Maintaining Your Pet Rodent's Health
Dr. Lani Steinohrt
Small rodents (mice, rats, gerbils and hamsters) often have short life spans (up to 3 to 4 years), but this fact does not diminish their capacity to be much-loved pets. Because of rodents' small body size and shy personalities, diseases can be difficult to treat and therefore prevention of disease with appropriate home care is very important. Remember that while children are enthusiastic owners of pet rodents, they should be supervised to ensure good daily care.
Vaccination is not performed in pet rodents, since vaccines are not available to protect them against contagious diseases. Rabies vaccination, which is commonly performed in other pet mammals, is not necessary in pet rodents because they have not been shown to be susceptible to the rabies virus.
Despite the lack of available vaccines, periodic "well pet" veterinary visits are still important. During these veterinary visits, physical examination and body weight measurement can perhaps detect subtle symptoms of disease. Also, new information is constantly being discovered about the best ways to care for your pet, and your veterinarian will be able to discuss these ideas with you in person at exam times. Since the life span of most pet rodents are relatively short, "well pet" veterinary exams for pet rodents should be scheduled every 6 to 12 months.
Your veterinarian can spay or neuter your pet rodents to prevent breeding and also prevent some reproductive diseases, using surgical techniques similar to those in dogs and cats. The ovaries and uterus are removed from a female, and the testes are removed from a male. Surgery such as this requires general anesthesia, sterile equipment, time and expertise. Ask your veterinarian about this surgical option for your pet.
Small pet rodents such as mice, rats, hamsters and gerbils have continuously growing incisors (front teeth); therefore tooth overgrowth is a potential problem in some pets. Fortunately, rodents' incisors usually occlude against each other, so these teeth wear down as a result of normal eating behavior. Occasionally, rodents have incisor malocclusion (badly positioned) teeth due to past trauma or gum infections. In these cases, veterinary care should be sought for periodic tooth trims or tooth extraction. Rodents can live fairly normal lives even if their incisors are extracted; your veterinarian can help with any special nutritional management for these animals.
Pets should receive nutritious food every day. Over the past several decades, animal research facilities have determined the best types of food to offer rodents, and formulated diets are now packaged commercially for the pet industry. These formulated diets should have a minimum protein content of 16 percent and fat content of 4 to 5 percent. Seed diets are commonly fed to pet rodents, but the constant refilling of the seed dish allows the pet rodents to seek out the palatable but not so nutritious seeds. These diets are high in fat and low in calcium and may cause illness if fed in excess. Other "treat" foods are not necessary, as cage toys and climbing structures rather than new food items usually more behaviorally enrich small rodents. In addition, sweet or fatty foods can be detrimental to a pet rodent's health (just like in humans). Small amounts of fresh vegetables can be offered in addition to a regular formulated diet, but be aware that rodents tend to hide fresh food away in secretive "stashes", which can spoil and cause later health problems.
Supplements are not necessary if a pelleted diet is fed to your pet rodent. Any supplements should be given at the discretion of your veterinarian. The addition of vitamins and other supplements to the drinking water causes a bitter taste and may prevent your pet from drinking adequate amounts of water. In addition, water supplementation can contribute to the growth of disease causing bacteria in the water.
Water is another essential nutrient for all pets. Rodents should receive fresh clean water every day, and their water container should be cleaned regularly. Rodents often become used to a particular method of drinking, from a bowl versus from a sipper tube for example, and are not able to adapt to changes in the way water is offered. Be aware of your new pet rodent's previous water drinking preferences and be sure to provide water in a way the pet will recognize.
Small rodents have continuously growing incisors (front teeth), which ideally are worn down by chewing on hard foods and hard toys. Formulated laboratory rodent diets are often in a pellet form that is hard enough to wear down the teeth; natural wood blocks can also be offered as chew toys. (Be sure to use a type of wood that is not poisonous, and has not been treated with arsenic for outdoor construction use.) If your pet's incisors are not being worn down, it is probably due to malocclusion (abnormal tooth position) that is often a result of previous head and tooth trauma. Maloccluded teeth require frequent trimming by a veterinarian, or must be extracted. Rodents can live fairly normal lives even if their incisors are extracted; your veterinarian can help with nutritional management for these animals.
The typical household contains many hazards for small pets. Pesticides such as rodenticides are designed to kill many pest mammal species, and can easily be fatal for your pet rodent. You may be confident that your pet will always be confined in his cage, however some rodents are escape artists (especially hamsters) and could come in contact with a variety of dangerous chemicals without you knowing, until it's too late. Even the most docile of pet rodents can easily startle, jump from your hands and become difficult to catch. Try to pet-proof your home from the smallest of explorers. Internal parts of furniture are particularly attractive to escaped pet rodents, along with their many physical hazards. Other household pets are usually predators of small rodents, so rodent caging should be made predator-proof as well.
Pet rodents should be housed in a large stainless steel, hard plastic or glass cage with the cage length being greater than cage height. These materials are easy to clean and sanitize, and are resistant to chewing. Since rodents are escape artists, these cages must be escape-proof. Also ensure that other household pets (dogs, cats) do not have unsupervised access to the cage. In an effort to provide an escape-proof house, don't neglect adequate ventilation. Excellent ventilation is imperative in prevention of respiratory disease and immunosuppression. A suppressed immune system will predispose the pet to other illnesses.
Most cages need bedding. Shredded paper, recycled paper litter, and non-resinous wood shavings are excellent choices. Never use cat litter or cedar chips as bedding. The dust and aroma create respiratory irritations, and cedar chips have been implicated as being toxic.
Cages should be completely cleaned one to three times per week. Hot, soapy water works well if cages are cleaned regularly. White vinegar is useful in cleaning stubborn areas of urine deposits. Cages be regularly cleaned to prevent moisture, bacteria and ammonia levels from rising to dangerous levels.
The temperature of the cage should be maintained between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of these rodents hibernate with temperatures less that 65 degrees, and most are prone to heat stroke over 75 to 80 F. Most pet rodents need 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark.