Pocket pets are rodents that have become endearing companions to their devoted owners. Examples of pocket pets include hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats, guinea pigs, and chinchillas Because each species has different nutritional needs, behavioral traits, housing requirements, and health issues, potential owners are advised to do their homework before bringing one of these little creatures home.
Because of their smaller size as compared with other types of pets, the care of pocket pets is not as demanding and might be good pets for children (with parental supervision). These creatures must NEVER be picked up by their tails!
Ohio-based veterinarian Dr. Gary Riggs suggests that potential pocket pet owners ask themselves the following questions:
- Do I have enough room for the animal’s cage?
- What space and exercise needs does the animal have? Does it need to run and climb?
- What does this animal eat? How specialized is its food?
- When does this animal sleep? At night or during the day?
- How much interaction does the animal like or need? Do I have enough time to spend with it?
- How messy is the animal? How often am I going to have to clean up after it?
Dr. Riggs adds that some pocket pets are comfortable being handled while others are not. He also wants potential owners be aware that some species like guinea pigs prefer to have another guinea pig (of the same gender) share the cage. He also recommends spaying and neutering for chinchillas and guinea pigs because they are prone due to have reproductive tract problems.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association rodents have shorter lifespans than other pets. The average life span for hamsters and gerbils is 2-3 years, 1-3 years for mice, 2-4 years for rats, and guinea pigs may live 5-7 years, and chinchillas 12 to 20.years.
How often a pocket pet needs to be seen by a vet varies by the type of animal. According to Dr. Riggs hamsters and guinea pigs are usually seen by a vet 2 to 3 times a year while others are seen annually.
Rats and guinea pigs are more prone to dental issues and may need frequent dental exams. Pet rodents can be acquired from pet stores, reputable breeders, rescue organizations and animal shelters. The American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that potential pocket pet owners inquire about a return policy if the animal is not healthy and to avoid adopting an animal living in a filthy smelly, environment. Owners are advised to schedule an initial appointment with a vet within 48 hours after bringing home a pocket pet.
Signs of illness in rodents
- Discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth.
- Coughing, sneezing or wheezing.
- Check the animal’s tail area for diarrhea or caked-on stool (important before adopting young hamsters because they might have a potentially fatal disease called “wet tail.”
- A healthy pet rodent should appear to be frisky and might resist being handled but not panic.
A safe environment
Pocket pets need housing in the form of a cage. Rats and guinea pigs may require larger cages that what are sold at pet supply stores. Rodents need to have enough room to move around to get some exercise.
Cage latches must be secure because some pocket pets can be expert escape artists according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Secure housing for rodents is necessary especially if other pets live under the same roof.
Other choices for pocket pet housing include a 10-gallon glass aquarium tank with a wire mesh cover over the top that can prevent the pet from escaping or the pet from kicking out its bedding and making a mess, or an expandable tube cage with tunnels that allows the pet to explore, get exercise and mental stimulation. Bedding will also be needed for the bottom of the cage because some pocket pets use it to dig, burrow and make nests. Bedding also helps to absorb odors.
Bedding made from recycled paper, wood, and corncobs are suitable, but avoid using pine or cedar products because they may be harmful to animals.
Additional items needed to “furnish” a pocket pet’s habitat include a small water bottle with a stopper, a ceramic food dish, cardboard items to chew like paper towel and toilet paper rolls (not egg cartons or wax- coated cardboard that could sicken pets). Some pocket pets like nesting areas made from unscented toilet paper which creates a comfortable place to sleep.
Pocket pets are notorious chewers because their teeth grow continuously throughout their lives.
Protect your pets
Enclose all electrical wiring with metal tubing.
Spray baseboards, furniture legs and cabinets with a chewing deterrent like Bitter Apple.
Closely supervise a pocket pet if it is allowed out of its cage.
Owners are advised to wash the food bowl and water bottle and provide fresh water daily. Other parts of the cage should be washed with soapy water if an odor is present. All parts of the cage must be thoroughly dried before putting items back into the cage.
Before bringing home a pocket pet, it would be wise to consult with a veterinarian regarding: nutritional needs of specific pocket pet species, feeding schedules (hamsters, mice and rats are nocturnal), species- specific diets, if supplements are needed, and foods or treats to be avoided.
Pocket pets can become bored and benefit from exercise, play, and problem solving (like searching for food hidden in the cage). By providing toys like an exercise wheel and safe chew toys to wear down their ever-growing teeth, pocket pets receive both mental and physical stimulation. When the owner gently handles and talks to a pocket pet, a bond between them grows and the pet may gradually welcome interacting with humans.
Popular pocket pet species
Hamsters: The most common pocket pet. Pet Hamsters are Golden hamsters that can also be pink- eyed albinos. When housed together in pairs or groups hamsters may fight and should be housed in separate cages.
Gerbils: Are close in size to hamsters, but more active and social. Unlike hamsters, gerbils are happier when housed as a pair (same gender) or in a small group.
Mice: Are slightly more nervous than hamsters or gerbils. Females do well in pairs or small groups, but males often fight with each other. Albino mice are often available in pet stores. There are also “fancy” mice that come in a variety of colors.
Rats: Are social and thrive as same-sex pairs. Because of their larger size they are easier to handle, rarely bite, and may strongly bond with their owners. They come in a variety of colors, require larger cages and more attention than smaller rodents.
Guinea Pigs: Are the largest pet rodent. Their size and gentle temperament have made them popular. They are social, less likely to bite and do well as same-gender pairs. They are also very vocal. Guinea pigs have more demanding dietary needs than other rodents requiring fresh hay and vegetables. They also require supplemental vitamin C because they cannot produce their own and receive it from their diet. Long-haired guinea pigs should be brushed regularly to prevent tangled hair.
Chinchillas: Veterinarian Dr. Hines of 2nd Chance loves these perky little creatures whose personality he describes to be “similar to a park squirrel,” but they are not right pet for everyone particularly children because these animals are small and fragile and if squeezed too tight, they will bite. Hines prefers these rodents because they do not produce an unpleasant odor, and have longer life spans. Hines states that they can be high-strung, and have short attention spans, and do not tolerate hot weather or high humidity. He suggests that chinchillas be housed in a 6x4 mesh cage with a galvanized droppings pan (washed with vinegar if new) and be cleaned every two days. He warns potential owners to avoid purchasing Chinese-made cages that may be coated with paint containing lead or plastic toys or cage parts that could be ingested. The cage should located away from drafts and strong sunlight. These little creatures enjoy chewing on cardboard boxes to hide in and “dust bathing.” Dr. Hines supplies his pets with cornstarch or corn meal in a shallow dish or crock for this activity. He endorses the use of a large activity wheel for active chinchillas.
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Resources: The American Veterinary Medicine Association “Selecting a Pet Rodent” pamphlet. Listen to guinea pigs’ amazing vocalizations and learn what they mean on YouTube!