Small furry pets are very popular with people that are unable to dedicate enough time to caring for a dog or cat.
Different animals require different needs to make sure they’re healthy and happy. Rabbits require lots of exercise and hay for eating, whilst rats are hughly intelligent and so should be provided with plenty of toys and activities within their cage to prevent them from becoming bored.
Small animals provide a great deal of companionship and some form a real bonds with their owners. Small animals can also be a great first pet for children, so long as they are taught the responsibilities that come with pet ownership.
Read our pet care guides below for advice on providing for the needs of your small pets.
Please note all Care Advice is provided courtesy of The Pet Charity Further information can be found on their website.
Chinchillas are medium-sized rodents with a peaceful, friendly nature that makes them ideal pets for older children and adults.
The average life expectancy of a chinchilla is 12-15 years, however some can live to up to 20, so you must be sure you are ready to care for your chinchilla for more than the next decade.Chinchillas are gentle, intelligent and inquisitive with a dense, highly attractive coat. They are active in the evening but are not purely nocturnal, and are native to the Andes Mountains of Chile in South America. An adult chinchilla will measure about 25 cm long, excluding the tail.
Chinchillas have the densest coat of any land mammal with 60 hairs from a single root. To keep the coat in peak condition, they should be supplied with a dust bath, which should be filled to a depth of 5cm with special chinchilla sand (a mined volcanic dust). The dusting powder is an absorbent porous dust to absorb excessive grease in your chinchilla’s fur. The bath should be placed in the cage for at least 20 minutes each day when your pet is most active. Your chinchilla will roll in the dust bath to clean his coat and keep it soft and silky.
As a rule chinchillas are hardy animals that rarely become ill, although regular checks for overgrown teeth should be made. Should you be concerned about your chinchilla’s health you should consult your vet.
Chinchilla’s teeth grow continuously, so they need something to chew on to keep them at a healthy length. Pumice stone or pieces of wood are recommended, and fresh hay will help too.
Grooming your chinchilla not only helps to keep him healthy and clean, but helps you to bond with your pet too. Your chinchilla should be groomed at least once a month and your pet shop will advise you on a suitable comb.
You should never bathe your chinchilla as their dense fur makes it very difficult for them to dry out and may result in them catching a chill. If your chinchilla does get wet keep him warm and use a hair dryer (on the lowest setting and at a safe distance) to dry him.
Choosing your chinchilla
There are many chinchilla colours available such as light/medium grey, beige, black velvet, mosaic, silver and white. Whichever variety you decide on, your chinchilla should be 12 weeks old before you take him home.
Chinchillas of either sex may be kept singly, but they love company so it is better to keep a pair. A pair of chinchillas will snuggle up together to sleep, and if you wish to keep a pair they must be of a single sex, purchased between three to five months old and introduced to their accommodation at the same time – otherwise they may fight.
Accommodation should be as large as possible and be escape-proof. The cage should be of wire-mesh construction with a raised wire-mesh floor to prevent the coat from becoming soiled. A removable tray placed under the floor will make it easier to keep the cage clean. This can be covered with wood shavings, cat litter or newspaper.
Chinchillas love to climb and the ideal cage will have different levels of wooden shelves. If you intend on expanding your chinchilla’s cage, extend its width not height as they can fall and injure themselves.
Chinchillas do not like damp or draughty conditions, nor should the cage be placed in direct sunlight. Chinchillas will start to suffer if the environmental temperature rises above 20˚C due to their thick fur, which makes it hard for them to cool down. They can tolerate the cold within reason.
A chinchilla enclosure must be furnished with an interesting selection of natural, non-toxic wood branches (such as apple or pear tree branches), shelves, pipes and gnaw blocks of cuttlefish or mineral stone. Chinchillas become bored easily if kept on their own, so it is worthwhile changing or moving cage contents on a regular basis. A nest box with some hay bedding can also be provided.
Food and water
Your chinchilla should be fed on a diet of specially prepared chinchilla pellets, which your pet will typically sit up and hold between its front paws.
It is important that your chinchilla has constant access to good quality hay to provide essential roughage. As a treat a few raisins or other dried fruit could be offered, but only in small amounts and fed occasionally. Any changes to the diet must be made gradually. Fresh water should be provided daily in a chew proof gravity-fed water bottle.
Chinchillas do not respond kindly to rough handling, but if approached correctly they will respond to gentle handling and rarely bite. To accustom your chinchilla to being handled, first just place your hand into the cage and your chinchilla will then get used to you. Gently pick up your chinchilla with the whole body supported, by placing one hand behind the shoulders and the other hand underneath your chinchilla. Hold your chinchilla close to your chest with one hand holding the base of the tail gently but firmly. Chinchilla’s also shed their fur when frightened; this is a defense mechanism so predators are left with a mouthful of fur.
Chinchillas can be allowed out into a chinchilla-safe room. Make sure that toilet doors are closed as they drown easily and any exposed wires are covered up.
