Ann Eliopulos | Pets
When most of us think of pets, we think of dogs and cats, and indeed, those are the domestic mammals most commonly kept as companions. However, there are multiple small mammals that serve as companions for people, and it’s time for those animals to get their recognition.
For the record, most of these animals are not “starter pets.” They are a lot of work to take care of at the level they need to thrive. As with any animal, these critters have specific habitat and dietary needs. Their environments require consistent routine maintenance and cleaning. They are not happy or healthy when kept continually in small cages or aquariums.
Just like any other animal, they need daily exercise, and because of their size, often need supervision when out and about. Electrical cords, cracks, crevices and holes all become potential sources of danger for little animals. Some of these little guys live only a few years, and some can live for 10 or more years, but they all need veterinary care when they are under the weather. The cost for their care may be significantly more than the original purchase price, which many people are not comfortable with.
So, if none of that has deterred you, and you still want a small animal to share your home with, let’s look at some of the options out there. Because birds and reptiles are their own special category, I will save them for another time. Let’s start with the animals that are illegal to keep in California: ferrets, gerbils, sugar gliders and hedgehogs. Yes, you may know someone who has one of these animals, and yes, they are cute, but they are not legal in this state. Enough said!
What’s more appealing than a bunny? Those big ears and that wiggly nose? Precious! But are you prepared to have a large cage and room that has been rabbit-proofed to keep one of these as pets? Did you figure on having them spayed or neutered? They need to be! Gone are the days when a rabbit hutch outside is considered an acceptable home for these pets. They are susceptible to heat stroke and as prey animals, startle easily and can sustain injury.
As crepuscular animals (most active at dusk and dawn), they will need exercise during this time period — at least an hour a day. They must have interaction and time with you every day to keep them socialized. Their cages require daily spruce ups and thorough cleaning once a week. In addition to Timothy hay, pellets and chew toys, daily fresh vegetables are part of their diet. Rabbits are prone to stomach and intestine problems with the wrong diet. They can live 10 years or more and should be considered on par with a cat or dog in terms of time and care required. They are engaging and curious and can make loving, trainable pets.
I do not think that hamsters make good children’s pets. They are nocturnal animals (active at night) that generally do not appreciate being woken up in the middle of the day to play, especially if it is without warning, and may bite. Don’t underestimate their size when it comes to their bite. All I can say is, ouch!
Because of their nocturnal nature, it is not uncommon to hear the wheel or whatever other exercise paraphernalia they have squeaking away at midnight. Hamsters are solitary and will likely fight with another hamster. They should be housed separately. Dwarf hamsters may tolerate others of their own kind, but not always. All hamsters can carry salmonella, which is something to consider with small children or people with compromised immune systems. Proper housing, bedding and nesting materials, diet, exercise and handling are critical to keeping these little ones healthy. With proper care, they will live two and a half to three years.
Guinea pigs are gentle, outgoing, funny little critters. They make squeaking and squealing sounds to communicate. As with rabbits, these guys need daily exercise and interaction. They also need to be groomed, especially the long-haired varieties. They require a large cage, a hiding box, pellets, Timothy hay and fresh fruits and vegetables. They need vitamin C in their diet, so nutritional balance is critical.
Because of their social nature, these guys do better with another pig to keep them company. Make sure you get the same sex! Guinea pigs live an average of five to seven years.
Rats are some of the most intelligent and engaging of the small mammals. If handled and kept socialized, they are less likely to startle or bite. Rats are even more social than guinea pigs, and should not be kept alone. Opposite sex rats should not be kept together if the male is not neutered. Trust me, you’ll know who the male is because proportionate to body size, he has some of the largest testicles in the animal kingdom.
Rats will have activity throughout the night because they are nocturnal by nature, but because of their social inclination, they will happily engage activity during the day. They groom themselves constantly and contrary to popular opinion, are fastidious little animals. Unfortunately, their lifespan is only two to two and a half years.
Again, all of these animals will likely require vet care in their lives. Veterinarians who specialize in these little guys are your best choice to help keep them healthy and a part of your life for as long as possible.
—Ann Eliopulos is a veterinarian at Bodhi Animal Hospital in North Park.