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Is a pocket pet right for me?

A furry little pet who loves to snuggle in your shirt pocket can be a great family addition. But, although pocket pets, which include rodents such as rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, as well as slightly larger guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, and sugar gliders, may require less time and effort than a dog who expects daily walks, you should do your homework first. Many species have unique dietary and housing requirements, and some can outlive traditional pets, so you must be prepared to properly care for your tiny pet.

Do your research before committing to a pocket pet by asking the following questions:

  • What type of housing will the pet require?
  • What will the pet eat? Pocket pets originally come from the wild and many have specific dietary needs.
  • How much exercise and interaction do pocket pets need?
  • When will the pocket pet be most active? Some will be active during the day, but others are nocturnal and may keep you up at night.
  • What type of veterinary care, such as spaying or neutering andwellness visits, will the pocket pet need?

Rats

Rats are intelligent, clean animals that make great pets, especially for families with children, since they rarely bite. Rats enjoy being housed together, so you should purchase at least two rats of the same sex to be raised together. Rats need a large, wire cage with multiple climbing surfaces and exercise opportunities, such as platforms placed at different heights and an exercise wheel. They also need cozy places to nap, such as a nesting box and a hammock hung from the top of the cage.

Commercially formulated pellets are the best diet for a pet rat, plus occasional treats of fresh fruit and vegetables. Also, rats have front teeth that grow continuously and they need to chew on wood blocks to prevent overgrowth.

Rats commonly develop cancerous mammary tumors, but this risk can be decreased with an ovariohysterectomy before six months of age. Rats also are prone to chronic respiratory infections caused by Mycoplasma bacteria.

Small rodents: mice, gerbils, and hamsters

Mice, gerbils, and hamsters are entertaining pets with different personalities. Hamsters tend to bite, so may not be ideal for families with small children, whereas mice and gerbils are friendlier and less likely to bite. Hamsters must be housed alone, because they will fight if kept with other hamsters. Mice and gerbils can be housed together, but female pairs are the safest cage mates, as males may become aggressive.

Small rodents should be housed in a wire cage with a solid floor and narrow spaces between cage bars to prevent escape. Rodents will climb the cage bars, but they need additional climbing surfaces, as well as an exercise wheel. Provide plenty of bedding to satisfy their desire to dig, tunnel, and bury food, plus additional nesting material, such as cardboard or shredded paper towels, for extra enrichment. Avoid aromatic wood shavings, which cause ocular and respiratory irritation. Use recycled paper products as bedding instead.

Commercial pellets, which contain a mixture of necessary nutrients, are the healthiest diet choice for rodents. Also, provide plenty of chewing material to avoid tooth overgrowth. Avoid seed diets, which are high in fat and calories.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs, or cavies, are social pets who do not require a lot of care. Their best housing option is a well-ventilated wire cage with a solid floor lined with a soft material, such as fleece or towels. Guinea pigs should be fed a species-specific pellet diet, and as much grass hay as they wish. In addition, guinea pigs must receive foods rich in vitamin C, such as kale, parsley, and peppers, as they cannot produce their own vitamin C and can develop a deficiency.

Chinchillas

Chinchillas are quiet, shy animals who do best if housed with at least one other chinchilla. Their nocturnal nature means they likely will sleep through the day, so a nesting box or hiding area where they can rest is essential. Chinchillas should be fed grass-based pellets and hay to help wear down their continuously growing teeth.

Chinchillas need dust baths several times a week. Provide a box or tray with dust made specifically to absorb oil and dirt from their fur.

Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs are nocturnal, shy pets who don’t enjoy human interaction and prefer to hide and burrow. Similar to rodents, they require a large cage (at least 20 gallons) lined with paper bedding. Hedgehogs are natural insectivore-omnivores and need insects, such as mealworms or crickets, in addition to an insect-based pellet diet and small amounts of fruit and vegetables. Hedgehogs are covered in sharp spines, making them difficult to handle safely. They must be sedated for veterinary exams, which should take place twice a year for a basic wellness check, nail trimming, and teeth cleaning.

Sugar gliders

Sugar gliders are social, nocturnal marsupials who should be housed in groups, because they become depressed and may develop undesirable behaviors if they do not have adequate interaction with other sugar gliders or people. Sugar gliders need a tall wire cage supplemented with branches and hiding places where they can sleep during the day.

Sugar gliders are insectivore-omnivores who require the same food as hedgehogs. Despite their name, they should not be fed sweet treats, such as honey or large amounts of fruit.