This information is supported by The National Chinchilla Society. If you require further help or advice please visit www.natchinsoc.co.uk
Guinea pigs are ideal for children due to their hardy nature and typically live for approximately 4-8 years.
Guinea pigs are social animals and should not be kept on their own. It is recommended to keep guinea pigs in pairs or small groups of the same sex.
Guinea pigs originate from Peru where they roam the countryside in family groups, usually comprised of one male with a group of females and their young.
Pet guinea pigs can be kept indoors or in an outside hutch. Although they are naturally nervous creatures, they soon become used to gentle handling.
Grooming your guinea pigs helps to keep them healthy while also allows you to bond with your pet. How you groom your pet will depend on whether your guinea pig is short or long-haired. A long-haired guinea pig will need grooming with suitable coat care equipment, which your pet shop will be able to advise on. Short-haired guinea pigs will also benefit from regular brushing.
You guinea pigs’ nails will require regular clipping, which you will need special small animal nail clippers for. Your pet shop or vet will be able to advise or do this for you if you do not feel comfortable.
Guinea pigs are prey animals so they hide their symptoms as much as possible when ill, if you are concerned about your guinea pigs’ health or behaviour, contact your vet as soon as possible.
Choosing your guinea pig
There are three basic types of guinea gig – smooth-haired, coated and long-haired. The smooth-haired types include Selfs and Marked and Ticked, the coated types include Abyssinians, Rex’s, Teddies, Crested and long-haired types include Peruvians, Alpacas and Shelties.
Whichever type you choose, your guinea pigs should be at least six weeks old when you buy them.
Guinea pigs should be provided with as large a cage as possible. A hutch for outdoors should be sturdy and water-proof. It should be raised off the floor by about 25 cm and placed in a sheltered position or inside a shed. Guinea pigs must be protected from inclement weather as well as strong sunlight. A hutch cover, blanket or piece of old carpet will often offer added protection on cold nights.
If you decide to keep your guinea pigs indoors, then a cage similar, but much larger than those used for hamsters, is suitable. These should be placed in a cool room out of direct sunlight and draughts.
All guinea pigs benefit from access to a covered pen or run in the garden. Avoid using pesticides nearby and ensure that the enclosure is secure enough to keep the guinea pig in as well as other animals out. An outdoor run should be moved regularly to allow for a fresh supply of grass.
A hutch or cage should have a layer of shavings on the floor with plenty of hay for bedding. Hay can also be provided to eat from a hay rack if available. You should also provide wooden toys, tubes, plastic bell balls and huts in their cage to break boredom.
Hygiene is extremely important especially in the summer. If not kept clean the hutch or cage will attract flies. As a general rule, cages should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. A good quality, pet-friendly disinfectant should be used and all the bedding and shavings replaced with a fresh supply.
Food and water
Guinea pigs are herbivores, so should be fed on commercially-produced guinea pig food and lots of fresh feeding hay. Do not change your guinea pigs’ commercial feed suddenly, as it can cause fatal digestive upsets. A change in food should be done over a period of at least two weeks.
A fresh supply of good quality hay every day is essential for the health of the digestive system and to wear teeth down. It is also good to feed your guinea pigs small amounts of fresh foods. Sprouts, broccoli, parsley, dandelions, chicory, carrots, and apple are all suitable – but do not over feed. Guinea pigs need to be provided with daily vitamin C, which can be found in broccoli, carrots and commercial feed.
Fresh water should be available at all times. Water is best provided in a gravity-fed bottle attached to the side of the cage, it should be emptied, rinsed and refilled daily.
It is advisable to let your new guinea pigs settle in for a few days before you start handling them. Using smooth and gentle movements, reach under your guinea pig’s belly, place your other hand underneath the back legs and lift. Hold the guinea pig close to your body as this will make him feel more secure, which prevents kicking.
This information is supported by The National Cavy Club. If you require further help or advice please visit www.nationalcavyclub.co.uk
Rabbits can make wonderful pets if cared for correctly. Watching them run, jump and play is a real delight.
Rabbits come in different shapes, sizes and colours and domestic rabbits kept as pets are fundamentally the same as their wild cousins – who live in large social groups and cover an area equivalent to six football pitches every day.
Rabbits typically live for around 7-10 years, although some can live up to 12, so you must be sure you can care for your rabbits for the next decade.
Rabbits should be kept in neutered pairs or compatible groups and never on their own. Rabbits suffer from stress and loneliness if kept alone and they value companionship as much as food. We do not recommend keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together as they have a different set of needs.
Pet rabbits should be allocated some of their owner’s time every day as they enjoy attention, offering them a small treat is a great way to interact and build trust.
Choosing your rabbits
There are many varieties of rabbits available that vary greatly in size and temperament. Dwarf lop eared rabbits are very popular due to their appealing looks and docile nature but can still weigh over 2kg when fully grown. Longhaired rabbits are less suitable as pets because they need daily grooming.
Rabbits should be at least 8 weeks old when you get them. If you’re buying new baby rabbits, feed them the same food they have been used to, alongside plenty of fresh hay and water.
Rabbits should be provided with a large, spacious cage, so they can comfortably stand on their hind legs. A hutch for outdoors should be sturdy, water-proof and raised off the floor. Place the hutch in a sheltered position so rabbits are protected from all weathers. A hutch cover, blanket or piece of old carpet will often offer added protection on cold nights. A house rabbit’s cage should be placed in a cool room and out of direct sunlight and draughts.
Rabbits are active; therefore it is essential they are allowed daily exercise outside their cage, whether in a safe garden enclosure or a rabbit-proof part of your home. An outdoor enclosure should be secure enough to keep rabbits in as well as other animals out.
An exercise area that is permanently attached to their hutch or cage, which allows rabbits to exercise whenever they please, is recommended. A hutch or cage is not enough for your rabbits, and should be regarded as burrows to rest in as part of a larger living area.
An exercise run on the lawn will allow your rabbits to express normal behaviour, such as running, digging, burrowing, jumping, hiding and grazing. It is important to be aware that your rabbits may dig their way out of a run, so make sure you move it regularly to prevent escapes. Regularly moving the run will also allow your rabbits have access to fresh grass.
If your rabbits’ run is attached to their hutch and is unable to be moved, it is recommended to pave the floor and provide a digging box and plenty of fresh hay.
All hutches and runs need to be sturdy and predator-proof. Before purchase, check hutches and runs have bolt locks, not swivel locks and ensure the wire is strong.
Rabbits are prey animals, so they’re naturally shy, quiet and usually dislike being held above ground level. Children should be encouraged to interact with them at ground level.
Bedding and hutch maintenance
A hutch or cage should have a layer of absorbent bedding on the floor with plenty of hay or straw for nesting. Any bedding that becomes wet should be removed daily along with any uneaten fresh foods. A litter tray can be used in the latrine corner, which is easier to clean daily.
Hygiene is extremely important, particularly in summer. If not kept clean the hutch will attract flies and other undesirable pests, so it should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. Rabbits often use the same area for their toilet; this means they can be trained to use a litter tray, which can be easily cleaned out daily.
Food and water
Rabbits should be fed in a way that is as close as possible to their natural diet, which is mostly grass and hay. We also recommend providing some fresh leafy vegetables and a small amount of commercial feed.
A daily healthy diet should be:
• 80% grass or hay. This should be available to your rabbits 24/7 from a hay rack if available
• 15% leafy greens and vegetables, such as kale, carrots and broccoli
• 5% commercial feed, approximately two egg cups
Hay provides rabbits with the fibre needed for a healthy gut and helps to prevent dental problems. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously and so hay helps to keep them at a healthy length.
A wide range of prepared food is available and many are formulated for rabbits of different ages or sizes. Be very careful not to overfeed as this can lead to obesity. Do not change your rabbits’ commercial feed suddenly, as it can cause fatal digestive upsets. A change in food should be done over a period of at least two weeks.
Fresh foods should be given in moderation. Baby rabbits in particular should only get very small amounts and contrary to popular belief, lettuce should be avoided. Suitable fresh foods include kale, spring greens, broccoli and dandelions. Fresh foods should be washed thoroughly before feeding and should not be allowed to become frosted. Anything that is not eaten should be removed regularly.
Fresh hay should be provided at all times as rabbits’ digestive systems are sensitive and require a large amount of hay to eat.
Fresh water must be available at all times and should be provided both by a gravity-fed bottle and also a bowl.
Annual vaccinations against Myxomatosis and another serious disease known as Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) are essential. Unfortunately, it is very easy for rabbits to catch these diseases if not vaccinated.
It is important to have rabbits neutered as this helps prevent some behavioural and health issues, and allows for social groupings.
Pet rabbits should be registered with your vet and insured against unexpected veterinary costs as soon as possible.
It is recommended to check your rabbit underneath daily, especially during summer, to ensure they’re clean. All rabbits are at high risk of fly strike, as flies are attracted to soiled areas around the rabbit’s tail, where they lay eggs. If you suspect your rabbit has fly strike, contact your vet immediately. It is also recommended to find a rabbit-friendly vet.
Rabbits are traditionally kept in a hutch and run outdoors but are increasingly popular as house pets. If you decide to keep your rabbit indoors it is essential that your home is rabbit-proofed. Be aware of exposed electrical wires, other pets and plants – many of which are poisonous to rabbits. They also chew door frames, furniture and clothes, and so should be supervised at all times.
This information is supported by the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund. If you require further help or advice please visit www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk
Hamsters make good family pets. They are nocturnal, so they are more active in the evening and night, allowing the busy family time to enjoy them. They are small mammals so are ideal if space is limited.
Hamsters make suitable pets for children, providing they are taught the responsibilities of their pet’s routine for cleaning, feeding and care. The average life span of a hamster is approximately two years.
