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Small Animals

Small Animal Pets

Val Cairney June 12, 2020 226

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Welcome to this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  Today’s episode is about little furry companions.  Referred to as small animal pets, let’s talk about the little creatures that have become a part of many households.

Small animal pets are usually rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, ferrets, hedgehogs, chinchillas and gerbils but I have to admit that gerbils seems to have gone by the wayside as I really can’t remember anyone telling me in the last few years that they have a gerbil.  We still carry supplies for them but food for example will be for hamsters and gerbils. 

Small animal pets are what parents are often comfortable getting for their children as they are lower maintenance and truth be told, don’t live as long as a dog or cat. Their maintenance also, is not as costly.  As well, finding someone to come in and feed your rabbit and change their cage when you go away, seems to be a bit easier than finding someone to look after your dog.  Small animals can be great companions for everyone in the household and they can be a great teacher for children to learn how to have responsibility for caring for another being. 


Let’s begin with hamsters.  Hamsters seemed to have fallen out of favour there for a bit, but I am finding there is a renewed interest in these little guys.  Hamsters are rodents.  Yup, so best not to leave the cat alone with the hamster until you know the cat is not going to make lunch of your new friend.  There are actually 19 different species of hamsters but the most common that is kept as a pet is the golden or Syrian hamster.  Many people refer to having a Teddy Bear hamster, but that is actually a colloquial name for the Syrian hamster. 

So believe it or not, the life span of a teddy bear or golden hamster is two to three years.  So that gives you an idea of the length of commitment to the hamsters care.  Hamsters are not necessarily nocturnal they actually like to come out around twilight.  In the wild they would be subject to being caught as prey, so they by habit hide underground or in their shavings or house during the day.  Hamsters similar to a chipmunk have pouches in their cheeks that they carry food within, so you may find they have transported their food from their dish into their den or under their shavings. 

So, what do you need if you get a hamster?  First, you will need a proper cage that has a cleanable bottom and a wire top.  Make sure it is a cage for a hamster, because if the wire is too wide, your hamster may go missing during the night and meet up with your cat or fall down a register or any multitude of fatal mishaps.  In the cage you will want to put bedding material.  This can be shavings of pine or cedar or even the soft natural paper that is available for small animal bedding.  This bedding will serve for a soft place to bury under and play, but also they do use this to do their business in, so that means the bedding must be changed and the cage cleaned, regularly.  Inside the cage you will want some kind of nesting material.  This material allows the hamster to use his natural nest building abilities to create a cozy burrow for himself.  You will also need a water bottle that attaches to the cage be it glass or plastic, a food dish, some toys for him to chew and play with.  Also, put the cage in a place with less intense light. 

Okay, so some tips on a few things here.  I can’t tell you how many people want to return the water cage bottles because they say they leak.  The trick with these bottles is that they must be filled all the way to the fill line every time you open the bottle. If you don’t do this, there will not be the vacuum that is needed to stop the bottle from leaking from the feeding tube.  So for this reason, a smaller bottle for a hamster is the best choice so you are not wasting all that water being filled in a larger bottle. 

The other thing is that hamster’s teeth never stop growing, so they need something to gnaw on so their incisors will grind against each other to wear them down. There are great wooden sticks and toys for hamsters that you can pick up at your pet specialty store. Which brings me to a question about hamsters.  Do hamsters bite? Well yes they do!   However, they rarely act aggressively and usually only bite out of fear, so their response is telling you they don’t like whatever it is you are doing. 

Okay, so what should you feed your hamster?  Well this is one of the reasons hamsters are considered low maintenance.  Pick up a bag of hamster food at your local pet specialty store and feed the hamster about 1 tablespoon of food either in the morning or evening.  Additionally feed a small portion of fruit and vegetables every day or every other day.  So, hamsters are a pretty low maintenance small pet.  They are fun to watch and very interactive.  It’s also best to instruct children on how to handle them as they can easily be injured through rough handling.  But other than that, hamsters are cute and fun to have.

Guinea Pigs

The next little pet I’d like to talk about is guinea pigs.  So we have gone up a size or two with this little fellow, guinea pigs, also known as cavies, are also a rodent. 

The guinea pig originated in the Andes of South America.  And I hate to bring this up, but I have watched a few travel and expedition shows where they have visited the Andes and yes, just what you are thinking, the local people were serving up guinea pig.  I remember the expression on Josh Gates’ face on Expedition Unknown when he saw a fried guinea pig on his plate.   

