Pet Health Articles

Rodents - Owning

General Information

Pet rodents, sometimes also referred to as "pocket pets" are very popular pets. Hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, and guinea pigs are the most common rodents kept as pets. They make good first pets for young children and as a rule require minimal care. Compared to dogs and cats, they have a shorter life span (2-5 years depending upon the species). Young children should be told this so that the "sudden death" of a 3-year-old pet does not come unexpectedly. As with any pet, they do occasionally get sick, and their illnesses are can be severe.

Most rodents eat some combination of pelleted hay, rodent chow, grains, seeds, vegetables and fruits, with the amount of each depending on the rodent.

The incisors or front teeth of all rodents grow continuously throughout the pet's life. Overgrown incisors are a common problem and can be prevented or minimized by providing the pet with gnawing opportunities such as access to pieces of wood and other chewing objects or toys. Treatment of overgrown incisors involves trimming (grinding or filing) by your veterinarian, often under anesthesia. In addition to their incisors, guinea pigs and chinchillas also have continuously growing molar or cheek teeth, as do rabbits (although rabbits are lagomorphs, not rodents). 

 

Specific information about popular rodents:

Guinea Pigsrodents-owning-1

Guinea pigs, also known as cavies (or cavy if it is one animal), make good family pets. The 3 most popular breeds (there are probably 13 or more different breeds) are: the English or common with short, straight, fine hair; the Abyssinian with rough, coarse hair growing in rosettes or whorls; and the Peruvian with long, straight, silky hair. There is a wide range of fur colors and patterns as well as hairless or "skinny pigs". Males are called boars and females are called sows. Males tend to be larger than females and their weight varies from 700 - 1200 grams.

"Guinea pigs are similar to humans and primates in that they require a dietary source of vitamin C."

Guinea pigs live 5 -6 years (although occasionally they can get to 8 years old). Older male animals have a "grease gland" on the skin at the base of the spine at their hind end. Guinea pigs have 4 toes on their front feet and 3 toes on their back feet. If a guinea pig senses danger, it will either freeze or make an explosive attempt to run away (if in a group, they will stampede). Guinea pigs do not see well, but have well developed senses of smell and hearing. They are communicative and use a wide variety of sounds to express themselves. They do not tolerate changes in their diet or environment very well. Guinea pigs are similar to humans and primates in that they require a dietary source of vitamin C. Guinea pigs are generally hardy, easy to care for and, if handled frequently and gently, make great family pets. They rarely bite or scratch and are docile, non-aggressive, responsive animals.

Mice

The mouse is a popular, somewhat timid, social, intelligent and entertaining pet, but may not be for everyone. Mice tend to be nocturnal (come out at night), but are active for short periods during the day. They do not shed a lot and seem to cause few allergies for people. They are small and considered a little more fragile than other rodents.

"If well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle, affectionate and less likely to bite than other rodents."

They are reasonably easy to care for and are clean animals (despite popular belief) but they do have a strong odor, and their urine is particularly pungent . Mice have a relatively short life span of about 2 years. They reproduce frequently and readily. If well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle, affectionate and less likely to bite than other rodents. However, they are great escape artists!

Rats

Rats are a very popular family pet. They are extremely intelligent, inquisitive, and social pets. They can be trained to come on command and tp perform various tricks. If well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle, affectionate, interactive and rarely bite unless provoked. Rats, like mice, tend to be nocturnal but are active for periods during the day. They do not shed a lot and seem to cause few allergies for people. They are hardy and reasonably easy to care for and are clean animals (despite popular belief). They live between 2 - 3 years. Rats make good family pets, although they are also great escape artists.

rodents-owning-2Hamsters

One of the most commonly kept family pets is the hamster. If well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle (as they tend to move slowly). However, they startle easily and may show a threat response or become defensive. Always let a hamster know you are there, or gently and slowly wake it up before attempting to handle it. Hamsters tend to be nocturnal but can active for periods during the day.

"Generally, hamsters are the most aggressive of all the pocket pets and bite more often."

Despite their clumsy appearance, they too, are great escape artists. They do not tolerate the heat very well; they should be kept in a cool area in the hot summer months. As a breed, the smaller Dwarf hamsters are excitable, startle easily, are more challenging to handle and will not hesitate to bite when being held. Generally, hamsters are the most aggressive of all the pocket pets and bite more often.

Gerbils

Gerbils are very friendly, very active, inquisitive pets. They make excellent pets for older children (perhaps 10 - 12 years old). They are very active, entertaining animals and love to climb, burrow and chew (they especially like to chew on paper, cardboard rolls, junk mail, etc...).

"Since gerbils are desert animals, they have a very low water requirement."

If well socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle and rarely bite unless provoked. Since gerbils are desert animals, they have a very low water requirement. Due to the low water intake, gerbils produce only small amounts of urine and therefore do not smell a lot. Gerbils are hardy and generally more disease resistant than hamsters.

 

How should I select a pet rodent?

Most owners will buy their pet rodent through a local pet store. Avoid sick-looking animals. Do not try to be a "Good Samaritan". Remember that, with exotic pets, if it looks sick, it is really sick! Trying to nurse a sick pet rodent back to health after purchasing may prove challenging. Just the stress of the new environment and diet change for an already sick animal is often enough to kill it. You are far better to start out right with a healthy pet. Always inquire about the guarantee in case the pet is found to be unhealthy.

"Always inquire about the guarantee in case the pet is found to be unhealthy."

The pet rodent should have no discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth. If you can open the mouth (without being bitten!), make sure the front teeth (the incisors), have not overgrown (they should form a nice, even fit). The animal should seem frisky and try to run and resist handling to some extent. No coughing, sneezing, or wheezing should be present. Examine the rectal area. It should be dry and free of diarrhea or caked-on stool. This is especially important for young hamsters. Many baby hamsters at pet stores have a disease called "wet tail", which is usually fatal. Ask the employee for help in determining the animal's sex. Keep in mind that some part time pet store employees may know little more than you do about these animals.

 

What is involved in the first veterinary visit with my new pet?

Within 48 hours of your purchase, your pet should be examined by a veterinarian knowledgeable in the care and treatment of pet rodents. Many health problems with small rodents are the result of misinformation. The first veterinary visit can help prevent well-intentioned owners from doing the wrong thing and ultimately contributing to poor health and an inferior quality of life.

"Many health problems with small rodents are the result of misinformation."

The visit includes a thorough physical examination and evaluation of the animal's weight and body condition. The animal is examined for signs of dehydration or malnutrition. A fecal test is done to check for internal parasites. The sex of your new pet can be correctly determined during this veterinary visit. Your veterinarian will spend much of the time during this first examination discussing the dietary requirements and appropriate care for your new pet rodent.

 

What about vaccinations?

Pet rodents do not require vaccinations.

Like all pets, pet rodents should be examined once or twice  annually and have their feces tested for parasites during each of these visits.

Rick Axelson, DVM
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