In the wild hamsters live in burrows during the day to keep cool and travel great distances at night.
Hamsters are generally hardy animals and normally stay healthy throughout their lives. They can, however, suffer from coughs and sneezes and their nose and eyes may run, so keep them warm and away from any draughts if these occur. Hamsters can also suffer acute diarrhoea, known as ‘wet tail’ – if this occurs consult with a vet immediately.
There is usually no problem with hamsters’ teeth; however, if they do not meet properly they will grow too long, making eating difficult. If this occurs the teeth must be trimmed regularly.
If your hamster escapes from its cage, try putting a box in the corner of the room – you might find him it in the next morning.
If you are concerned about your hamster’s health speak to your pet shop or vet.
Plastic cages with wire tops are ideal as they are easy to clean and escape-proof. The cage should be big enough to provide adequate space to divide their accommodation into an eating, sleeping and toilet area. More space or two adjoining rooms or stories will add to their environmental enrichment. Some cages have extra rooms and tubes available, which provide good stimulation for your pet.
Hamsters are indoor pets and should be kept in a stable temperature, ideally between 17˚C and 23˚C. You should avoid putting the cage in draughts, direct sunlight or in damp or humid conditions. Dwarf hamsters will go into a state of very deep sleep, similar to hibernation, if there is a sudden drop in temperature below 5°C
Hamsters require lots of exercise and their cage should include an exercise wheel. You can also purchase a hamster ball, which your pet can be placed into to roam around a safe area of your house.
Soft, dust-free woodchips make a good floor covering for your hamster’s cage. Soft shredded paper can be used as bedding and nesting material. The cage should be emptied and fully cleaned with a pet safe disinfectant at least once a week.
Food and water
Hamsters are omnivores and so will enjoy a varied diet. A good, commercial hamster mix or pellet will provide the nutrition they require. This can be supplemented by small amounts of fresh fruit or vegetables (except banana), but remember hamsters hoard their food and this can rot – check for any uneaten fruit or vegetables and remove daily. Hamsters have pouches in their mouths, which they use to carry and hoard food.
Additional vitamin supplements or a mineral block can be added to your hamster’s diet. Feeding bowls should be gnaw-proof, easy to clean and hard to knock over.
Fresh clean drinking water must always be available. It can be provided by a gravity-fed water bottle designed to suit your hamster’s cage.
It is important that you handle your hamster regularly to help you build up a relationship.
When you first get your hamster home, leave him to settle in for 24 hours to allow him time to get used to his new surroundings.
Slowly place your hand in the cage so he gets used to your smell. When he seems happy, gently cup one hand under him and one hand over him, and pick him up. Always concentrate on holding your hamster as they can be very quick and can slip out of your hands. Do not try to handle your hamster if he has just woken up as they feel vulnerable at this time and may bite.
Ferrets are lively, intelligent and fun-loving animals that enjoy company. They are sociable and should be kept as pairs or groups, providing all are neutered. The average lifespan of a ferret is 8-10 years and a male can grow up to 24 inches in length. Ferrets are members of the Mustelidae family, which includes the weasel, stoat, mink, otter, badger and polecat.
Ferrets are generally healthy animals and it is relatively simple to keep them fit and healthy. It is worth bearing in mind that ferrets can catch human colds and flu, so beware handling them if you are ill yourself.
Damp is a problem to ferrets so it is important to check daily that their bedding is dry and that their cage is protected from rain.
Grooming: Grooming helps keep your ferret healthy and allows you time to bond with your pet. Your ferret should be groomed at least once a week and your pet shop will be able to advise you on a suitable brush.
Claws: Claws should be trimmed regularly – your vet or pet shop will be able to advise.
Worming: Your ferret should be wormed regularly with a proprietary worming preparation, which your vet or pet shop will be able to advise on.
Flea control: Regular flea treatments will be needed to prevent fleas and other skin parasites, which your vet or pet shop will be able to advise on.
Vaccinations: Your ferret should be vaccinated against distemper and will regularly need boosters. If you intend to take you pet abroad he will need a pet passport, which requires, amongst other things, vaccination against rabies. Your vet will be able to advise you on appropriate vaccinations.
Neutering: It is strongly recommended that ferrets of both sexes are neutered. Males will have a less musky smell and will happily live with other neutered ferrets. Female ferrets risk serious, even fatal, illness if permitted to stay in season for prolonged periods. Neutering of either sex can be performed by surgery or by hormonal treatment. Your vet will be able to advise on the best intervention.
Insurance: Ferrets should be registered with your vet and insured against unexpected veterinary costs.
ID Chip: You should consider having your ferret micro-chipped and your vet or other pet professional can advise you on this. It is also a good idea to have a very small cat collar with your contact details, in case your ferret escapes.
Should you have any concerns about your ferret’s health speak to your vet – it is recommended to find a vet that has experience with ferrets.
Choosing your ferret
There are many colours available such as albino, sable, silver, cinnamon, and the polecat ferret, so called because its dark mask resembles the polecat. Whichever colour you decide on, your ferret should be at least eight weeks old when you bring him home.
Ferrets can be kept indoors or outdoors provided the accommodation is dry, draught-free, escape-proof and out of direct sunlight. If keeping your ferrets indoors, beware of open doors and windows from which they can escape through.
Ferrets are active animals so the accommodation needs to be as large as possible and include multiple levels for sleeping and playing. A separate sleeping area with suitable bedding should be provided. If more than two ferrets are kept, you will need to give them two sleeping boxes. Hay is ideal for winter in the bedding area, whilst straw is better for summer. Alternatively, an old woolen jumper, fleece or blanket will provide extra warmth on cold nights, provided there are no loose fibers to catch their claws.
If kept indoors, ferrets can be provided with an outdoor run (a court) similar to an aviary, this should also be underwired as ferrets are good diggers. Do make sure that there is refuge from the sun and that drinking water is provided. Ferrets are susceptible to the sun and can get sun stroke if precautions are not observed. Some ferrets enjoy paddling and can be given a litter tray filled with cool water – it will also help cool them down in the summer.
Wood shavings or cat litter are both suitable floor coverings. As a general rule, cages should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. A good quality, pet-friendly disinfectant should be used and all the bedding and shavings replaced with a fresh supply.
Ferrets often use the same area as their toilet every day. This can make cleaning easier and allows them to be trained to use a litter tray.
The enclosure should be furnished with an interesting selection of natural, non-toxic wood branches, shelves, pipes, hammocks and toys. Toys keep ferrets active and entertained – a bored ferret may become an excellent escape artist.
Food and water
Ferrets are carnivores and require a high protein diet. All your ferret’s dietary requirements are met with one of the proprietary ferret foods now readily available in your pet shop. This is in the form a dry kibble, so fresh water will need to be available at all times. Ferrets also enjoy fresh meat but be wary of feeding raw meat in hot weather. Ferrets frequently ‘stash’ food and this can attract flies and lead to health problems. Despite being carnivores, some ferrets develop a taste for fruit and vegetables. A tiny taste may not be a problem but be very cautious; it is alien to a ferret’s digestive system.
Fresh clean drinking water should be available at all times, and is best provided by a gravity-fed bottle.
Ferrets should be handled gently but firmly and in a calm, quiet atmosphere. Pick your ferret up behind his front legs and support his bottom in your other hand. Stroke him and talk to him softly and he will soon learn to trust you.
Like puppies and kittens, ferrets tend to ‘test’ things with their teeth. They are not vicious, but can make one or two experimental nips. Ferrets are startled easily and do have sharp teeth, so until you have got to know your ferret and established mutual trust, do not allow him too near your face.
Ferrets are extremely playful and when they’re excited they ‘dance’ sideways, twisting and jumping, their mouths open and making soft hissing sounds or ‘chuckling’. Ferrets love to chase feet, run through tubes and rummage around boxes. Play is important to ferrets, so allow them lots of activity but make sure that anything you give them is not harmful. Claws can be caught in loose materials, and plastic carrier bags (which most ferrets love) are dangerous if unsupervised.
Many ferret owners take their ferrets for walks on small harnesses. This is much enjoyed by ferrets but you will need to be careful that he cannot wriggle out of his harness and escape. Your pet shop will be able to advise you on a suitable harness.
Ferrets are full of curiosity and they have sharp teeth, although they generally don’t pose a threat to household wiring they instead prefer to dig in house plants or even scratch at carpets by closed doors. They also have a knack of getting into unlikely places, so play should always be supervised.
This information is supported by the National Ferret Welfare Society. If you require further help or advice please visit www.nfws.net
Gerbils are curious animals and make interesting, lively pets that are fast on their feet and rarely bite.
Gerbils can live for two to four years and are social animals that should be kept in small, single sex groups or pairs. Animals for pairs or colonies should be bought at the same time, ideally from the same litter, as it is unlikely that new individuals will be accepted at a later date.
The wild gerbil’s habitat is very dry. They are adapted to conserve water and are therefore largely odourless. They live in colonies and burrows underground. First kept in captivity in 1954, the Mongolian Gerbil rapidly became popular as a pet and is now available in a range of colours.
It is best to keep a pair or more of male gerbils or a pair of female gerbils. Females can be more aggressive than males and if they are in a larger group are more likely to fight.
Properly cared for gerbils do not normally suffer from ill health. Obesity can be caused by offering too many high fat items like sunflower seeds so these should only be given sparingly.
All gerbils have a scent gland in the middle of their tummy, which you should examine regularly. This is long, thin and yellow in colour. It is sometimes mistaken for a wound or tumour. Gerbils mark their territory by rubbing their scent gland on something and male gerbils kept with other males are particularly prone to scent gland tumours, which is caused by excessive marking of territory. It starts off just looking like a pimple and can grow rapidly and begin bleeding. It does not spread to other parts of the body, but can grow internally as well as externally, which may damage organs. Removal is a simple surgical procedure.
