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Caring for Your Rodent

By: Dr. Margaret Wissman

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Small rodents – gerbils, hamsters, mice and rats – are intelligent, inventive "pocket pets" and have won the hearts of many animal-lovers, especially children. Even so, these fascinating creatures demand care, and younger children will need some help.

Making a Home for Your Pet

Rodents – especially hamsters – are wily escape artists. Never underestimate their Houdini-like talents. Even a docile rodent can jump from your hand and seem to disappear into the woodwork – quite literally. So they need a secure cage.

It should be large and made of easy-to-clean stainless steel, hard plastic or glass, which also resist chewing. The cage's length should exceed its height. It's important to make sure the cage is secure from larger pets and that poisons and other chemicals are safely beyond reach.

The cage will need bedding, but never use cat litter or cedar chips, which are irritating to rodents. Instead, choose shredded paper, recycled paper litter or non-resinous wood shavings.

Change the water in the cage every day, and make sure the water container is cleaned regularly. Use a water bowl or a tube that allows the animal to sip, but remember that your pet will get accustomed to one method of drinking and won't want to switch.

Clean the cage up to three times a week, using hot, soapy water or – for tougher urine deposits – white vinegar. Keep the cage dry.

The temperature in the cage should stay between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Some rodents hibernate in temperatures colder than 65 degrees and most are prone to heat stroke at 75 to 80 degrees. Your animals should get 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.

Add cage toys and climbing structures to amuse and exercise your pet.

Feeding Your Pet

Gerbils, hamsters, mice and rats have similar nutritional needs – high-quality commercial food pellets with an occasional seed treat and a constant supply of fresh water.

There are a few differences, though. Hamsters, gerbils and mice eat mostly grain products, and hamsters like an occasional insect. Rats go for both vegetable and meat products.

Buy commercial pellets instead of a seed mixture, which won't have enough nutrients. Your pet needs a pellet ration with about 16 percent protein for gerbils, hamsters and young, growing mice. Adult mice need a little less protein, and rats need a diet of about 22 percent protein.

In three-to-five months, the pellets lose their nutritional value, so buy only as much as you can use in that time, and check the date the food was milled to ensure it hasn't sat on a shelf too long.

You should feed the pellets from an overhead or elevated bin in the cage, so the food won't be contaminated by animal waste. But it's normal behavior for your pet to stash some food throughout the cage – or in hiding places around the house after an escape.

If you're feeding well-balanced pellets, you probably don't need to add supplements to your pet's water. The supplements can form disease-causing bacteria in the water and give it a bad taste that deters your pet from drinking.

Rodents need to chew and gnaw to wear down their front teeth, which are constantly growing. Chew-sticks from the pet store, pieces of fruit-tree branches or bark should be placed in the cage for that purpose. Make sure any sticks you pluck from the yard aren't from poisonous trees, like cherry, cedar or oleander.

Keeping Your Pet Healthy

Pet rodents aren't given rabies vaccinations because they seem to be immune to the disease. Vaccines for other illnesses aren't marketed for rodents, so it's important to isolate any newly acquired animal for 30 days, keeping it away from your other pets. Any symptoms of illness should show up in that period.

"Well pet" visits to the veterinarian are important even if there's no sign of disease, since the doctor can uncover subtler health problems and check for proper body weight. Vets recommend visits every six to 12 months.

Your vet can spay or neuter your pet rodents in a surgical procedure similar to that used in dogs. The surgery requires general anesthesia.

The continuing growth of the front teeth of rodents can cause problems. Some animals have badly positioned teeth that fail to wear down naturally because they're out of alignment as a result of a head blow or gum infections. In those cases, a veterinarian will perform periodic tooth trims or will pull the teeth. Rodents can live fairly normal lives without front teeth, but your vet will adjust its diet.

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