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Pocket pets 101: Your guide to owning a pocket-size pet

Gary Riggs, DVM, spends most of his time working with exotic pets. So when it comes to advice on pocket pets—small animals such as guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, rats, gerbils, chinchillas, and sugar gliders—he’s a good person to ask. Riggs is a veterinarian at three Ohio clinics, NorthCoast Bird and Exotic Specialty Hospital, Barberton Veterinary Clinic, and The Animal Clinic of Wadsworth.

The most popular pocket pets are guinea pigs and smaller rodents, such as mice, rats, gerbils, and hamsters. Hedgehogs, chinchillas, and sugar gliders are also popular, Riggs says, though they require more specialized care and are illegal to own in some states and provinces, so check with your local government before attempting to bring one home.

The bottom line for anyone thinking of getting a pocket pet is: Do your research first.

Different animals require different care.

Some questions to ask:

  • Do I have room for the animal’s cage?
  • What space and exercise needs does the animal have? Does she need to run or climb?
  • What does the animal eat? How specialized is his food?
  • When does the animal sleep? At night or during the day?
  • How much interaction does the animal like and need? Do I have enough time to spend with her?
  • How messy is the animal? How often am I going to have to clean up after him?

Because some pocket pets need to climb, they may require a larger or more complex cage with multiple levels, Riggs says. It also is important to remember that some pocket pets are comfortable being handled and are a good fit for owners who want to tote them around while others are not.

Knowing what your pocket pet eats is similarly important, Riggs says. Guinea pigs, for example, need Vitamin C supplements. Sugar gliders eat a variety of foods, including insects and produce.

“It can be anywhere from a fairly simple diet with hay and pellets up to a very specialized diet,” Riggs says.  

As for the time question, some pocket pets tend to be messier and require more frequent cage cleanings.

It is also important to be aware that, with some pocket pets, you may need to buy two. Guinea pigs often prefer to have another guinea pig in their cage, in which case you’ll want to avoid matching a male and female unless you want guinea pig babies!

Spaying or neutering is an option for some pocket pets. Chinchillas, for example, need to be spayed or neutered, Riggs says. Guinea pigs are prone to reproductive tract problems, so they may need a hysterectomy.

As for which pocket pets are going to keep you and your family up at night, chinchillas and hedgehogs are more nocturnal, Riggs says. Rats and guinea pigs are less so.  

Also ask yourself how long of a commitment you are willing to make. Rats live only a couple of years. Chinchillas can live up to 20 years, which is longer than most dogs.

Veterinary care is another consideration. How often a pocket pet needs to see the vet varies by type of animal. According to Riggs, hamsters and guinea pigs often go to the vet two or three times per year. Others need only an annual exam. Guinea pigs and rats are more prone to dental problems, so they may require more frequent dental exams by a veterinarian.

So what’s the easiest pocket pet to own in terms of maintenance? A rat, Riggs says. They like being handled, but their space needs aren’t as great, and it’s fairly simple to feed and clean up after them.

Gerbils are also easy, Riggs says, especially if you don’t want to be as hands-on.

“You can set them up with the wheels and tunnels,” he says.

What is the highest maintenance pocket pet? A sugar glider, Riggs says, because it requires more time and space and has a more complex diet, not to mention it is illegal to own them in some states and provinces.

So, do your research before bringing a pocket pet home, but once you do, enjoy your new family member.

“They’re great pets,” Riggs says. 

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