that I can’t help but blame myself.  I should have brought him to a better vet when I realized that the one we were working with was clueless.  I will always blame myself.

Losing Carl actually knocked me through a loop.  Something that only people who have felt that kind of love can understand.  My persistent depression makes it hard for me to feel anything, but Carl and Steve were one of the few things that always made me happy.

I still have Steve though.  He knows his brother is gone, and he is sad in the way that animals get sad.  We are spending a lot of time with him though, not letting him get lonely.  Degus can actually get sick from being alone, so we are getting Steve a new friend.  It will be a slow introduction, but Steve needs friends of his own kind.

When Carl was first getting bad I separated him from Steve for a night.  Just because I didn’t want him getting hurt in his weakened state.  Steve didn’t understand and I was worried he might accidentally hurt him by bumping him off a ramp in their cage.  It also made feeding him easier as I didn’t have to deal with Steve escaping when I opened the cage to get Carl.

The next morning I put Carl back with Steve and I don’t think I’ve seen a reunion like that in an animal in my whole life.  Not even with dogs.  Steve started chirping (a sound Degus make when they are happy) and pawing at Carl.  Running around him, grooming and petting him.  It’s hard to describe, but it was clear he missed his brother.  I didn’t separate them again after that, not until Carl passed.

Love is not an emotion reserved for humans, animals feel it too.  I don’t care if that sounds kooky, it’s something I have seen firsthand.  It’s also not something reserved for cats and dogs, a real animal person will understand that love can come in small bundles too.

I’m going to miss Carl.  It was too soon for him.  I have Steve though and soon will have a new little bundle of love.  Love your pets, they make us better people.

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