From the moment you hold a soft ball of fluff cupped in your hands, you’re smitten. The nose twitches, the whiskers wiggle, and the eyes shine. A fragile, furry bundle of love has put its trust in you, and you have made a new best friend. Welcome to the world of pocket pets.
Rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, guinea pigs, and ferrets are often called "pocket pets" because they are small, cute, and inexpensive. Their name is not meant to imply, however, that they’re disposable or that they can be neglected. These small animals have specific diet, housing, and handling requirements, and they need care and attention just as much as a dog or cat. And if they’re well cared for, they can also be just as much fun.
No place like home
A safe, comfortable home is one of the most important things you can provide for your furry friend. Pet stores sell a wide range of cages for pocket pets, ranging in floor area from a tiny four inches by five inches to several square feet and larger. The correct size for your pet can vary: mice and hamsters require the least space, while chinchillas and rabbits require the most. The cage should be large enough for pets to move freely and exercise, change their posture (most need room to stand on their hind legs), and be able to reach food and water easily. Chinchillas require particularly large, tall cages, because they have strong hind legs and can jump as far as two feet. Cages should be clean and well ventilated; secure against cats, dogs, or other predators; and free of sharp edges. They should be made out of glass, stainless steel, or durable plastic that is easy to clean and resistant to chewing. They should also have a solid bottom: wire mesh floors can put an uncomfortable and dangerous amount of pressure on animals’ feet. Wood should be avoided as cage material because it is hard to disinfect and easy to chew. Remember, pocket pets love to gnaw, and they can easily destroy or escape from a poorly constructed home. We recommend keeping rabbit cages indoors. (The lifespan of an indoor rabbit is five times that of an outdoor rabbit.)
Your pocket pet needs some nice, soft bedding as well, to curl up in and nest. There are all kinds of bedding available at pet stores, though the most common types are shredded or shaved pine and cedar. Less common types include ground corn cobs, alfalfa or peanut hull pellets, compressed cellulose, and shredded butcher paper. Any of these can make good bedding, as long as they meet certain characteristics. Bedding should be nontoxic, inedible, dust free, soft, absorbent, and capable of being formed into nests or tunnels. Be careful with shredded newspaper, which can have high levels of printers ink and other chemicals, and ground corn cobs, which can have sharp edges if not ground finely enough and can carry a fungus called aspergillosis. Cedar can be a good choice for reducing cage odor, though it should not be used with chinchillas, gerbils, and hamsters, as it can be toxic to them. If you choose a bedding that doesn’t form nests well, like pellets or corn cobs, you can add cotton wool or tissue paper. Change the bedding twice a week to be sure it stays clean and dry. Once a week, empty the cage and clean and disinfect it with a solution of one part bleach to thirty parts water. Rabbits and ferrets can learn to use a litter box, so you may want to provide one in a corner of the cage, filled with clumping or "scoopable" litter for the easiest cleaning. If your pet uses a litter box, be sure to clean it daily.
Accessorize, accessorize, accessorize
You can enrich your pet’s environment and keep him comfortable and active with a number of accessories. A "hide box"--a small box, tube, or other enclosed area where your pet can conceal himself-will make him feel safe and comfortable. Plastic tunnels, wheels, hollow rolling balls with latching lids, and other toys are available that can let your pet exercise. Make sure your pet is safe and can’t get trapped inside or catch his feet or tail on a seam or a corner. Also make sure that the toys are made out of metal or durable plastic so your furry friend can’t chew and ingest them. You can buy chewing blocks made out of wood or very dense pressed plant fibers for rodents. Rodents’ teeth grow throughout their lifetimes--they chew constantly to keep their choppers filed down to a comfortable length.
Chinchillas have special grooming habits and should be provided with a dust bath. Keep a box or container separate from the chinchilla’s cage, and fill it two to four inches deep with a mixture of nine parts silver sand to one part fuller’s earth, which is available at most pet stores. Allow your chinchilla to roll around in it every day for ten to fifteen minutes. This "bath" protects the coat by eliminating oils and moisture. Sit back and enjoy the show--it’s like watching a miniature dust storm. When he’s done, remove him from the bath to keep it dry and free of urine and feces.
