Understanding your pocket pet takes time and patience. As you spend time with your gerbil, hamster, or rat you will learn to recognize his preferences and personality traits. The following is a list of some of the most common behaviors and characteristics of small rodents that you should keep in mind while you are getting to know your pet.
These creatures communicate in high-pitched whistles or by rapidly drumming their hind legs against the ground. This thumping signals either warning or sexual excitement. If the sound is a call to attention rather than a love ballad, you may hear your whole gerbil colony join in. Gerbils, like many small desert creatures, have extremely good hearing and such warning systems help them anticipate danger and flee for cover.
You may notice your gerbil constantly digging in the corners of his cage, especially if that cage is a glass aquarium. This practice is normal for a gerbil and his burrowing cousins. Some scientific studies link compulsive digging with other so-called "stereotyped behaviors" such as the constant pacing of zoo tigers. If you are concerned about your pets digging you can give him additional bedding to create a more elaborate burrow in his enclosure.
At first it may seem unusual that hamsters like to hide food in secret spots even when they are supplied plenty of chow on a regular basis. Your pet isn't neurotic, he's just preparing for a hibernation that may never occur in captivity. In the wild, some hamsters hoard between 30 and 60 pounds of food for each winter.
If the temperature in the room where you keep your hamster becomes unusually chilly, your hamster may go into a hibernating state, particularly if the temperature decline is accompanied by a decrease in the amount of daytime light. You will know this has occurred if your hamster is curled in a ball and does not respond to noise or light. His heart rate may fall to less than four beats per minute from a normal active rate of almost 400 beats a minute. To wake him, move his cage to a warm room, about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and allow him at least two days to adjust to warmer temperatures.
Hamsters are nocturnal, so you probably will see your hamster in action every night, vigorously running in his wheel. Like a grumpy neighbor, your hamster hates to be awakened and may strike a squinty-eyed defensive pose if you disturb him during the day. If your hamster turns to face you with front feet curled into tiny fist-like balls, teeth bared, be prepared to suffer a bite if you bother him any further. Keep in mind that your pet needs about 14 hours of sleep every day.
During a quiet, calm moment with your rat you may hear him make a raspy, grating sound like he is grinding sand between his teeth. Don't be alarmed. Your rat is grinding his teeth in contentment. This is called bruxing, and it's similar to purring in cats. Some owners report that their rats' eyes bulge or move while they are bruxing, which is normal and is associated with the movement of the rat's jaw. Be warned, however, that rats also chatter their teeth when they are excited or stressed. If your rat is chattering his teeth while he stands with an arched back and the hairs on his neck on end, he probably is very upset. Let him calm down before you try to approach him.
Rats are very social creatures that thrive in communal living arrangements. You will often see rats wrestling with each other in their cage. This aggressive play is common and you should not try to separate the rats unless they are obviously hurting each other or if one appears to be consistently losing weight. To eliminate overtly competitive behavior keep more than two rats in one cage.