Education Center

Caring For Your Petite Pet: Proper Care for your Gerbil, Hamster, Guinea Pig or Rabbit

Keep your new friend happy and healthy for the rest of its life by:

• Providing the correct food

• Maintaining a safe environment

• Knowing when and how to properly handle your new pal

Congratulations on adopting your new rabbit, guinea pig, hamster or gerbil! Any time you choose to bring a pet into your home, you make a commitment to care for that animal for its lifetime, and part of your responsibility lies in educating yourself to its proper care and well-being. Small mammals are unique in several ways from each other and from the more popular pet choice of a cat or dog. Whether you’ve obtained your pet through a shelter or another source, there are many things to keep in mind, especially if this is the first pet of this type you have had.

Common guidelines for all four species:

Handling: It is important to understand when and how to handle your furry friend, and to give him time to adjust to his new home before attempting to pet him. Start slowly, enticing him with food treats, until (usually over a period of a few days) he will approach your hand as it is held flat in his cage. Avoid quick, jerky movements, and allow the pet to come to you on his own terms as often as possible. Once he is comfortable with your presence, scoop under the body and support the hind legs well. Be sure you hold your pet properly when petting or transporting it to alternate quarters (for cage cleaning, etc.) Carrying small mammals close to your chest seems to relax them. Be watchful of your petite peta fall from even a few feet can seriously hurt it! The tinier ones, if not injured from the fall, may run under furniture and get lost in nooks and crannies, or could be stepped on accidentally. As with any pet, children should always be supervised during the pet’s handling.

Food: All four of these small mammals will need a food made specifically for them (rabbits need rabbit food, guinea pigs need guinea pig food, hamsters need hamster food and gerbils need gerbil food). Several varieties of each can usually be found in a local pet supply store. It is best to find a food your pet likes and stick with it to avoid digestive upset, and you should check with a reliable exotic veterinarian (one who has experience with small mammals) if you are concerned about diet.

Water: Always have fresh water available for your pet, even if you are feeding fresh vegetables. Avoid offering water in bowls, as they are messy and unreliable. The most effective way to administer water is through a water bottle with a vacuum tube made out of metal. A small ball rests in the end of the tube that the pet drinks from that keeps the water from pouring out (though it may drip a little bitthis is normal). A metal nozzle is best because these animals will chew on the end of the tube as they drink. Use a bottle brush to clean the bottle once a week in warm, soapy water (be sure to rinse well).

Gerbils: A desert-dwelling species, and are found in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The most common species kept as a pet is the Mongolian gerbil, which has a 4.5 inch long body with a 2-inch tail, and strong back legs which are longer than the front legs. They are curious, and can be a bit bold when investigating new things. Though they rarely vocalize, and seem to communicate mostly by smell, sometimes during mating or when danger is imminent they will thump their hind legs like rabbits! They are quite sociable and would enjoy a companion of the same sex for life. They are burrowing creatures, and will create burrows up to 20 inches deep if given the proper materials within their safe cage. Mongolian gerbils are not necessarily nocturnal (active at night); they seem to enjoy the daytime as well. Their average life span is 2-4 years with proper care.

Food: Feed a high-quality gerbil food and supplement it with fresh vegetables and the occasional insect. Make sure that they eat everything in the bowl before you give them more! Fresh water should always be available in a small vacuum bottle, but since gerbils are desert animals, they are able to conserve water pretty well. Change the water every few days for freshness.

Housing and Toys: Gerbils’ strong back legs are built for jumping, so they must be securely housed. A 10-gallon aquarium with a secure lid made of hardware cloth is usually quite sufficient for a pair. Avoid plastic cages, as they will eventually chew their way out! Avoid placing the cage in direct sunlight or where draftiness occurs. Gerbils need a consistent day/night cycle for optimum health. They will dig in the corners of their cage relentlessly, so be sure they have lots of bedding to burrow into. Exercise wheels should be the closed kind (no open rungs to snag tails), and give them some pine cones or branches to chew on to keep their teeth worn down.