Sore or bleeding noses can be caused by the wrong type of litter such as some aromatic wood shavings, wire cages and even stress. If a gerbil is huddled in a corner by itself with its fur bedraggled and it looks miserable, then something may be wrong and you should seek veterinary advice immediately.
Always purchase as big a cage as possible, and the size of this will depend upon the number of animals you wish to keep. Some of the larger hamster cages are suitable and your local pet shop will be able to advise.
An interesting and welfare friendly way to house gerbils is in what is often known as a gerbilarium. This is usually a large, 30 inch fish tank with a vivarium or mesh lid filled to a depth of 15-20cms with shavings and hay will be adequate for a pair of gerbils.
Your gerbils will create a network of burrows in much the same way as they would in the wild. This is fun to watch and stimulating for the animals but makes handling difficult. The contents of the gerbilarium will need to be changed every few weeks. You could also place ceramic tubes or jars near the bottom of the peat to make for more permanent tunnels.
Traditional-style cages need to have quite a deep layer of shavings and the whole thing will need to be cleaned and disinfected weekly.
Gerbils are naturally nervous and must be provided with a house or nest box to feel secure. This should be lined with soft small animal bedding.
Cardboard or plastic tubes to run through are much appreciated. Exercise heels should not be added as gerbils can injure their tails using them. They will appreciate a weekly silver sand bath too.
Whatever type of cage or enclosure you choose; it should be kept in a quiet part of the house, out of direct sunlight and protected from draughts. A normal room temperature is best; fluctuating or extreme conditions must be avoided.
Food and water
There are many prepared foods that are suitable for gerbils, but those that contain a lot of sunflower seeds should be avoided. Food should be offered in a small, heavy bowl and changed daily.
Fresh foods like apple, carrot and other hard fruit or vegetables can be given in small quantities. Always remove uneaten fresh food daily. Although they are desert animals, fresh clean water should be available at all times in a gravity-fed water bottle. You can also add vitamin drops to your gerbils’ water.
Like all rodents, gerbils’ teeth grow continuously, making chew toys essential. Mineral stones, wooden toys, hide chews (sold for dogs), pine cones and hard cardboard tubes are all useful for this reason.
Food bowls and water bottles should be cleaned each day.
Regular handling will help your gerbils become tame but care and patience may be needed. The easiest way is to scoop them up so that their body is cupped using both hands. Alternatively, you can grasp them gently but firmly over their back with one hand and the other holding the base of the tail, but never pick up your gerbil by its tail alone.
This information is supported by The National Gerbil Society. If you require further help or advice please visit www.gerbils.co.uk
Fancy mice are relatively inexpensive to house and feed, and they take up little space. They are clean, rarely suffer from ailments and typically live for up to two years.
Mice are social animals and it is best to keep them in single sex pairs or small groups.
Fancy mice have been selectively bred for generations to produce exotic strains of coat colour, type and length. Over fifty colours are available but the white mouse still remains a favourite.
Mice normally stay healthy throughout their lives, but they can suffer from sneezing and breathing problems. Be sure to use appropriate dust-free bedding in the cage to help prevent these problems occurring. If sneezing and breathing problems persist, seek the attention of a vet.
Your mouse’s teeth constantly grow and need to be worn down. You can help them do this by providing them with a mineral block or wooden chews. Overgrown teeth will result in weight loss and must be treated by clipping by a vet.
If you are concerned about your pets’ health seek veterinary advice
Choosing your mice
There are many colours available such as agouti, black and tan and white rumped. Whichever variety you decide on, your mice should be at least four weeks old before you take them home.
A plastic cage with a removable base tray is ideal for keeping mice. The cage should be escape-proof but well ventilated. Beware of large gaps between bars as juvenile mice may be able to escape through them. A glass aquarium is also suitable provided it has a secure, well-ventilated lid.
Fancy mice are indoor pets so they should be kept in an even temperature, ideally between 15°C and 27°C.
You should avoid putting the cage in draughts, direct sunlight or in damp or humid conditions. The cage should be furnished with a nest box, ladders or climbing frames and hiding places to keep your pets entertained and exercised.
Mice are inquisitive and active, therefore they should be provided with as much stimulation as possible. Their cage should include a solid exercise wheel and a selection of toys to avoid boredom.
The floor should be covered with a layer of shavings and suitable bedding provided in the nest box. You can also place small tubes inside the cage to offer your mice a safe place to hide.
Soiled litter and food needs be removed daily. Once a week the cage should be thoroughly cleaned out, disinfected with a pet-safe disinfectant, and litter and bedding replaced.
Mice can leave an odour and there are a number of products available to help to absorb this – your pet shop can advise on a suitable product.
A temperature above 30°C could cause your mice to suffer from heat stroke.
