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Small Rodents as Pets
Think of mice and men. Are they foe or friend? Not
your customary selection for a pet, but with some insight and some
guidance, you may be more receptive to the idea of a small rodent
becoming a suitable pet for your family.
"Rats are probably the most social and interactive of the small
rodents," notes Dr. Sharman Hoppes, DVM, Diplomate ABVP, clinical
assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary
Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
"Rats are gentle and seldom bite," says Hoppes. "They are
active during the day and are fairly easy to take care of.
Rats don't have special dietary needs or sensitive stomachs."
Other small rodents, such as mice and hamsters, can nip more and
tend to be active at night, notes Hoppes. Guinea pigs and
chinchillas are gentle sweet pets, but they have special dietary
needs and all of their teeth continuously grow.
If handled gently, gerbils are unlikely to bite, explains
Hoppes. They have few health problems and are the cleanest of
all the commonly kept pet rodents.
To determine which pet rodent may be best for you, Hoppes
suggests that you evaluate your expectations.
"If you want a social active pet that needs lots of attention
and activity, a rat, chinchilla, or guinea pig is a great pet,"
states Hoppes. "Rats are so social that they should not be
If you are more interested in observing your pet and don't have
as much time, a gerbil, hamster, or mouse is an option; they are
happy in their cage, notes Hoppes.
If you are a night owl, then hamsters may be best since they
tend to sleep all day and run in their wheel all night.
"Rodents are animals and therefore require care," states
Hoppes. "All pet rodents need a large cage, chew toys,
ladders, plastic or PVC pipe, and daily interaction. Their
cage needs to be cleaned one to two times a week to keep ammonia
levels down. Also, keeping the cage clean will help decrease
the incidence of respiratory disease."
"Paper bedding, aspen, or walnut shavings are best," notes
Hoppes. "Corncob, pine, and cedar shavings should not be
Rodents need to have fresh water and food. Guinea pigs and
chinchillas have a special need for unlimited timothy hay since
they have continuously growing cheek teeth. The hay helps
keep the teeth from overgrowing. Additionally, guinea pigs
need vitamin C daily. All rodents can have a small amount of
fruits and vegetables for treats. None of them need
Chinchillas need daily dust baths, and they and guinea pigs are
very sensitive to heat and humidity. Both can develop
heatstroke in temperatures as low as 80-85 F especially if the
humidity is greater than forty percent.
"Many rodents will get obese in captivity so you should have
exercise wheels, exercise balls, or a safe rodent-proof room to
play in." notes Hoppes.
"Pet rodents do not need vaccinations," states Hoppes.
"There are few diseases to be concerned with, and while salmonella
infection has been documented, it is rare. Rat bite fever,
caused by a bacterial infection, may occur secondary to a rat
bite. It can be prevented by immediately disinfecting any rat
It is important to keep pet rats away from wild rats and to wash
your hands after handling any small mammal. Guinea pigs and
chinchillas are susceptible to ring worm so any hair loss or scaly
patchy areas on their skin should be seen by a veterinarian for
evaluation and treatment.
"When picking out a pet rodent, you should select an active,
social rodent with clean eyes, clean nose, and normal teeth.
The skin should be well groomed and clean. Their feces should
be well formed. There should be no lumps or bumps on their
skin. Rats are prone to mammary tumors and hamsters often
have diarrhea (wet tail). Many rodents are prone to
The life span of pet rodents varies. Mice and hamsters
live one to two years, rats two to three years, gerbils three to
five years, guinea pigs five to seven years, and chinchillas live
eight to 12 years or longer.
"Small rodents should not be pets for small children," notes
Hoppes. "Children less than 10 years old should be supervised
closely when handling small rodents. The care and monitoring
of any pet is ultimately the parent's responsibility."
Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine
& Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be
viewed on the Web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk.
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