Anyway, let’s focus to our pet guinea pigs.  The most commonly found breeds are the American (short smooth hair coat), Abyssinian (short coat with “swirls” called rosettes), and Peruvian (long-haired).  I have seen some very interesting looking guinea pigs at winter and summer fairs where enthusiasts are showing their cavys.  Guinea pigs are quite sociable so for this reason some people will have two guinea pigs so they have another friend to interact with.  If you decide to do this it is best to put two females together. 

Generally guinea pigs are quiet but they can call out pretty loudly for a little creature if they are hungry or they see you come home and would like attention.  They are also active night and day, so another reason they are a fun pet. 

Okay so just the same as the hamster, guinea pigs need a large cage that has a bottom that can be cleaned and a wire top.  Make sure the cage is in a place that will not be too hot or have cold drafts.  Again, shavings or soft paper goes in the cage as well as a small animal igloo or hut where they can hide and sleep.  A water bottle is needed and this time, a good sized one. 

Food for your guinea pig will consist of good quality pellets, lots of leafy greens and hay.  Just like the hamsters, their teeth keep growing so they too need to have either vegetables or gnawing toys in their cage. 

Guinea pigs also really enjoy out of cage time, so take the time to socialize them outside of their cage so you can play and interact with your guinea pig.  Guinea pigs also do not produce Vitamin C but they need this.  You will need to supplement their diet with Vitamin C.  You can always ask your veterinarian how to balance this out correctly.  And again, Guinea pigs can be injured with rough handling so take the time to get your gp used to being held and petted gently. 

Acquiring a guinea pig can be done through a breeder of guinea pigs or you can check out a pet store that sells animals, but be very, very observant of their condition, care and staff knowledge when going this route.  And one of the best ways, is to check with your local animal shelter.  Where I live, frequently guinea pigs end up at the shelter and if you are interested in adopting a guinea pig, what better way than to go to your animal shelter and give a little guy a second chance?


Okay, so it’s time talk about one of the most popular small pets and that is rabbits.  Rabbits or most affectionately referred to as bunnies are a very popular small pet for many reasons.  Bunnies are so cute and soft and their little noses twitch and they look so cute when they are chewing on lettuce or vegetables. 

So from the outset here, let’s make sure we differentiate between domestic rabbits and wild rabbits.  It should not be attempted to make a wild rabbit a pet.  This happens when someone finds a baby rabbit and thinks they have been abandoned.  Most likely they have not.  The Mum rabbit has properly gone out for some food and foraging and believe me she will be back.  If your cat drags a bunny from its den, again, there will be some doctoring involved, but you cannot make this bunny a pet. 

As well, people who think they can just release their domestic rabbit into the wild because they don’t want it anymore, is just sentencing it to death. 

As a domestic rabbit, it has no idea how to survive in the wild. So, caring for a bunny is somewhat similar to the other pets I have talked about.  A rabbit needs a proper habitat, be it a large cage or hutch, and to be clear, this is an indoor hutch. Domestic rabbits should not be kept outside. But, on a lovely warm summer day, you can take your bunny outside on a special rabbit harness and leash so he or she can enjoy some fresh grass and sunshine. 

Rabbits need shavings and bedding as well, a large water bottle, food, hay, vegetables and toys.  Apart from their basic needs they also need love and attention. 

On average a rabbit can live from 5 to 10 years.  So, the commitment level here has gone up quite a bit.  One of the best things about bunnies is that they can actually be litter trained like a cat.  There are specific cage trays that you can get that you can train your bunny to use as a litter.  That makes things a lot easier for keeping the cage clean. 

Now, let’s talk about bedding for a minute, because when it comes to rabbits, there are some rules.  Rabbits should not have cedar as bedding and pine is usually something to avoid as well, although some say kiln dried pine is acceptable.  I would just avoid both to be safe. The lovely smell of pine is actually attributed to the phenols in the wood.  However, these phenols are the problem as they cause changes in the liver enzymes of your rabbit.  So, I think it is best to play it safe here and go with either aspen or recycled paper litter. 