Bedding: Aspen shavings are the best and should be supplemented with strips of tissue paper for them to tear up for nesting. Pine bedding can be used if it is kiln-dried and you allow it to “air out” a bit before going into the cage. DO NOT use cedar chips! The aromatic oils in cedar are too strong and cause respiratory diseases and even death in small mammals. Pile the bedding high enough so that they can burrow into it, and provide empty paper towel holders for them to chew. Change the bedding as needed, about once a week or so. After carefully transferring your pet to a secure container, empty the dirty bedding and wash the cage with warm soapy water and allow it to dry thoroughly before putting in fresh bedding materials.

Handling and Behavior: Keeping safe handling guidelines (see above) in mind, interact with your pet often in a secured area. (Do not pick your gerbil up by his tail!) Let him get used to you gradually, and supply him with some toys to keep him happy. Gerbils need companionship of their own species, so you are best selecting two of the same sex as babies and keeping them together for life. They will cuddle, bathe each other, wrestle and play chase, as well as hang out in their burrows. They will often sleep in heaps, too. They have scent glands on their stomachs, so they like to mark things by rubbing their bellies on them.

Hamsters: Short-tailed desert-dwellers, come in several different species, and it is important to know the differences. Syrian (also known as Golden or Teddy Bear) hamsters are solitary creatures and will not tolerate companions at all. Dwarf (aka Russian) hamsters are more sociable and prefer another Dwarf of the same sex, just like gerbils. Once you’ve determined the type you are interested in, their care is much like that of gerbils. They are inquisitive and quiet, enjoy obstacles and mazes, and are self-cleaning.

Food: Commercial hamster food is widely available, and will contain the right nutrients for your pet. You can supplement this diet with fresh veggies like kale or carrots, Milk-Bones, and an occasional insect. Hamsters are hoarders, which means that they stuff food into their cheek pouches and may take it to a different place to eat. Beware of sharp or sticky foods, as they can get caught in the pouches. One small bowl of food will last them several days. Water should be fed through a vacuum bottle and changed every three or four days for freshness.

Housing and Toys: Hamsters can be housed in aquariums or wire cages made especially for them. A 10-gallon aquarium with a secure lid made of hardware cloth is usually quite sufficient for a pair of Dwarves or a solitary Syrian. Avoid plastic cages, as they will eventually chew their way out! Avoid placing the cage in direct sunlight or where draftiness occurs. Make sure your pet has things inside his home to chew to keep his rodent teeth worn down, or they will grow too long and he will starve to death.

Hamsters: These little guys enjoy wheels specially made for them (closed, with no rungs), empty toilet paper tubes, and exercise balls. These are closed balls that you place your pet in and he can “walk” around a secured area (do not let him near the stairs). You can also place the ball in a stand for stationary exercise. Clean these occasionally with warm soap and water and allow them to dry completely before use, and always monitor your pet when he is in his toy.

Handling and Behavior: Keeping safe handling guidelines (see Common Guidelines, above) in mind, interact with your pet often in a secured area. Hamsters are nocturnal, which means that they sleep during the day and are active at night. If they are woken suddenly from sleep, they can be grouchy and may bite. (A good way to know if your hamster is fully alert is to look at his ears. If they are flat back against his head, leave him alone and allow him to wake up. Once he is fully awake, his ears will face forward.) Let him get used to you gradually. Hamsters are generally friendly and sociable when awake, but they may hibernate for periods of several days, so don’t be too concerned if you can’t play with the little guy every day. He needs plenty of beauty sleep! Do not, under any circumstances, allow your hamster to get wet.

Guinea Pigs: Also known as cavies, are not really pigs, and they did not originate in Guinea. The origin of their common name is unclear, but they do remind people of little pigs sometimes with their eating habits and interesting sounds. They are rodents who come in several different varieties, from short-haired to long-haired, and in dozens of colors. Adults are larger than hamsters and gerbils, usually from 6-9 inches in length and up to a pound or more in weight. They are tailless, have continuously growing teeth, and make a variety of sounds, including whistles and grunts. Their slightly larger size makes them less likely to escape confinement, and easier to catch if they do. They are social creatures and form attachments to other cavies and humans, so strongly consider having at least two of the same sex raised together. You can successfully pair a male and a female if at least one of them is neutered (it is less complicated to neuter a male than spay a female) to prevent unwanted litters. If your pet is kept solitary, you must spend time bonding with him daily, or he will be quite lonely!