Food and water
Mice are omnivores and so will enjoy a varied diet. A complete mix suitable for mice should be the basis of the diet and should be available from your local pet store. This can be supplemented with small amounts of fruit and raw vegetables as treats. Check daily for uneaten fresh food and remove it to prevent it rotting inside the cage.
Most mice will enjoy a mineral block, which should be available for their use. This will also help to keep their teeth at a healthy length. Food bowls should be sturdy, gnaw-proof, easily disinfected and will need cleaning daily.
Do not feed your mice cheese as it can upset your pet’s stomach.
Fresh drinking water should always be available for your pets It should be provided by a gravity-fed water bottle suitable for your chosen cage.
Handling your mice often will help them build up a relationship. Some mice can become very tame with regular handling but always concentrate when holding your mice as they’re notoriously quick and can slip out of your hands.
When you first take your mice home allow them 24 hours to get used to their new environment. Allow your pets to sniff your hands before handling them; this will get them used to your smell.
Gently but firmly hold the base of the tail between the thumb and forefinger and lift your mouse into your cupped hand, but remember – never pick your mice up by the end of their tails. A hollow tube can also be used to scoop up the mouse until confidence is gained.
Rats are intelligent and interactive animals that make good family pets. They can become very tame when handled regularly and typically live for around two and a half years.
Fancy rats are descendants of the brown rats, which originate from Asia. They are social animals so it is strongly recommended they are kept in single sex pairs or groups. It is best to introduce animals to live together when they are young, as adults may fight.
Rats normally stay healthy throughout their lives, but they can suffer from sneezing and breathing problems. Be sure to use appropriate dust-free bedding in their cage to help prevent these problems occurring. If sneezing and breathing problems persist, seek the attention of a vet.
Rats can get mites, which will be very uncomfortable for your pet, a recommended small animal spray will usually deal with these and your pet shop or vet can advise.
Rat’s teeth constantly grow and need to be worn down to a healthy length by providing a mineral block or wooden chews. Overgrown teeth will result in weight loss and must be treated by clipping by a vet.
If you are concerned about your pets’ health speak to your vet. It is recommended to find a vet that has experience with rats.
Choosing your rat
There are many colours and varieties available such as white or albino, Hooded, Agouti and Cinnamon. There is also a Rex variety with curly coat and whiskers. Whichever variety you decide on your rats should be a minimum of 4 weeks old before you take them home.
A cage of at least 60cm x 35cm x 25cm will give your rats adequate space. Rats love to climb and will appreciate separate areas for feeding, sleeping and exercise. Cages specially designed for rats will usually be of plastic and wire and may be on two or more levels. Most importantly they must be escape-proof.
Rats will enjoy a varied environment with branches, tunnels and ropes. A dust-free paper based product makes an ideal floor covering. Your rat will also appreciate a nest box with soft shredded paper.
Rats are clean in their habits but will need their bedding changed and their cage cleaned with a pet-safe disinfectant at least once a week.
As rats are indoor pets they should be kept at an even temperature ideally between 16˚C and 22˚C. You should avoid putting the cage in draughts, direct sunlight or in damp or humid conditions.
Rats are inquisitive and active therefore they should be provided with as much stimulation as possible. A solid exercise wheel and a selection of toys to avoid boredom should be provided.
Rhubarb and avocado can upset your rats’ stomachs, but unlike us they cannot be sick.
Food and water
Rats are omnivores and so will enjoy a varied diet. A complete rat mix, available from most pet shops, should be the basis of their diet. This can be supplemented with small amounts of fruit and the occasional boiled egg. Uneaten fruit should be removed regularly.
Most rats will enjoy a mineral block, which should be available for their use. Food bowls should be sturdy, gnaw-proof and easily disinfected.
Fresh drinking water should always be available for your rat. It should be provided by a gravity-fed water bottle designed to fit your rats’ cage.
Handling your rats often will help them build up a relationship with you. When you first take your pets home, allow them 24 hours to get used to their new environment, then allow them to sniff your hands before handling them. This will get them used to your smell. Stroke your rat and be sure he is facing you, then cup both hands around him and pick him up. Never pick your rats up by their tail.
Always concentrate when holding your rats as they’re notoriously quick and can slip out of your hands.
Chipmunks are highly active, curious animals that need spacious and stimulating housing. Chipmunks are part of the squirrel family but are smaller with a striped back. In the wild they are found in North America and have become popular pets in the UK.
Chipmunks are naturally ground-dwelling animals but they’re excellent climbers and will spend considerable amounts of time foraging in shrubs and small trees in the wild. Males tend to have a shorter lifespan than females, and typically live for around five years, but they can live up to eight years or longer if provided with the right care. Given patience, chipmunks can become hand tame, but can resent handling.
Chipmunks can be kept on their own, but as they are social animals and enjoy each other’s company The Pet Charity recommends keeping a pair or more. Males may fight, so a pair of females usually work best.