Now, an interesting fact about rabbits is that they are often the 3rd most surrendered animal to shelters.  Why on earth is that considering how cute they are?  Well, several reasons do come up for this.  One, is that rabbits can be destructive in that they will chew things they should not.  Rabbits just like hamsters, and guinea pigs have teeth that continue to grow and just like hamsters and guinea pigs, they need to chew so the teeth wear against each other and therefore stay trimmed.  Often destructive chewing results from boredom, so this is why it is very important to make sure you have chewing toys for your bunny and give them lots of attention. 

One of the other reasons bunnies end up in shelters is the fact that they do live from 5 to 10 years.  Parents often get their child a rabbit, but fail to realize that the child may outgrow the rabbit and not be interested in it any longer.  This then creates the next reason why bunnies end up in shelters and that is that despite all best intentions and promises, the adult guardian or parent will end up caring for the rabbit and if that is something you are not prepared to do, don’t get a rabbit.  But, this also means that if you are looking for a rabbit, go to your local or area shelter because there is probably a lovely bunny waiting desperately for a loving home.  In this case, seriously, adopt, do not shop! 

So, let’s talk food for your bunny.  You’ll be surprised with some of the do’s and don’t;s in this area. 

First, bunnies need a good quality pellet.  You will have to try different brands until you find the one your bunny likes.  Second, bunnies need hay. Good quality hay be it alfalfa or timothy will make up most of their diet.  

Now, for vegetables.  What can a bunny not eat?  Well…most lettuces is on the no list for one.   Quite a few common vegetables as well and other culprits like chocolate, yoghurt, seeds, cereal.  What about carrots?  Everyone believes rabbits eat carrots.  Well, they do, but they should only eat carrots sparingly as carrots are high in calcium so it is better to give them the carrot tops. 

So some vegetables that bunnies will enjoy are dandelion leaves, broccoli tops, romaine lettuce, no iceberg or cabbage, and bok choy.  And one thing you can do is wet the veggies before you give them to your bunny. The moistness of the wet veggies will give some good hydration for their digestive system. As for treats, some fruits they seem to like are bananas, strawberries, pineapple and apples as long as there are no seeds.  There are also some special bunny treats you can pick up at your pet specialty store.  One other very important fact about bunnies, is that many vets are now spaying or neutering rabbits, so that makes for a calmer bunny and the possibility of having more than one.

And finally, as with the other little animals I have talked about, bunnies can be injured easily with improper handling and remember, never, ever pick up a rabbit by its ears!  Scoop up your bunny like a kitten and hold its bum so it feels safe. 


The next pet I’m going to talk about is one that either people love or hate.  And that is rats. 

Now of course, these are not the rats that are in sewers out pilfering through garbage, these are the domestic rats usually the Norway rat that has a variety of colours and markings.  There are also a wide variety of breeds including standard/smooth, rex, hairless and tailless.

There lifespan is about 2 to 3 years, they are nocturnal so be prepared for that and they are very social, so most pet rat enthusiasts have at least two or a small group. It is highly recommended that you have more than one rat.  Because of their very social nature, rats require attention and out of cage time, every day, to interact and exercise.  

Habitat for your rats like the others include a large cleanable cage with a safety top.  Rats can squeeze through very small openings so make sure you have chosen a cage that is for rats. 

Like rabbits, rats can also be litter trained. This will cut down on the bedding changes.  If they are not litter trained be prepared to change bedding every day.  As for bedding, the best bedding for rats is the recycled non bleached paper pellets or the soft shredded paper bedding.  Just like rabbits, cedar and pine shavings are off the list, as is kitty litter, I can’t imagine why anyone would think using kitty litter would be a good idea for bedding and despite the fact that rats can be litter trained, this does not mean you put kitty litter in their litter tray.  Also, corn cob bedding is off the list.  Stick with the recycled paper for safety. 

Your rats will also need a water bottle, toys to chew and you can certainly put an igloo or hut in their habitat so they can curl up and have a good snooze when the sun is up. 

As for food, rats actually have a big list of foods they can eat.  Start with some good quality pellets.  As for hay, rats will eat some hay, not as much as rabbits, but they too have those ever growing teeth so having something they have to grab and chew will help keep their teeth trimmed.  The list of foods that rats can eat is quite long including everything from fruit to meat to oats.  What they cannot eat is, Chocolate. Raw beans. Raw sweet potato. CabbageBrussels sprouts and green potatoes.