Food: Cavies have a tendency to eat too much, and can get fat if you aren’t careful. They cannot manufacture Vitamin C in their bodies, so they must get it in their diet. Feed a high-quality guinea pig food enriched with Vitamin C, and supplement these pellets with fresh green leafy vegetables (e.g. carrots, kale, broccoli, dandelion greens, collards, or spinach) at least every other day. Give small amounts at first to see what your pet prefers. Feeding too much of these vegetables, however, can cause diarrhea. You can also feed timothy hay daily to keep your pet’s digestive tract healthy.

Water: Should be delivered via vacuum bottle, and changed daily. Avoid the Vitamin C drops that are available to mix with the water. They tend to break down in the light and you won’t know if your pet is getting his daily allotment of this important nutrient. Regular size adult cavies need 10-20 milligrams of Vitamin C daily. Feed your pet in a ceramic bowl to avoid chewing destruction.

Housing and Toys: Guinea pigs are inquisitive creatures, but they rarely jumpperhaps because they have poor depth perception. An aquarium is not a suitable home for them because they will not get enough air circulation. Adults require 2-4 square feet of living area each, and the preferred housing is a sturdy wire cage large enough to meet this requirement. Many pet suppliers now make homes especially for cavies, or you can fashion one yourself with the right materials. The floor of a guinea pig home must be solid, or its feet will slip through and it could injure itself! Many store-bought cages come with removable metal or plastic pans for easy cleaning. Guinea pigs will chew, however, so any plastic parts must be out of reach.

Guinea pigs enjoy toys, and seem to like to toss things in the air, such as toilet paper rolls. They will climb a bit, so wide shelves or cubbyholes are fine (they could fall off narrow shelves). They like places to hide (in the wild, cavies use tunnels or burrows that have been abandoned by other animals; they do not dig their own), which can be made out of heavy plastic or wood or cardboard. Be aware that they will gnaw on anything in their cage, and they will ingest paper products (a small amount won’t hurt them, though). A brick or concrete paver in the cage may help to keep their nails worn down; otherwise, you will need to clip them occasionally or have a small-mammal vet do it.

Bedding: Aspen shavings are the best, but many people also swear by commercial compressed paper pellets (one brand is known as Carefresh). Pine bedding can be used if it is kiln-dried and you allow it to “air out” a bit before going into the cage. DO NOT use cedar chips! The aromatic oils in cedar are too strong and cause respiratory diseases and even death in small mammals. Pile the bedding 1-2 inches high. Change the bedding as needed to remove wastes; about once a week or so. After carefully transferring your pet to a secure container, empty the dirty bedding and wash the tray with warm soapy water and allow it to dry thoroughly before putting in fresh bedding materials.

Handling and Behavior: Cavies are active during the day and mostly quiet at night. They will be skittish until they are used to their surroundings and your comings and goings. Soon, though, they will anticipate your arrival with loud squeaks for food and attention. Support their bellies and rear legs when lifting them, and hold them securely against you. When held, they will either purr contentedly or squeak, and may become agitated if they need to urinate or defecate. If you feed veggies when you hold them, they will associate good things with being held, and will respond better to handling. When they are happy, they will sometimes leap straight up in the air (this is commonly called “popcorning”) and scamper about. When frightened, they will either freeze in place or run for cover, and may purr if startled by a loud noise. When relaxed, they may lie on their sides like dogs, with their rear legs out to the side. Males, even neutered ones, may sway and circle females while purring (sometimes called “rumblestrutting”) and occasionally mounting them. Cavies do not normally bite, but they will investigate everything for food value, which may make them nibble on you. They can be litter box trained, but this takes some time and patience.

Rabbits: Some of the most interesting pets, but they do take more work and time than the previously mentioned pets. Though they are not rodents (they are of the genus lagomorphia, which also includes wild hares), their teeth are continuously growing and must be kept worn down with the proper materials. Rabbits are social creatures and enjoy friends of their own species as well as humans. There are several breeds, types and colors, including dwarf, lop, and mini-lop. Most shelters that adopt out rabbits expect that they will live in your house, and this is indeed the safest place for them. Since they are prey animals, you must make sure that they are safe from dogs or cats living in the home, even friendly ones. Rabbits can literally be scared to death by predators, so proper introductions, safe housing and interaction, and time to get used to surroundings are very important when you bring a house rabbit home. They are ravenous chewers, so homes must be thoroughly “bunny-proofed” before they can be allowed run of the house.