Fresh, high-quality commercial pellets or feed blocks, designed for each species of pocket pet, provide the most complete nutrition. They are widely available at pet stores and some grocery or drug stores. They are made from seeds and grains ground together in the right proportion to give your pet the protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber he needs. Seed mixes are made out of many of the same ingredients as pellets, but they do not make good staple diets. Much like people with junk food, pets will pick out and eat the seeds that taste good to them, generally choosing the ones that are highest in fat and lowest in nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition, skin problems, and obesity. Similar problems come from prepackaged treats, which are often designed to tempt you by looking like human snack food. These treats are made with high-fat seeds and lots of sugar. For a healthier treat, you can supplement your small pet’s diet with fresh fruits and vegetables three to five times per week. If you decide to change your pet’s diet, it’s best to do it gradually. Sudden dietary changes can cause stomach upset and diarrhea. Also, be sure to feed your pet pellets made specifically for its species. Different kinds of pocket pets have very different nutritional needs. Guinea pigs, for example, are the only species in this group that, like humans, lack the enzyme that produces vitamin C. So, like people, guinea pigs need to get vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. Some manufactured guinea pig diets may advertise that they contain extra vitamin C, but the vitamin breaks down over time. After about 90 days, the vitamin is no longer effective, so it’s important that you feed your guinea pig fresh foods rich in vitamin C like kiwi fruit, tomatoes, oranges, carrots, broccoli, and kale. You can also purchase a vitamin C supplement that you can add to your guinea pig’s water at a concentration of about 200 milligrams per quart of water.
Chinchillas require a lot of plant fiber in their diet. They should have a supply of fresh dried hay or timothy grass to eat throughout the day. The hay should be supplemented with a measured amount of chinchilla pellets, given in the morning and evening. Chinchilla pellets can be hard to find, and they may have to be specially ordered in some areas, but rabbit and guinea pig pellets are too short for chinchillas to hold and eat. The extra effort is worth it for a happy chinchilla.
Rabbits also require special attention to the fiber in their diet. If less then 15 percent of their diet consists of fiber, they can develop diarrhea and anorexia. The best diet for rabbits is measured amounts of high quality rabbit pellets supplemented with a constant supply of grass hay and some fresh greens. About 20 percent of their diet should come from fiber.
All pocket pets should have fresh, clean water available to them 24 hours a day. With the exception of rabbits, all pocket pets do best with a sipper bottle hung from the side of the cage, as bowls of water left on the floor of the cage can quickly get contaminated with bedding and feces. The sipper tube should be made out of metal or heavy plastic so that it can’t be chewed or shattered. Rabbits tend to clog the tubes of sipper bottles, so they should be given water in heavy ceramic or steel bowls that they can’t tip over.
Holding them close
As cute as they are, and as much as you want to cuddle them, you should use some care when you handle your pocket pets. They should be approached slowly and never startled, as they can nip when frightened. If your pet is asleep, wake him gently and let him orient himself for a few seconds before you pick him up. Mice, hamsters, and gerbils should be held in the palms of your cupped hands. Guinea pigs, rats, and ferrets should be lifted up with one hand wrapped around the shoulders and one hand supporting the back of the body. Chinchillas should be picked up by the tail near the body, with one supporting hand under the legs. Rabbits have a particularly light skeleton and need to be handled very carefully. Hold them by the scruff at the back of the neck or under the chest with one hand and support their hind legs with the other. If they struggle or kick, put them down until they are calmer, as they can seriously injure their spines.
Pocket pets are often considered good starter pets for kids, but inexperienced children can mishandle or be too rough with these delicate animals. Supervise children until they gain experience caring for their new pet, as frightened animals can bite or scratch. Also, encourage children to sit on the floor with pets while they’re holding them, to avoid any dropped or fallen animals.
Finally, make sure your little pet gets to see the doctor. Just like cats and dogs, pocket pets should visit the veterinarian annually for a checkup. Though they don’t require vaccinations, they should be weighed and examined for signs of any problems. Pocket pets’ entire lives encompass only two to eight years, so they age at a high rate and can go through changes in one year that equal what a human can go through in forty. Regular veterinary check-ups are particularly important for small animals, because their health can change quickly. With a veterinarian’s care, a good home, and plenty of attention and love, you should be well on your way to having a happy, healthy pocket pet. Best of all, you’ll have bright eyes and a twitching nose to keep you company for a long time to come.