by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Homes for Pocket Pets
Rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, guinea pigs, and ferrets are a group of animals that would seem not to have many similarities to one another. They are different species, with different physical needs, different temperaments, different physiologies and not all are equally attractive to everyone. Nevertheless, because most people think of them as being furry, cute, cuddly little creatures, in pet classification systems they are often grouped together. They are called, pocket pets.
Now, I want to immediately dispel any thoughts that such animals, kept as pets, will spend a lot of time in anyone's pocket. Yes, a pocket may be a place where your fluffy little friend with its bright eyes, twitching nose and wiggly whiskers will feel nice and close to you. However, it probably is rather a strange and uncomfortable place for the pet. In addition you do not have very good control of a pet in such a place and another trait all these little animals share is their fragility. A fall from just about any pocket could result in serious injury.
One of the most important considerations for pocket pets is the provision of a safe, clean, comfortable home. Usually this will mean a visit to the pet store and the selection of a cage with proper amount of floor area and construction material for your pet. The correct size will vary. Mice and hamsters require the least space, chinchillas and rabbits require the most. The cage will need to be large enough for pets to move freely, exercise and easily access their food and water. They also need to be able to change their body posture. Rabbits love to be able to stretch out fully when they lay down to relax. Many animals will need room to stand on their hind legs. Cages will need to be easily cleaned and able to allow good ventilation. They will need to be secure against dogs, cats or other animals that might predate or injure their inhabitants. A solid bottom in the cage is best in most cases. Wire mesh floors can be uncomfortable and irritate feet and nails of occupant pets. Glass, stainless steel or durable plastic are good construction materials for pocket pet homes. Wood is hard to keep clean and disinfect and easy to chew. Pocket pets love to gnaw and may escape a poorly constructed home.
Pocket pets need, in their cage, some sort of soft bedding to curl up in and nest. There are many types of such bedding available - shredded or shaved pine or cedar, ground corn cobs, straw, alfalfa, and shredded paper products, among others. You may want to discuss with your veterinarian the best type for your pet. Remember bedding should be nontoxic, dust free, soft, absorbent and able to be formed into nests or tunnels. Some shredded newspaper may have high levels of ink or other chemicals. Ground corn cobs may have sharp edges and may carry a fungus called aspergillosis. Cedar should not be used with chinchillas, gerbils or hamsters. Bedding should be changed once or twice a week. Clean and disinfect the entire cage once a week. A solution of one part bleach to thirty parts water makes a good cleansing agent. Rabbits and ferrets can learn to use a litter box. It should be cleaned daily.
You can enrich your pet's environment and aid in its comfort with a number of accessories. A small box, tube or other enclosed area allows your pet a spot to hide or conceal itself. Even rabbits often seek the privacy and feeling of safety in such a place. Remember most pocket pet species living in their natural environments spend long periods of time in a sheltered, out of sight location.
Plastic tunnels, wheels, hollow rolling balls and other toys are available that can let your pet exercise. The activity is enjoyable and good for their health. Obesity can be a problem no matter what your body size. Make sure exercise wheels and similar equipment remain in good working order. They must be safe to assure a pet cannot become trapped or caught in a seam or corner or cut by a sharp edge. You can provide chewing blocks made out of wood or very dense pressed plant fibers for rodents. The teeth of rodents grow throughout their life and regular chewing is important to help keep the teeth at a comfortable and healthy length.
Pocket pets require a bit more than a pocket to live in, but, first class accommodation will ensure quality living for them and great enjoyment of a little friend, for you.