Pets are an important part of the American household. Your pet-owning experience will be most enjoyable if you carefully consider which pet best suits your family, home, and lifestyle. Unfulfilled expectations are a leading cause of pet relinquishment, so make an informed decision. Take time, involve your family, and give careful consideration to the following questions if you are thinking about a rodent as a pet.
What’s special about pet rodents?
There are a range of small rodent species that offer options from interesting exotics to placid, domesticated species. They usually live in an enclosed habitat like a cage, pen, or hutch, but most will enjoy spending time outside their habitat with their human family. Their size and cage-pet status can make them seem like a less expensive or easier pet-keeping option. However, rodents still require an investment of time, attention, and resources in order to thrive and provide the best companionship for their owners.
Choosing a rodent
It is natural to be drawn to a cute little animal on first sight, but you need to consider which type of rodent might be a good fit for your family.
- Some animals, like rats and guinea pigs, have a very long history of domestication and are more likely to be very calm and tame.
- Hamsters and guinea pigs are more likely to be active during the day, while other rodents will adapt to some extent but tend to be nocturnal, or more active during the night.
- Some rodents are naturally solitary, like the Syrian hamster, but most should be kept in pairs or groups. If your rodent is social, it is best to buy a pair or group at the same time and from the same litter or housing group, as rodents introduced later may fight.
Before acquiring your new pet, make sure you understand his or her housing, social and environmental needs, activity patterns, potential odors and sounds, and any other factors that might be challenging for your household.
As with other pets, rodents should be acquired from reputable breeders or rehoming services who can advise you about the animal’s temperament and health records.
What choices do you have?
The most common pet hamsters are Syrian or golden hamsters, but albino (white with pink eyes) hamsters are also available. Hamsters housed in pairs or groups may fight, so they are usually housed alone.
Similar in size to hamsters, gerbils are more active and social. Unlike hamsters, gerbils are happier when housed as a pair or in a small group. Potential owners should be aware that purchasing and keeping gerbils may be illegal in some states.
While mice can be tame and entertaining, they are slightly more nervous than hamsters or gerbils. Female mice do well in pairs or small groups, but males will often fight with each other. The most common mice found in pet stores are albino, but there are also “fancy” mice that come in a variety of colors.
Rats are social and thrive in same-sex pairs or groups. They are larger and easier to handle than some smaller rodents, rarely bite, and often become strongly bonded to their owners. Rats come in a variety of colors and require a larger cage and more attention than smaller rodents.
The largest of the rodents commonly kept as pets, their size and gentle temperament make guinea pigs popular. They are social, unlikely to bite, and do well in same sex pairs or groups. They can also be more vocal than other rodents.
What are some characteristics of pet rodents?
- Compared to dogs and cats, pet rodents have a shorter life span. Average life spans are 2-3 years for hamsters and gerbils, 1-3 years for mice, 2-4 years for rats, and 5-7 years for guinea pigs.
- Housing is a critical component of owning a healthy and safe pet rodent. Many of the cages sold in pet stores are too small for your rodent to experience a good quality of life and perform its natural behaviors. All rodents should have adequate room to move around and exercise. Larger cages will allow rodents to defecate and nest in separate areas, and many will readily use an in-cage litter box. Cages must have secure latches because pet rodents can be expert escape artists. Secure housing is particularly important if your family has other pets. When you let your pet outside of its cage, supervise it at all times. A pen or bathroom can provide a secure area for your rodent to exercise and explore without risk of injury or escape.
- Rodents love to chew! Providing safe chewing materials is important for their physical and mental well-being. Keep rodents away from any material that will be hazardous if chewed, such as electrical wires.
- Guinea pigs have more demanding dietary needs than other rodents, requiring fresh hay and vegetables. They also require supplemental vitamin C because they do not produce their own and must get it from their diet. Long-haired guinea pigs should be brushed regularly to prevent tangled hair.
- Rodents come in a variety of fancy forms that may require special care, such as hairless types who are more prone to skin abrasions and extra sensitive to colder temperatures.
Who will care for your pet rodent?
As its owner, you will be responsible for your rodent’s food, shelter, companionship, exercise, and physical and mental health for the rest of its life. Make arrangements in advance for someone to care for your rodents during a planned or unplanned absence.
Does a pet rodent fit your lifestyle?
Because they are housed in cages, pet rodents can easily be kept in apartments, condominiums, and houses. Although rodents require less maintenance than many other pets, they still need your commitment of time and care. You should plan to spend time interacting with your rodents every day to enrich their lives and monitor their health and well-being.
