Housing Rodents

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

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 improper cage cleaning 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), if the aquarium is well-ventilated with a lockable, escape-proof wire or screen top. Your pet dog or cat may see your pet rodent as a toy or a meal, so it is imperative that the cage cannot be broken open by other pets.

Cages with a plastic bottom, wire sides, and a secure top 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. Also, wooden cages cannot be effectively disinfected.

All pet rodents are escape artists! Do not allow a pet rodent to have unsupervised free run of the house as this is dangerous due to the potential for injury to your pet or even death. In addition, the animal’s chewing may destroy furniture, electrical wires, and other household objects, which can also become a home safety issue. These small rodents can be handled outside of the cage if the handler is careful not to let them escape. Always supervise young children around your pets.

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

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

  1. If an intact (un-neutered) male and female are housed together, especially if they were paired at an early age, mating is likely to 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 for several months or years, it is best not to introduce a new cage mate into the existing pet’s home, as fighting is likely to occur.


Chinchillas do well as a single pet or in pairs. Multi-level cages, like those designed for ferrets, work well as long as there are no areas where a chinchilla could get its limbs or feet caught. The minimum size for the enclosure should be 4' x 4' x 3' for a single chinchilla.

A chinchilla-specific exercise wheel, called a "Chin Spin", is essential for exercise and preventing boredom. Wheels should have solid flooring and should be 15” in diameter.

Chinchillas are very susceptible to heat stroke. The optimal environmental temperature is 55ºF–68ºF (10ºC–20ºC). It is essential to keep household temperatures below 80ºF (27ºC) to prevent heat exhaustion. It is recommended to keep humidity levels below 40–50%.


Gerbils are very 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.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs can be housed together if they are neutered, especially 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 with another guinea pig.

"Guinea pigs can be housed together if they are neutered, especially if they are of the opposite sex."

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 continue to squeak at one another intermittently and appear to be aggressive. Careful observation is necessary to make sure that they are just re-establishing the pecking order and should be given more time to figure out their relationship, but only if neither pet is getting injured.


Hamsters are best housed individually. Sexually mature females are aggressive to males and other females. Hamsters do best in multi-level houses with plastic tubes connecting the different levels together.


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. Bite wounds easily get infected, so close observation is essential when housing multiple mice together.


Unlike mice, rats rarely fight and can be harmoniously housed in groups. Occasionally, females who have just given birth may fight with other females. The biggest issue is providing enough space for multiple rats to live in one cage. Overcrowding can cause fighting and/or stress-related diseases (see handout “Health Problems in Rodents”).

Does my pet rodent need bedding in its cage?

Rodents love to dig and bury. They should be provided with ample 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 shavings are the least desirable wood bedding, as the aromatic oils they contain often irritate the respiratory tract and may predispose your pet to respiratory tract disease.

"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 entire bedding changed 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. Ceramic or glass bowls can be placed in the dish washer for a thorough cleaning.

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 and chinchillas, can easily get a foot trapped in the wheel and injure themselves. 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 for severe injuries or infected, exposed bones from a traumatic fracture.

The safest wheel has a solid floor composed of plastic with no openings in it. Guinea pigs do not usually use a wheel. Pocket pets often use their wheels at night, so it is best to get one that does not squeak!

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 must be replaced frequently. Chinchillas should also be provided with a dust bath containing commercially available, 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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