Information for your small furry
So you have decided to buy a small mammal such as a guinea pig, hamster or rat, perhaps as a companion for yourself or your children. What do you need to know before you make that commitment? Read on…
Caring for your small furry
Purchasing your pet
Most small pets are purchased from a pet store. This is ok as long as the pet store is able to keep the pets in an appropriate environment and also ensure that pets are properly socialised prior to purchase. Some pet stores do this better than others. It is worth doing your research and purchasing from the most responsible store. This, more than any other action, will help improve conditions for these pets in pet stores.
These pets can also be purchased directly from a breeder. Breeders have the advantage of being more accountable for their pet’s health and early socialisation, and often have an incredible amount of knowledge on caring for your new pet.
It is important that your new pet is happy to be held, handled and is willing to come up to you. If a pet is huddled frightened in the corner when you purchase it, then there is a good chance that this behaviour will continue after purchase. This is not fair to the pet and frightened pets are not much fun for children!
Of the hamster species, a Syrian Hamster is easy to handle and unlikely to bite and so is a good choice for a child’s pet (and is happy being alone). Guinea Pigs are very sociable and love being handled as long as they are properly socialised when young, so will make excellent children’s pets, but should be kept in pairs or groups.
Regular health checks and veterinary care
We recommend that you bring in your pet as soon as you purchase it for an all over health check. At this time, we can review your pet’s nutrition, housing and other care to give your pet the best chance of living a healthy life.
Thereafter, we would recommend a health check every 6-12 months. After all, the expected life-span of your pocket pet is only a few years (depending on the species), so 6 months is the equivalent to many human years!
Small furry pets are often bought as a children’s pet, and assumed to be low maintenance and low cost. However, it is really important to remember that you will need to be responsible for meeting the 5 freedoms, which are so important to keep your pet happy, and are also a legal requirement under the Animal Welfare Act (2006). The 5 freedoms are:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and an appropriate diet
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour
- Freedom from fear and distress ie ensuring your pet’s mental wellbeing
In most cases, meeting the 5 freedoms will require an investment of both time and money, so it is important that you feel that you can commit to this before considering purchasing a pet.
It is very important that all animals, including the smallest, are able to display natural behaviours. For this to be possible, they need a large enough enclosure with enough games and other environmental enrichment, so that they do not become bored and are able to exercise properly. It is also important that animals are comfortable in their enclosure and cannot escape (especially for dwarf hamsters, for instance). Sufficient bedding is very important, and a solid ground (rather than wire) will help with comfort and avoiding injury.
Another hugely important aspect of a pet’s welfare is keeping it in a social group appropriate to the species. For instance, a Syrian hamster should live alone whereas many others are only happy if living in groups. Guinea pigs should be kept in a same sex pair or group (and not with rabbits, who tend to bully them and can transmit disease).
In general, housing needs to be quite large, so that pets can roam and play without getting bored. A different size is required for each species (so it is best to do your research) but try to buy the largest that you can manage.
For outdoor pets, it is important that there is sufficient nesting area and bedding, and that the housing is waterproof and free of drafts. It is important to note that in extreme conditions, particularly in winter, you may need to bring your pets indoors. Often cages or hutches will have mutliple levels, so be careful that it is not easy for your pet to fall and hurt itself.
Hamsters and other small rodents are very good at escaping so make sure that there are no escape routes, and that the cage is closed properly every time.
Straw or shredded paper are the best types of bedding for guinea pigs. Hamsters are best given a commercial bedding made from natural fibres (they will chew through anything!). Be careful about wood shavings which may have sharp edges or strong fumes. Paper can also work. Avoid anything dusty or scented.
Bedding usually needs to be cleaned on a regular basis, weekly at least. If you can remove soiled bedding and/or faeces between, the better.
The appropriate nutrition for your pet depends on its species. Some small pets such as rats and hamsters are omnivores (eating both meat and plants) whereas others such as guinea pigs are herbivores (eating only plants).
In general, all these pets should be fed a pelleted diet (but not muesli) appropriate to their species.
Some species can be fed freely unless they become obese (eg. mice and rats) but in others, the amount of pelleted food should be restricted, particularly in herbivorous species such as guinea pigs which require a large amount of fibre in their diet.
For guinea pigs, hay should be the mainstay of their diet, but this will not supply them with all the nutrition necessary. This should be supplemented with a limited amount of pellets (definitely not as much as they can eat!) and also some green leafy vegetables. Vitamin C supplementation is also very important- see below.
Vitamin C Supplementation for Guinea Pigs
Guinea Pigs must have Vitamin C provided for in their diet, since they are unable to make their own (unlike other species) and so easily suffer from deficiency, which can lead to scurvy. Although many pelleted Guinea Pig diets are supplemented with Vitamin C, it is very unstable and can deteriorate over time, so it is recommended that Vitamin C is provided as a supplement for Guinea Pigs.
There are a number of commercial supplements available, including those which are chewable and those which can be added to water. For the supplements added to water, water should be changed and newly supplemented on a daily basis (since 50% will degrade over 24 hours).
In addition, it is advisable to feed foods which are high in vitamin C such as peppers, tomato, spinach, broccoli and leafy greens such as parsley, kale and chicory.
Symptoms of scurvy in Guinea Pigs include lack of appetite, reduced activity, unkempt coat, drooling and lameness or a stiff gait. Diarrhoea, discharge from the eyes and nose, bone fractures/ breaks and bacterial infections can also be seen. If your guinea pig is unwell, please call for an appointment on 02077510182.
Despite the low cost to purchase a guinea pig or hamster, the cost of treatment can be expensive. After all, guinea pigs and hamsters require the same care and attention that dogs and cats need when they get sick, with highly trained staff and the same facilities, equipment and medicines. We also have access to referral services, in the event of more complicated illnesses, and this can be expensive.
Therefore, we recommend taking out insurance to make sure that your precious pet is covered in the event of an unexpected illness or accident. At this time, the only insurance company which we know to cover small mammals is Exotic Direct. Ideally, you should insure your pet as soon as you purchase it.
An alternative is to save money on a regular basis in a ‘rainy day fund’ but you may be left out of pocket in the event of something more serious.
How do I know that my pet is well?
We recommend that you check your pet at least daily to check that your pet is healthy. In addition to daily examination of your pet and its living environment, we would recommend weighing your pet regularly for any unexpected weight changes. Kitchen scales are very useful in checking the weight of small pets.
We recommend you check:
- Food and water consumption- volume, and type of food.
- Normal behaviour including checking that your pet is as active as usual.
- Wounds or lumps
- Discharge from mouth, eyes or rear end
- Grinding of teeth
- Coat quality- any hair loss or lack of grooming, scurf, oiliness or odour
- Get used to how hard and how fast your pet breathes, and observe for any changes
- Urine and faecal output (amount, frequency and colour/ consistency)
- Teeth for any evidence of overgrowth in herbivores, or any odour coming from the mouth.
- Abdominal enlargement
- Weight loss (unless planned) or excessive weight gain.
- Normal posture and gait (ie. no lameness, moving about in a surefooted way without falling over, no head tilt).
See our symptom checker if you are unsure about whether your pet needs to see a vet.