By Tamara Sevigny
Hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, ferrets, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and rabbits are cute, small, and inexpensive. They are not, however, disposable, nor should they be neglected. Each has specific requirements for food, housing, handling, and exercise. “Unfortunately, there are still too many people who treat small animals as disposable. We’ve taken in guinea pigs who have been left behind when owners changed apartments, or been set loose in wooded areas where they can’t fend for themselves, or — what really makes us sick — placed in dumpsters,” says Cindy
Kuester, founder, and owner of The Critter Connection, Inc., a guinea pig rescue organization in Durham. “We’re hoping that as people become more aware of us and other specialty rescues –like the F.A.C.T. ferret rescue in Hartford, to name just one in Connecticut –they’ll realize there are other, humane ways to handle the surrender of animals. Even if they take their small pets to one of the larger shelters, those groups are familiar with us and always call when they have an animal in need.”
A home is one of the most important things you will provide a small animal. The correct size will vary from a small aquarium for mice to a large, tall cage for chinchillas. The local pet store will help you determine the right size for your small friend. Cages need to be kept clean and well ventilated and kept away from dogs, cats, and other predators. The bottom of the cage should always be solid, never wire mesh, as it is dangerous and uncomfortable.
Soft bedding is also important. The most common is shredded or shaved cedar or pine. Other types include alfalfa, peanut hull pellets, compressed cellulose, and shredded butcher paper. All are good to use as long as they are non-toxic, dust-free, soft, and absorbent. Avoid shredded newspaper, which may contain a lot of ink and chemicals. Cedar reduces odor but can be toxic to hamsters, gerbils, and chinchillas. You can also offer cotton, wool, and tissue paper for forming nests. Be sure to change the bedding twice a week to ensure it is clean and dry. A formula of one part bleach and three parts water is an excellent disinfectant but rinse thoroughly. Rabbits and ferrets have been known to learn how to use a litter box, so you might consider putting one in their cages.
Keep your pet happy and enriched with accessories. Small animals feel safe in a hiding box or tube they can conceal themselves in. You can buy plastic tunnels, rolling plastic balls with lids, and other toys at a pet shop. Make sure they are durable so your pet does not get his tail and feet caught or chew his way out of it. Chewing blocks and pressed plant fibers can be purchased for their chewing needs. Rodent’s teeth constantly grow so chewing is essential to keep them filed down. Paper towel tubes are an excellent toy and chewing tool for small rodents.
High-quality, fresh pellets designed for each species provide the best nutrition. You can supplement their diet with fruits and vegetables as well. Treats, just like junk food, should be used sparingly. Each species has different diet requirements and you should be aware of what they are and how to administer them. Chinchillas, for example, require a lot of plant fiber, as do rabbits, whereas guinea pigs require extra Vitamin C. All small pets require freshwater available 24 hours a day. Some will or will not use a plastic and metal sipper bottle, so take notice if your pet uses it. Rabbits tend to clog them and may require a heavy ceramic or steel bowl that will not spill.
These adorable little pets are hard to resist but do require care when you handle them due to their small size. Approach them slowly so you don’t startle them. Try not to wake them, but if you do, do it slowly so they can orient themselves. Hold small rodents cupped in your hands and larger ones with one hand under the armpits and one under its back or bottom. Chinchillas should be picked up by the tail near the body, with one hand under the legs.
If you are considering a small pet for your household research each type before making your decision. Each has different needs that may or may not fit into your household. Also, consider adopting from a rescue organization like Critter Connection who encourages adoption. Kuester says that “the advantage of adopting a small or exotic animal from a specialty rescue is that we know the personalities of the individual animals so well that we can help you find the right animal for your home.”
Small pets can be considered “starter” pets for kids, but inexperienced kids can be rough with these delicate animals, so be sure to supervise them. Encourage children to sit on the floor when handling them to avoid dropped or fallen animals.
Finally, make sure your little pet sees a doctor. Regular check-ups are important because, with only 2-8 years to live, their health can change quickly. Kuester told us that “Connecticut veterinarians are seeing more owners bringing in small pets — ranging from hamsters to hedgehogs to guinea pigs and rabbits to ferrets — for basic checkups and care for illnesses. These vets tell us that people are realizing these small animals require as much care and attention as dogs or cats. But it’s taking a long time to change people’s lack of awareness about proper animal care — regardless of what kind of animal you’re talking about.”
With veterinarian care, a good home, a healthy diet, and lots of love you’ll have bright eyes and a twitching nose to keep you company for a long time.