Most rodents can breed readily and prolifically, so only one sex should be kept in the household. Any decision to deliberately breed rodents should be made carefully, only after you have developed considerable expertise with this species and obtained the assistance of an exotic mammal veterinarian. Breeding rodents is not as straightforward as it may appear, as they can have large litters which will then need to be cared for or rehomed. Breeding rodents of unknown genetic background can also perpetuate serious congenital disorders, such as megacolon in rats.
Rodents and children
Rodents are often kept as pets for young children. Although children should be involved in caring for a pet, it is unrealistic to expect them to be solely responsible. An adult must be willing, able, and available to supervise. While they are small and generally tractable, rodents can cause injuries from scratching or biting.
Rodents can be very sensitive to being handled roughly or dropped, and they may learn to avoid or resist handling if not treated with care and consideration. When you first acquire a rodent, it may not be “gentled” (accustomed to being handled). Children should not handle a rodent until an adult has ensured that the animal will tolerate normal interactions and handling calmly.
Children should be instructed not to disturb sleeping or resting pets and to not remove them from their nest or nest box, as well as how to handle them safely, not picking them up by limbs or the tail. Young children should always be supervised when handling animals. They should be made aware that rodents have short lifespans so that they will handle elderly animals carefully and the eventual death of their pet is easier to understand.
Can you afford a pet rodent?
While rodents may be purchased or adopted relatively inexpensively, you should anticipate additional costs for housing, food, accessories and veterinary care throughout your pet’s life.
Where can you get a pet rodent?
Pet rodents are purchased from pet stores, directly from breeders, and through shelters and other rehoming services. Always inquire about the return or veterinary treatment policy in the event your pet is found to be unhealthy.
What should you look for in a healthy pet rodent?
Avoid animals that appear listless or ill, are housed with animals that have this appearance, or from cages where males and females are housed together. Seek out sources that can provide genetic and health background information about their rodents; can provide details about how they breed for good health, welfare and temperament; and will take back animals that are unwell or that you are unable to keep for any reason.
A healthy pet rodent should have no discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth. The animal should appear lively and should not panic when being handled. No coughing, sneezing, or wheezing should be evident. Be sure to examine the animal’s tail area. It should be dry and free of diarrhea or caked-on stool. This is especially important to check when purchasing or adopting young hamsters; baby hamsters may have a disease called “wet tail” which can be fatal.
What must you do to prepare for your pet rodent?
Make sure your pet’s cage contains fresh bedding, nutritionally-complete food designed for that species, and water. There should also be plenty of space for exercise (e.g., wheels for appropriate species) and species appropriate enrichment (e.g. chew toys). Nesting materials are necessary for all pet rodents, and they should have an enclosed refuge such as a nest box. While you will be excited to bring home your new pet, give them enough time to rest and acclimate to their new living conditions.
A veterinarian should examine any pet rodent within 48 hours of its acquisition. This physical exam is critical to detect signs of disease and to help new pet owners learn about proper care. Since many problems are caused by misinformation and improper care, the first veterinary visit will help prevent well-intentioned owners from making mistakes that ultimately contribute to an animal’s illness or early death.
Not only is your veterinarian best qualified to evaluate the health of your new companion, but he/she can advise you about parasite control, nutrition, sterilization, socialization, training, grooming, and other care that may be necessary to ensure the welfare of your pet. Your veterinarian should continue to examine your pet rodent at least once a year to detect any emerging health problems. Early diagnosis and treatment of disease is more likely to cost less and result in a favorable outcome. When possible, find a veterinarian who specialized in rodents, which are often categorized as “exotic mammals”.
When you acquire a pet, you accept responsibility for the health and welfare of another living thing. You are also responsible for your pet’s impact on your family, friends, and community. Make sure everyone in your family is comfortable with the idea of sharing their home with a rodent, understands that they will require an investment of time and attention, and accepts that they will become part of family activities. A pet will be part of your life for many years. Invest the time and effort necessary to make your years together happy ones. When you choose a pet, you are promising to care for it for its entire life. Choose wisely, keep your promise, and enjoy one of life’s most rewarding experiences!
Additional tips on caring for your pet rodent
- Bedding is an important part of caring for your pet. To prevent cage odors, use absorbent bedding and change it regularly. Some bedding should be avoided because it may be toxic for small animals; consult with your veterinarian before you choose.
- Rodents should always be handled with calm, slow movements. A safe “retreat” area should be provided in their cage.
- For your pet’s supervised time outside of its cage, create a safe, cleanable roaming area on a desk or by using a large container or pen. Leashes may be used with larger rodents.
- Before purchasing your pet rodent, consult with a veterinarian familiar with the species, and join a club or group to learn from experienced owners.