Food: Feed a high-quality rabbit diet (at least 18% fiber) daily and supplement it with fresh vegetables at least every other day. A good quality timothy hay should be available at all times; feed it in a hopper to keep the bun from trampling it and eliminating on it, and keep excess hay dry and fresh in a tightly closed container. Water should be delivered by vacuum bottle for best results, and changed often.

Housing and Toys: Do not select an aquarium for a rabbit, as it does not give enough air circulation. Choose a roomy wire structure with a non-wire floor (a plastic or metal tray should be the bottom). Shelves will give your rabbit perches to lie on, and will free up the floor for a small litter pan. Attach a piece of untreated wood to the inside of the cage for your bun to chew on, and provide plenty of toys. Good toys for rabbits include hard plastic baby toys (such as rattles and keys), paper bags and cardboard boxes for crawling inside (these are best if they have more than one entrance point), untreated wicker baskets, boxes full of shredded paper or junk mail (for digging in), cat toys that roll or can be tossed, and “nudge and roll” toys like empty oatmeal canisters or larger hard plastic balls. Include a soft blanket or washable piece of fleece in the cage for a bed (on one of the shelves is fine). The cage should be located in a quiet area of the house away from drafts or direct sunlight.

Bedding: Rabbits can be taught to use a litter pan successfully, and once this training is complete, a litter pan in the cage will suffice for elimination purposes. If your bun is not yet litter trained, aspen shavings or Carefresh bedding in the bottom of the cage will work fine. Do not use cedar shavings; they are toxic! Be aware that rabbits like to dig and kick, so they may fling bedding out on the floor if the sides of the cage are open mesh. Shredded newspaper will also work as bedding, but they will chew it and tear it.

Handling and Behavior: Rabbits are very sociable and do best when they are allowed “free time” daily in supervised, bunny-proofed areas of your homethey are not meant to be caged all the time. They investigate everything, and will chew anything they can get their teeth on! Once they get used to their surroundings, they will join you on the floor or on furniture for TV watching or reading, often curling up close by. Some enjoy petting and will seek it out; others are shyer and may take coaxing (or bribing with fruits and vegetables). Give your new pet lots of time to approach you on his own terms for best results. If he associates you with something good, he may seek you out and nudge you for attention. They can do fine with well-trained dogs and friendly cats (supervised, of course), and of course, other rabbits! They enjoy playing with toys, and will scamper around when happy, flinging their rear legs into the air with joyous abandon. Try to lure your rabbit back into his cage after playtime instead of forcing him back so that he always associates his “house” with safety and security, not punishment. If you have to chase him (and stress him) to put him in his cage, he will consider it a game, and will make it a habit.

What About Veterinary Care?

All of these species should be treated by a qualified small mammal veterinarian (sometimes known to specialize in “exotics”). Word-of-mouth referrals are the best way to find one, but the Internet can also be a good resource. Call the vet’s office and ask if they treat your species. If so, find out how long the vet has been dealing with exotics, and try to get a feel for his or her expertise. It would be a good idea to meet the vet and have him or her see your pet early on, so that he or she will be familiar with it if an emergency arises. Notice how the vet and the staff treat your pet, and ask questions. Not all vets work with exotics, so finding a capable doctor may be an issue. You need to be comfortable with the care and service you receive; if you aren’t, keep looking.

Rabbits and guinea pigs can be spayed (females) and/or neutered (males). This is necessary if you plan to have a companion of the opposite sex for your pet, and can be helpful for avoiding behavioral issues as your pet matures (sex hormones cause aggression in many species, and can also shorten the life span of your pet). Talk to your vet about these surgeries. Please do not plan to breed your pet; even small mammals are suffering from a pet overpopulation crisis.

This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.

The AHS depends on friends to provide funding for our services and programs of animal aid’ support for individuals with animal related problems’ and community animal issues.

The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals’ Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty’ relieving suffering’ and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.