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 housed alone.”

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 used.”

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 seeds.

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 bite wound.”

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 respiratory disease.”

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 Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

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