Some fun facts about rats are that rats can actually sense mood.  I find this fascinating, because a rat will respond with the same mood they are sensing.  So, I think it best not to pick up your rat when you are in a rather foul mood, you might just get that right back at ya!  But, if you pick up your rat when you are calm and happy, he or she will give that in return.  How interesting!!! 

Also, rats are very clean and very intelligent so they can easily be trained. 

And here is another really interesting fact, if you have a pink eyed rat, an albino or fancy rat, they do not see very well, so you will see them swaying side to side when they are standing.  They do this so they may detect motion.  Isn’t that amazing? 

So if you wish to acquire a few rats, go to a rattery where they are properly bred and handled, or again, go to your local shelter.  My home town shelter often has rats, so again, adopt, do not shop!  And just like our other little friends, rats can be hurt when handled incorrectly so proper care and handling lessons are important.

Rats get a very bad rap, but those who have embraced the domestic rat have found that they are amazing pets that can make every day interesting.


Well it’s time to move to a few other small pets, that require some experience or at the very least some very good research before taking them on.  Let’s start with Chinchillas.

Chinchillas look almost like a small rabbit but they are a rodent that was originally native to the Andes.  I wonder if they ran into our Guinea pig friends while out and about?

They are very cute with super soft fur. This super luxurious and soft fur made them a target for hunting and trapping for their pelts to make coats, throws etc. Chinchillas are currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN, The International Union for Conservation of Nature.  The decline is attributed solely to human hunting. Chinchillas have also been subjected to being farmed for their fur and are often living in deplorable conditions and killed in inhuman ways.  Many countries have been banning Chinchilla farms, from Austria to the Netherlands to Northern Ireland. Fur farms exist in Canada and the United States as well, and whether Chinchillas are part of these fur farms is a matter of speaking to the individual farm.  In Canada Chinchillas are still farmed but on a limited scale.

Not good enough as far as I’m concerned!

Anyway, Chinchillas are nocturnal and take their time getting used to being handled.  They can bond with their owners but they may never enjoy being cuddled. 

The biggest concern with Chinchillas is having them overheat. Their soft thick fur was meant to protect them from the elements but in captivity it can cause them to overheat. This is why it is important that your Chinchilla’s habitat needs to be in a cool, quiet place.  The room temperature should not exceed 25 degrees Celsius. The cage for a Chinchilla should be large and mutli leveled as Chinchillas like to climb seeing as they came from the rocky area of the Andes.

So, interesting with Chinchillas is that a plastic bottomed cage is not actually the best, because they are very good at chewing anything plastic.  A specific Chinchilla habitat should be purchased.  And here is where Chinchillas also differ from our other friends, the trays in the habitat can be lined with shavings preferably pine.  Avoid, aspen, cedar and recycled newspaper. 

The dietary requirements of a Chinchilla are also specific.  Their digestive systems are quite sensitive so it’s important to follow the rules.  A good quality grass hay is going to make up a lot of their diet.  As well, specific Chinchilla pellets are important because these formulations are specifically balanced and without this your Chinchilla’s health will suffer.

Another very important feature for Chinchillas is the dust bath.  Chinchillas cannot be bathed in water, but they really enjoy a dust bath.  There is a specific container of powder called dust that can be purchased at your pet specialty store.  There is also a round container that you can purchase, or use a dish tub that you put the dust in and then the Chinchilla, and they will roll around in this getting the dust down into their fur absorbing oil and removing dirt. 

Chinchillas are very susceptible to environmental changes so it’s again, very important to monitor the temperature in their environment.  Humidity should be low and there should be proper ventilation. So, Chinchillas are going to be a much longer commitment, enough longer than some dogs, so don’t go into getting a Chinchilla lightly.  They have very specific care needs and so are not really a low maintenance pet. 


Our next higher maintenance pet is the ferret.  Ferrets are super cute, very playful, intelligent, social and live about 7 to 10 years.

Ferrets are a domestic form of the European polecat so they fall into the weasel category. Ferrets love to play outside their cage and they also love cuddles.  So, unlike the Chinchilla the chances of lots of Ferret hugs is high. 

Ferrets are native to Europe and North America mostly forests and plains.  Habitat for a domestic pet ferret will be an investment.  Ferret hutches are large multileveled cages with platforms and hammocks.  Ferrets like to curl up in their hammocks for a snooze.   And Ferrets like to snooze a lot!  They tend to be active around dawn and dusk but you can get them onto your own schedule.  But, be prepared, they like to sleep.

