Online Veterinary Education Library
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There are a variety of small animals that make great household pets. These little critters are engaging, quiet, relatively clean and easy to handle. Many come from the Rodent order, which is made up of 28 families and more than 2,000 species. Rodents can be found everywhere in the world except for Antarctica and on some small islands. They are natural-born burrowers. In fact, some rodents spend their entire lives underground.
Rodents exhibit a wide range of types-from species that are aquatic to others that flourish in arid deserts and from omnivores to herbivores. Many of them make a good first pet for children because of their easy care, handling and small size. The most common small animals kept as household pets include chinchillas, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice and rats.
Please Note: Some people are allergic to the saliva and urine produced by rodents, particularly mice and rats. Before purchasing a rodent, make certain that everyone in your household is exposed to your choice of animal to determine whether or not they have this allergy. Do not purchase one of these animals if someone in the household is immunosuppressed. They are susceptible to a wide range of bacterial and viral infections.
Chinchillas. Chinchillas are native to areas in the Andes Mountains of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru and live in rocky, mountainous regions. They are related to guinea pigs and porcupines and have long ears, large eyes and bushy tails. Chinchillas are famous for their soft, fine fur. One benefit of their thick fur is that they don't usually attract parasites like lice or fleas. A chinchilla's hind legs are longer than its front legs, which helps it climb, run and leap. Two primary species are found among pet chinchillas: Chinchilla Lanigera, which is slightly more slender than Chinchilla Brevicaudata, which is distinguished by a slightly thicker body and shorter tail. These lovable, furry creatures live an average life of 5-7 years, but have been known to live as long as 20 years in captivity. Chinchillas tend to be shy and easily frightened, but can be hyperactive, which is why they are not the ideal choice for young children. Chinchillas are very sociable animals and tend to do better when more than one are kept together.
Gerbils. Gerbils originate in the desert regions of Mongolia and northeastern China. Their coloring is in the blacks, browns and tans, but their tummies are usually white. Gerbils are active and curious, spending much of their activity burrowing. They have superior senses for seeing, hearing and smelling. They are both nocturnal (active at night) and diurnal (active during the day) and tend to be friendlier and hardier than most rodents. They are also clean, odorless and rarely bite. This combination makes them a terrific first pet for children. A typical life span for a gerbil is 3-4 years. Because they are very sociable, it is recommended that you purchase at least two.
Guinea Pigs. Also known as a cavy, guinea pigs are native to the Andes Mountains and were introduced to Europe by Dutch explorers in the 16th century. The Dutch took these animals to Guinea as well, which is how the name originated. Guinea pigs are docile, quiet and clean. They rarely bite and can recognize their owners with a little squeak. Four species are commonly bred as household pets: Shorthairs or English are distinguished by their short coats; Abyssinians have fluffy tufts all over their short, wiry coat; Silkys or Shelties have a medium-length, silky coat and are a little larger in size; and Peruvians have long, silky hair. Guinea pigs weigh about two pounds, live an average of 5-7 years and can vary in size from other small critters to a small dog. Guinea pigs prefer to live in small groups, so you should plan on obtaining at least two at the same time.
Hamsters. The name "hamster" comes from the German word "hamstern," which means "hoard." These aptly named small animals are renowned for hoarding and hiding food in corners of their cages. They originated from Syria and the Middle East, and are recognized for their large cheek pouches and short, stubby tails. The larger species, commonly the Golden hamster or Teddy Bear hamster, grow to about 6 inches and have a life span of roughly 2-3 years. Dwarf hamsters are smaller (about 2-3 inches), live shorter lives (about 1-2 years) and are represented by four primary species: Siberian, Roborovski, Djungarian and Chinese. Armenian and European hamsters are the giants among hamsters and are used almost exclusively for research. Hamsters are purely nocturnal animals and don't like being awakened during the day. That is why they are not recommended as pets for young children. Hamsters should be kept in individual cages.
Mice. Pet mice are not the same as the mice you may encounter out in the world. These frenetic little creatures are very active, curious and friendly and are a lot of fun to watch. Thanks to their popularity and breeding, they come in more than 700 color and coat varieties, including the white albino. Domesticated more than four centuries ago, mice were used in religious rituals in ancient China, and the Greeks used them to predict the future. Pet mice are active during the day and night. Mice are highly sociable and need companions to thrive, so you'll need to keep more than one at any given time. Given their tiny size, they can be fragile. Be sure your children can handle them delicately before turning over responsibility for your pet's care. Mice are also one of the least expensive pets to buy and own.
Rats. Rats earned their reputation in history as pests. They bred quickly, spread deadly diseases and populated the world by traveling on boats. They have always lived near people, who have traditionally been their best source for food. But pet rats are bred for domestication and, much like mice, are gregarious, curious and active day and night. Pet rats range in colors (including the albino white), but most are either solid colored or hooded (different colors for the head and body). They are larger than mice - which makes for easier handling - and hardier. Some common varieties include African Giant Rats, Bushy-Tailed Woodrats, Kangaroo Rats, Packrats and Spiny Rats. Rats should also be kept with at least one companion.
|Small Animal||Average Life Span||Average Body Size|
|Chinchillas||5-7 years||8.75 inches x 15 inches|
|Gerbils||3-4 years||4 inches|
|Guinea Pigs||5-7 years||Varies|
|Hamsters||1-3 years||2-6 inches|
|Mice||1-3 years||2.5 inches x 3.5 inches|
|Rats||2-3 years||14-18 inches|
Before bringing your new pet(s) home, you'll need to purchase some basic equipment, including a cage, bedding, substrate materials, water feeder(s), food bowls, food specifically made for your choice of animal and activity toys. Rodents are quintessential hiders, so you'll need to be sure to keep them in a space that can be completely closed off by a door when they are active outside their cages. Make sure you rid this area of any electrical cords or items you donâ€™t want to be chewed. You'll need to set up the cage and place it in an out-of-the-way, quiet area.
Pet ownership demands a level of responsibility for your loving creature's care and feeding. You and your family need to agree on how you will manage daily care by devising a schedule for feeding, cleaning and playing with your pet(s).
Lastly, before bringing home your new pet(s), be sure to find and select a veterinarian who have experience with small animals and set up an initial appointment to confirm your pet(s)' baseline health.
When choosing a small animal, look for obvious signs of a healthy being. Every small animal should appear energetic, with clear eyes, a clean and full coat, a rounded body and strong legs. With the exception of hamsters, rodents need communities and should be purchased at a minimum of two at a time. Do not combine males and females. Even if they are spayed or neutered, they may exhibit problems interacting when they reach sexual maturity. Two or more males are generally a fine combination if they were litter mates. Female pairs or multiples are easiest to adapt to each other as long as no males are present.
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