Housing Rodents

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

What type of cage does my pet rodent require?

Any cage used to house a pet rodent must be easy to clean, as poor husbandry and hygiene can contribute to illness in these animals. Small pet rodents may be housed in glass aquariums (minimum 10-gallon tank for a hamster or gerbil-sized rodent) as long as the aquarium is well-ventilated with a lockable, escape-proof wire or screen top. Cages with a plastic bottom, wire sides and a secure top also are available specifically for pet rodents (and are especially useful for pet guinea pigs). The bigger the cage, the better, as rodents need room to exercise and explore. Wooden cages are not suitable, as rodents love to chew and can  destroy or escape from their homes, and wooden cages cannot be disinfected.

ALL PET RODENTS ARE ESCAPE ARTISTS! Letting a pet rodent have unsupervised free run of the house is dangerous and should not be allowed, due to the potential for injury to and death of the pet, as well as to the potential for destruction of furniture, electrical wires, and other household objects from the animal’s chewing. These small rodents can be handled outside of the cage as long as the handler is careful not to let them escape (supervise young children).

My pet seems lonely. Can I house more than one rodent in a cage?

While some species of rodents may be housed in pairs or groups, there are some general rules when it comes to housing rodents:

  1. If a male and female are housed together, especially if they were paired at an early age, and they are not neutered, mating will occur.
  2. Never house different species in the same cage (e.g., a rat and a mouse).
  3. Some species should not be housed in the same area (such as rabbits and guinea pigs), as one species may carry an infectious organism that could be fatal to the other species.
  4. If a pet rodent has been housed alone, it is best not to introduce a new cage mate, as fighting is likely to occur.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs can be housed together, as long as they are neutered if they are of the opposite sex. Sometimes they fight a little when they are first put together, but with some supervision to avoid serious injury, they will usually establish their own pecking order. Some unneutered males will fight for territory and may never be able to live harmoniously.  Animals should be introduced in a neutral territory, such as a fresh, clean cage that neither has been in before. Separate them if the fighting is fierce so they do not injure each other and try again later. It may take a couple of days for them to ‘work it out.’ Sometimes guinea pigs will continue to squeak at one another intermittently and appear to be aggressive. Do not worry; they are likely just re-establishing the pecking order and should be given more time to figure out their relationship, as long as neither is getting injured.

Hamsters

Hamsters are best housed individually. Sexually mature females are aggressive both to other females and to males.

Mice

Male mice are usually housed alone. Female mice rarely fight and are often housed together. Newly assembled male groups, new males entering established territories, and mice previously housed alone, are more likely to fight.

Rats

Unlike mice, rats rarely fight and can be harmoniously housed in groups. Occasionally, females who have just given birth may fight with other females.

Gerbils

Gerbils are territorial. Animals introduced before puberty will often live together peacefully if given enough space. Adult gerbils are usually housed individually; adults introduced for the first time will fight, often to the death. Females are more aggressive than males. A monogamous pair can be formed if the male and female are bonded before 8 weeks of age. As a rule, once bonded, the pair should not be separated.

Does my pet rodent need bedding in his cage?

Rodents love to dig and bury and should be provided with bedding in their cages. Commercially available paper bedding, shredded paper, and recycled paper are best. Avoid sawdust, corncobs, sand, cat litter, or dirt, as these materials can be dusty and irritating to rodents’ lungs. Corncob frequently gets wet and moldy, leading to respiratory tract infections. Many people use wood shavings, yet these are not ideal, since they are indigestible if eaten and can lead to gastrointestinal tract obstructions. Cedar, in particular, is the least desirable wood bedding, as the aromatic oils it contains can be irritating to the respiratory tract.

"A major cause of respiratory disease in pet rodents is poor environmental ventilation, which allows ammonia from the urine to build up and irritate the pet's airways."

The cage should be spot-cleaned daily and the bedding changed completely as often as it gets dirty, but at least weekly. A major cause of respiratory disease in pet rodents is poor environmental ventilation, which allows ammonia from the urine to build up and irritate the pet's airways. A frequently cleaned, well-ventilated environment is important in preventing respiratory infections. Toys should be cleaned weekly as well. Food bowls should be cleaned in hot, soapy water daily.

Can I give our pet any toys?

Toys provide enrichment and psychological stimulation, as well as exercise, for pet rodents. Tubes and mazes are popular, as are exercise wheels. ’Open track’ or wire exercise wheels can be dangerous, as rodents, especially hamsters, can easily become injured by getting a foot trapped in the wheel. Leg fractures are challenging to repair, and amputation may be required to treat rodents with severe foot injuries (humane euthanasia may sometimes be the only option with severe injuries). The safest wheel has a solid floor composed of plastic with no openings in it. Guinea pigs will not usually use a wheel. Pocket pets often use their wheels at night, so it is best to get one that does not squeak!

"Giving your rodent a continuous supply of paper towel tubes, tissue or cereal boxes, or shredded junk mail will provide hours of entertainment for your pet."

Gerbils, in particular, love to chew paper, and giving them a continuous supply of paper towel tubes, tissue or cereal boxes, or shredded junk mail will provide hours of entertainment for your pet.

What else do I need in the cage?

Since rodents like to burrow, they should have a hiding place in the cage. Round, hollow plastic huts can be purchased at pet stores, but cardboard boxes or paper towel rolls are a great, inexpensive option. Rodents will likely chew up paper towel and toilet paper rolls quickly, so they will need to be replaced frequently. Chinchillas also need to be provided with a dust bath containing commercially available special, fine particle, sand for them to roll around in and bathe. The sand helps keep oil from building up in their coats and keeps their coats shiny.

Is there anything else I need to know?

Pet rodents, especially guinea pigs and chinchillas, are very sensitive to heat stroke. It is critical to keep their environmental temperature at or below 80°F (27°C), and make sure their house is well ventilated.

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