Small mammals commonly owned as pets include ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, and mice. We also occasionally see hedgehogs and chinchillas. Commonly called “pocket pets,” or “exotic pets” these animals are increasing in popularity and fortunately overall knowledge about their care is improving. Just like dogs and cats, these animals need care and their care begins with veterinary wellness visits.
Routine Wellness Care of Small Mammal Pets:
Most illnesses in rabbits and rodents arise from incorrect care. This can include inappropriate cages, bedding, toys, and especially diet. For this reason, seeing a veterinarian when you first adopt a pocket pet can be the most important factor in ensuring your pet lives a happy and healthy life.
At your wellness visit, your veterinarian will:
- Review your pet’s species-specific behavior, lifespan, and needs.
- Discuss and troubleshoot your pet’s living arrangement (cage, bedding, toys, exercise and environmental enrichment).
- Review proper nutrition for your pet, which is of paramount importance in keeping small mammals healthy.
- Discuss preventative care options, including vaccines (ferrets), spaying/neutering (rabbits and guinea pigs) and routine wellness visits that will help prevent disease and manage health concerns.
- Establish your pet as a patient of Bulger. This will ease the process in the future should you need to discuss any questions or concerns with your vet. You will be able bring him/her in for nail (and tooth) trims if necessary, as well as all wellness, sick and emergency visits.
- Provide baseline physical exam parameters such as temperature, heart rate, weight, and other exam findings. If illness develops, these parameters are important in determining the severity of disease.
Sick or Emergency Care of Small Mammal Pets:
As with any pet, illness may develop. Hopefully, these illnesses will be few and far between with good management practices as established during wellness visits with your regular veterinarian. But when exotic small mammals get sick, we are there to provide the diagnostics and treatment they require:
- Bloodwork, both stat in-house testing and send-out to our diagnostic lab.
- Radiographs (x-rays)
- Surgical care
- Dental care (only at Bulger Veterinary Hospital)
- Ophthalmology (only at Capital District Veterinary Referral Hospital)
- Referral, as necessary, for exotics specialty medicine
Diagnostics in some species require sedation and/or anesthesia and can be quite challenging due to the patient’s size.
Care of Small Mammal Exotics:
Small Mammal Nutrition
All small mammals do not have the same dietary needs. Some species can be as different as dogs and horses!
- Rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas are herbivores.
- They eat only plants.
- Their diet must be composed of large quantities of hay (Timothy or other grass hays excluding alfalfa), green leafy vegetables, and very occasional treat foods like non-leafy vegetables and fruits. They also can be fed very small amounts of pellets (usually only around 1/8 cup per day).
- These animals consume huge amounts of food.
- They should NOT be fed cereals, “yogurt snacks,” meats, or cheeses.
- Feeding the correct foods ensure appropriate tooth wear and gastrointestinal health.
- Rats, hamsters, gerbils, and mice are omnivores.
- They eat some vegetables and may also consume nuts and seeds.
- They are best fed predominantly a pelleted food. Seed mixes will allow them to pick and choose what they’d like.
- Ferrets are carnivores. In fact, they are obligate carnivores – they MUST eat a diet consisting of high quality protein.
- Excellent ferret diets are available commercially.
- A word of warning – ferrets are mischievous scavengers and will swallow most of what they find. Be sure to ferret-proof your home to provide a safe environment.
- Hedgehogs are insectivores, a form of carnivore relying predominantly upon insects for nutrition.
- There are also excellent hedgehog diets available to support their nutrition, along with occasional dried cricket and mealworm snacks.
Your veterinarian can provide you with personalized recommendations for your pet’s species, lifestyle, and age. For all species, it’s important to understand their physiologic needs, feed them appropriately for the type of animal they are, and keep treats to a minimum.
Environmental Enrichment and Exercise
Boredom. It affects humans, but it also affects our pets, especially our caged pets. They are typically kept in a small area, their food is placed in a bowl in front of them, and their water is in a bottle or dish. In the wild, these species would forage or hunt for much of their waking hours.
- Herbivores spend most of their days eating and foraging for food. Environmental stimulation can be achieved by providing edible cage furniture (such as hay-based houses or mats), changing the configuration of their cages, putting unusual, but safe, objects for them to explore, and getting them out of their cage regularly.
- With rabbits, out-of-cage time is essential for gastrointestinal function. Even spending time outdoors (supervised, protected from hawks and other predators) munching on fresh grass is excellent environmental enrichment.
- Small rodents can be difficult to take out of their cages for fear of them running away – but they can be moved to a secondary cage for some play time, an exercise ball, or get them tube-system caging and change up the configuration regularly.
- Small rodents should be handled to encourage socialization and provide additional mental stimulation.
- Hedgehogs can be given their food mixed in with their bedding to encourage foraging. They can also come out of their cage to explore their environment safely.
- Ferrets require extensive exercise and play. They are not a caged animal, though they may have a cage to return to for sleep. Ferrets need to be provided with a safe ferret-proofed environment where they can’t get into trouble. Some ferrets have their own bedrooms or basements!
Environmental enrichment prevents behaviors associated with boredom like self-mutilation, obesity, and obsessive behaviors.
Exotic and pocket pets are not seen at all Ethos Hospitals. Please contact your Ethos hospital and ask about their services or find a hospital near you.