Food for your ferret has become easier now with proper formulated ferret food available at your pet specialty store.  Ferrets are obligate carnivores so they must eat meat.  You can tap into your pet specialty store’s selection of frozen raw food for this opting for the protein only formulas.  You can also feed ferrets kitten food, and baby food that is high in protein.

Foods to avoid are fruits, vegetables, dairy and anything with sugar. And ferrets do not eat hay. Ferrets seem to drink more water out of a bowl as opposed to a water bottle, but for sanitary reasons you may want to opt for the bottle and monitor their water intake.  

Most ferret habitats have cozy little flannel blankets lining the platforms plus, little houses and hammocks.  Ferrets can be litter trained as well so you can put some Aspen shavings or complete bedding purchased from the pet speciality store in their litter. 

The one thing that may have you decide against a ferret is their smell.  Some people find their strong musty smell to be quite off putting, but some don’t find it so and if you keep their habitat clean and bath your ferret no more than once a month in a specific shampoo for ferrets you can keep the odour under control.  Ferrets have a natural oil to the coat, so over washing will strip this away and cause problems. 

So again, keeping the habitat clean and a bath once a month should help with the odour ferrets naturally have. To acquire a ferret contact a proper breeder or contact your local shelter.


My last small pet on the ‘a little more maintenance list’ is Hedghogs!

Hedgehogs live about 2 to 5 years and are from Europe, Asia and Africa.  There are no known native Hedgehogs in the Americas.  Hedgehogs are small and have a spiny or quill coat with little pointed noses.  They are nocturnal and generally are solitary animals. They are not generally cuddly animals and will roll into a ball when threatened. 

As for habitat, a very large cage is needed preferably with multi levels as they do like to climb. And no wire floors. They also like exercise wheels.

Their cage should be placed where they will not get too hot or too cold, and away from drafts.  Generally they like the temperature to be around 23 degrees Celsius. 

Bedding should be the recycled paper in the fluffy form.  Stay away from the wood shavings.  These little guys can be litter trained as well, so just put some of the recycled paper into the litter pan.

A water bottle is needed and two food dishes, one for dry and one for wet.

Toys are important, either small animal toys or balls or some cat toys will work well.  The cage should be cleaned frequently. 

Food for your hedgehog should be high in protein and low in fat.  Hedgehogs are omnivores but the protein should be higher on the list.  Again, there is specific hedgehog food available at your pet specialty store.  They do like some fruits and vegetables like apples and corn but these should be feed in moderation.  They also like mealworms as a treat. The second bowl provided for them can be used for a supplement of canned cat or dog food.  And hedgehogs do not eat grass hay. 

Hedgehogs can be held in your hand and they may get used to crawling onto your lap and get treats.  They are just different as they are not the soft cuddly small pet like the others I have talked about.  To acquire a hedgehog, contact a breeder or again your local shelter.

Well that have been a lot of information about little friends.  I began with our lower maintenance small pets, with hamster, gerbils and Guinea pigs.  Then I discussed the popular bunny as a pet, rats, and then into the more exotic small pets with chinchillas, ferrets and hedgehogs.  All of these little guys are unique and fun to have but require research and strong conversations about commitment.  So, that leads me to my pet peeves section.

Pet Peeves

Okay, small pets can be a great starter pet for a young family, but here is where my biggest pet peeve comes in.  These little guys are not disposable.  These are little lives that require care, love and attention.  These pets should never be acquired on a whim.  Adults! You have a job! It is your responsibility to teach your children to be respectful of their pet.  To care for their pet properly and to realize they can be hurt or killed when not respecting their individual fragility. And if you are not prepared to care for this animal for its life once your child isn’t interested in it any longer, they don’t get it!  I can tell you that the most frequent story I hear from an adult that is buying small animal food is, well it was my son’s pet but looks like it’s mine now, all said with rolling eyes and followed by, do you know anyone that wants a bunny? Why did you get this pet in the first place?  So remember, these small pets are not toys that can be discarded.  They are lives that deserve our care and protection.

Well I hope I was able to impart some valuable information about small pets.  They are cute, cuddly, fun to watch and fun to play with.  They are great to begin the learning process for children to respect and care for our furry and spikey friends.  Remember to make sure this is not a purchase made on a whim and do your research because as I say, knowing is caring!

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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