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The Aging Small Mammal

By: Talia Starkey

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If you've had your small mammal pet for most of his life, it's likely to be difficult for you to watch your animal age. You've grown used to his lively habits, and it may seem strange to see your pet slow down and become less active. Take comfort in knowing that aging is a normal part of the life process. Though the aging process may seem unfairly accelerated in small creatures, it is just one part of your pet's rich life.

If you have small children, you shouldn't try to disguise or explain your pets aging and/or dying process; instead, speak honestly about what is happening to your pet and get your child to help nurture and support your pet in his old age.

Average Life Expectancies of Small Mammals

Rat: 2-3 years
Guinea Pig: 5-6 years
Gerbil: 3-4 years
Hamster: 2 years

Making Your Pet Comfortable

As your small mammal ages, he or she is less likely to adjust well to stressful situations. If your pet is a classroom pet, you should retire the animal from his classroom service; your animal will be more comfortable in a quieter, more predictable setting. As long as your pet remains healthy and is not unfairly harassed by cage-mates, it is not necessary to separate your aging animal from his colony. Just be sure to watch the way the animals interact as a group, and see that they are still getting the food and water they need to stay healthy.

Temperature fluctuations in an aging animal's cage should be controlled as much as possible. Make sure that you provide your pets with plenty of warm nest materials, as they build their nests to meet their temperature needs. Some aging pets experience hair loss, which can contribute to their temperature sensitivity. If you notice that your pet has a bald spot, contact your veterinarian to make sure that it is natural hair loss and not a sign of ringworm or another fungal infection.

Your aging small mammal will probably need more rest than he did when he was a young pet. Be sure that you allow your animal the extra sleep he needs to stay healthy. If your small mammal is primarily nocturnal (like a hamster) be sure that he is getting enough quiet, dark time to sleep during the day. If you cover the cage to keep it dark, be sure he is getting enough ventilation.

You shouldn't need to adjust your aging mammal's diet. Just watch him to make sure that he is eating about the same amount of food as he always ate and is not losing a dramatic amount of weight. If your aging mammal breaks a tooth, it is important for you to provide him with soft foods that he can consume while the tooth grows back.

The droppings of a small mammal are usually good indicators of the animal's overall health. Notice your animal's stool while you're cleaning his cage. It should be hard dry pellets. Diarrhea can be a very serious ailment of small mammals of all ages, so be sure to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if your animal has runny stool.

You may notice that your small mammal drinks more water as he ages. This may be part of your pet's compensation for his slowly failing kidneys. As your pet gets older, his kidneys begin to fail and are less able to process all of the waste products in his body. By drinking more water, your pet can flush his own system more effectively, pushing these waste products through whatever healthy kidney tissue remains.

Persistent trembling, seizures, paralysis, or lack of coordination may be signs that your small mammal is suffering from age-related nervous system diseases. Be on the lookout for these and other signs that your pet may be suffering from an internal disorder.

Your pet will not age overnight – all this will happen very gradually – but it's important to notice any changes in your pet's general condition or quality of life. If you notice that your pet is not eating as much as he used to, consider offering him more of his favorites to encourage him to maintain adequate nutrition. If he appears listless or unresponsive to his environment, then it may be time to consult a veterinarian.

The decision to put your pet to sleep is always a difficult one. People tend to avoid this decision, hoping that their animals will simply die a natural death on their own with as little pain as possible. But if your small mammal is struggling or in pain, or refuses to eat and is simply wasting away, it may be best to take the animal to a veterinarian to be put to sleep.

You can always visit your veterinarian to get his or her opinion about your pet's condition; in turn, she will tell you if she thinks it's time to end your pet's life.

The actual process of putting an animal to sleep is very simple. Using a hypodermic needle, your veterinarian administers an overdose of an anesthetic to your pet. Your pet will feel the prick of the needle and then fall into a deep sleep from which he will not wake up. His heart will simply stop beating, and the animal will die a calm and peaceful death.

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