Pet rodents, sometimes referred to as "pocket pets," are very popular pets. Hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, chinchillas, 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 (two to six years for most, but chinchillas can live for up to 20 years). Young children should be told this so that the sudden death of a three year-old pet does not come unexpectedly. As with any pet, they do occasionally get sick, and their illnesses are can be severe.
"They make good first pets for young children and as a rule require minimal care."
Most rodents eat some combination of pelleted hay, rodent chow, grains, seeds, vegetables and fruits, with the amount of each depending on the rodent. Your pet rodent’s diet should be researched before purchase. There are books and websites dedicated to quality information about the type rodent you have or wish to own.
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 need attention by a knowledgeable exotics veterinarian as soon as it is noticed. In advanced cases, improper tooth or jaw structure may cause excessively overgrown teeth that need to be surgically removed. 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). Yearly health examinations by an exotics veterinarian should also include an examination of the cheek teeth.
Guinea pigs, also known as cavies (or cavy if it is one animal), make good family pets. There are about 13 or more different breeds, The three most popular are: the English or common guinea pig which has short, straight, fine hair; the Abyssinian which has rough, coarse hair growing in rosettes or whorls; and the Peruvian guinea pig which has 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 g. Guinea pigs live five to six years (although they can live up to eight years of age).
"Guinea pigs are similar to humans and primates in that they require a dietary source of vitamin C."
Older male animals have a "grease gland" on the skin at the base of the spine on the top of the pelvis. Guinea pigs have four toes on their front feet and three 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.
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..."
They are reasonably easy to care for and are clean animals (despite popular beliefs) but they do have a strong odor, and their urine is particularly pungent. Mice have a relatively short life expectancy of two to three 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 are extremely intelligent, inquisitive, and social pets. They can be trained to come on command and to 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, reasonably easy to care for, and are clean animals (despite popular beliefs). They live between two to three years. Rats make good family pets, although they are also great escape artists. Rats are prone to a variety of cancerous conditions. Female rats should be spayed within the first six months to prevent ovarian, uterine, and mammary cancer.
One of the most common family pets is the hamster. If well-socialized from a young age and treated gently, they are easy to handle (and 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. They also will not hesitate to bite when being held. Generally, hamsters are the most aggressive of all the pocket pets and tend to bite more often. The most popular types of hamsters are the Syrian, Teddy Bear, Chinese Dwarf, and "Robo".
Gerbils are very friendly and inquisitive. They make excellent pets for older children and teenagers. 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 have a strong smell. 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 and 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 purchase 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 seller’s guarantee in case the pet is found to be unhealthy.
"Always inquire about the seller’s 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, 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. Most pet stores have books or educational materials for purchase to educate you about the care and nutritional needs for your new pet.
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. Veterinarians belonging to the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians (AEMV) are generally better trained in reference to rodent care and diseases.
"Many health problems with small rodents are the result of misinformation."
Your new pet’s first veterinary visit will include a thorough physical examination and evaluation of the animal's weight and body condition. Your pet will be examined for signs of dehydration or malnutrition. A fecal test should be performed to check for intestinal 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 by a veterinarian once or twice annually and have their feces tested for parasites during each of these visits. Check out AEMV.org to find an exotics veterinarian in your area.