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Hamsters, Gerbils, and Rats, Oh My! Your Guide to Pocket Pets

Looking for the joys of pet ownership but don’t have the time or the space to properly care for a dog or cat?

Then a pocket pet — hamsters, gerbils, rats, and other small mammals — may be right for you!

A healthy pocket pet has a stable and stress-free life. His well-balanced meals appear at regular intervals, he has clean bedding and predictable living arrangements, and he follows an established exercise regimen. Few humans organize their own lives quite so well.

Still, when caring for any animal, you have to be a responsible pet owner — your pocket pet’s health may depend on it.

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.

Here’s what you need to know.


Hamsters get a bad rap for being grumpy and quick to bite. For the inexperienced, it’s often true. Many first-time hamster owners suffer a nip on the finger for relatively minor infractions. But once you understand the basic tenets of your hamster’s character — including his solitary nature and his off-hours schedule — you can begin to see why your hamster acts the way he does. Most importantly, you’ll figure out what you need to do to accommodate his needs.

More than any other pocket pet, hamsters love to eat fresh veggies and fruits, like broccoli and apples. But their habit of hoarding food in secret piles in their nests catches up with them quickly if they try to hide items that may spoil. The molds that grow on fresh food can be harmful to your pet. Watch your hamster eat the fresh food and grains you set out for him. If he hides the fresh stuff instead of eating it right away, be sure to remove that food from his nest at the end of the day.

Hamsters are nocturnal creatures. Their wild relatives may run up to five miles every night gathering food. Your domestic hamster also needs a lot of exercise, and if you buy a stationary wheel for his cage he will likely run for hours each night. Take care not to disturb your hamster too often during the middle of the day. You’ll break up his sleeping time, and you may find that he is ill-tempered and grouchy.


Gerbils may not be very vocal, but they have other interesting ways of communicating with each other. They recognize each other’s scents and can pass along a warning by beating their back legs against the ground. If you spend time with your gerbil, you will come to recognize these and other common gerbil behaviors.

Gerbils have a very strong instinct to dig or burrow, so you should be sure to give your pet lots of bedding. Wood shavings or ground-up corn cobs work well. Don’t try to make your gerbil’s nest for him – he will choose a corner of the cage on his own, and then will drag any additional bedding he wants over to the nest site. If you want to include a wheel in your gerbil enclosure, be sure to get a plastic wheel that doesn’t have any spokes. An adult gerbil’s tail is almost as long as his body, and it can easily be caught between the bars on a standard hamster wheel.

Gerbils are desert creatures that don’t need much water. But make sure your gerbil has a full water bottle available to him anyway and change the water often to keep it fresh. A good gerbil treat is a couple of pieces of air-popped popcorn. Avoid microwave varieties that are coated with unhealthy salt and oils.


Rats are social animals. They love sleeping in piles, squabbling over crumbs with their cage mates, and wrestling together playfully. Your pet may be happiest with other rats, even though most rats are “people pleasers.” They learn to trust humans and actively seek out the attentions of their owners. This tendency sets rats apart from other small mammals such as hamsters, which seem to tolerate rather than enjoy human company.

Rats like to get their mouths on everything within reach. They’re omnivores always on the lookout for snacks, but they also need to file down their always-growing teeth by gnawing on hard objects. If your rat has been doing a lot of chewing, he may wear down his front teeth or even break one. Don’t be alarmed. A rat’s teeth can grow up to 5 inches each year, so just make sure he gets soft foods while his broken tooth grows out to its normal length. Conversely, if you have an older rat, you may find that he doesn’t wear down his teeth enough. A veterinarian with clippers can quickly remedy this problem.

Always keep an eye on your rat if you allow him to exercise outside of the cage. Rats are inquisitive explorers that use their long tails to balance when they climb. But a fall from a high point can be dangerous. He could suffer broken bones or internal injuries that could prove fatal.

Handling Illnesses

The most important signs of sickness in pocket pets are loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, and self-isolation, that is, separating themselves from the rest of your pet colony.

If your gerbil, hamster, or rat exhibits those types of symptoms, contact your local small mammal veterinarian and always consult with your veterinarian before you administer any medication to your pocket pet.

Respiratory problems are particularly common in rats and other pocket pets. Remember that your pocket pet’s sense of smell is one of his most important links to the world around him. His olfactory senses tell him if the object in front of him is his food, his enemy, his sister, or his love interest. Any sickness that affects your pocket pet’s ability to breathe is very serious indeed.


If you are willing to commit at least a half an hour a day to training your pocket pet, you may be surprised by how much your small rodent can learn. Rats are by far the easiest and most responsive pocket pets to train. They are social creatures and quickly learn to trust people. Gerbils are probably next on the list; they are naturally curious and respond well to human attention. Hamsters are often the most difficult pocket pets to get to know.

There is one way to win over all but the most standoffish rodent. With a bag full of treats you can teach your pocket pet many fun tricks or just make friends. Try to pick a light treat, like puffed rice, instead of sesame seeds, because you may have to bribe your pet with lots of this food. You’ll get the best results if you single out a treat he really likes and use it only as a reward for learned behavior.

The first few hours of your pocket pet’s life in your house can be very stressful. It is a good idea to let him adjust to his new surroundings for a few days before you approach him. Many small rodents are nocturnal creatures and you may find that your pet is most active in the evening. Make a note of the times when your pet is most awake and alert, for these will be the best times for you to approach him.

Resources for Pocket Pets

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