By far the most important aspect of chipmunk care is to avoid boredom. This can be achieved using a combination of several methods. Rearranging cage contents regularly is useful as is providing toys. Wooden toys are ideal as are the plastic ones used in conjunction with food or treats.
Since chipmunks spend much of their time in the wild foraging, fresh food and treats should be placed or hidden in different parts of the enclosure, so that the animals have to search for it. A box containing peat or shavings encourages digging, allowing for natural behaviour.
Without adequate stimulation chipmunks can suffer from abnormal behaviour patterns. You should look out for repetitive behaviour like running backwards and forwards along the same route for long periods of time.
Given a good routine and varied diet chipmunks normally lead healthy, problem-free lives. As with all rodents, their front teeth grow continuously and need to be kept worn down. If your chipmunk’s teeth get too long or you notice any other signs of ill health you should consult your vet. It is recommended to find a vet with chipmunk experience.
Choosing your chipmunks
Chipmunks should be at least 10 weeks old before you can take them home. You may wish to assess how friendly the chipmunks are before you decide to purchase.
A healthy chipmunk should be:
• Bright, alert and inquisitive.
• Have no signs of discharge from eye, ears, mouth and nose.
• Have a clean anal area.
• Have a glossy coat with no bald patches and not have sores on the skin.
• Should move around the cage easily.
• Shouldn’t feel too skinny or bony
Chipmunks are very active and energetic and therefore a large cage is essential. There are several types of housing designed for chipmunks but aviaries are preferable. Whichever type is chosen it must be completely escape-proof with a mesh size no bigger than 25 x 25 mm. Aviaries should have a double-door entry system and a solid base to prevent vermin entering if kept outdoors. Any wooden framing should be similarly protected.
If kept indoors chipmunks should be kept at an even temperature ideally between 16˚C and 22˚C. You should avoid putting the cage in draughts, direct sunlight or in damp or humid conditions.
A chipmunk enclosure must be furnished with an interesting selection of natural, non-toxic wood branches, shelves, pipes and perches. Chipmunks can become bored easily, so it is worth buying a selection of toys and rotating them and moving the cage contents regularly. Your chipmunks will also appreciate a solid exercise wheel.
One or more nest boxes should be provided with an entrance hole of 50 to 65 mm diameter. Your pet shop will be able to advise you on a suitable nest box for your accommodation.
Chipmunks will hoard food so boxes should be checked regularly and uneaten fresh food removed. A soft paper bedding or hay should be provided. Outdoor aviaries should have an area that is protected from inclement weather.
Smaller cages will need to be cleaned and disinfected on a regular weekly basis as will any perches, branches or other decorations.
Food and water
There are several diets available that are formulated for chipmunks and your pet shop can advise. Formulated food typically comprises of a mixture of cereals, nuts and dried fruit.
Fresh foods are essential to provide a healthy and varied diet for your chipmunks. Hard fruit and vegetables like apples, broccoli, carrots and cauliflower are suitable and a small quantity should be offered daily. Peanuts are a firm favourite with chipmunks, but be very careful not to overfeed.
Fresh clean water must be available at all times and is best provided by a gravity-fed bottle. Vitamin drops that are added to the water are useful and mineral stones or wooden chew toys will help keep your chipmunks’ teeth trim.
Not all chipmunks respond well to handling and may bite. With patience, chipmunks may become hand tame once they overcome any shyness and fear. Never pick up a chipmunk by its tail.
Degus are fun, sociable animals that love to keep active. Whether you just want to know more about them or you’re thinking of getting some, our factsheet will tell you more…
What’s a degu?
The degu is a member of the Octodontidae family of rodents. They’re in the sub-order caviomorpha, which means they’re related to guinea pigs and chinchillas although recent studies show that they may actually be closer in relation to rabbits.
Degus originate from Chile, and you can find them anywhere from coastal plains to the Andes mountains. They live in groups of up to 100 in complex burrows which have nests and food stores. Degus are diurnal which means they’re active during the day. They love human interaction and enjoy living in busy, active homes.
The life span of a degu is around five to nine years, although in the wild it’s only one to two years. An adult degu is around 15cm long and has a 15cm tail with a tuft at the end. Their coat is mid to dark brown with a light cream belly and white feet.
Home comforts for degus
Degus like to live at temperatures below 20°C. Anything warmer than this can make them distressed and they’re prone to heatstroke. They’re pretty resistant to even extreme cold but they don’t like wet or damp conditions.
Degus need constant stimulation to keep them happy and healthy so there should be plenty of space to exercise and it’s best to keep them in wire cages with lots of levels and ramps. The flooring should be solid and covered with a material suitable for burrowing, like a mixture of peat, dust- extracted bedding and bark chippings.
Tree branches like pear, apple, ash, beech and oak are great for furnishing their cage and degus love to gnaw on them. A solid exercise wheel, 25cm in diameter, should be provided to help them exercise. Clay piping can also provide a tunnelling system for them which is lots of fun and offers great enrichment.
Degus need to have a sand bath available to them every day and after they’ve been handled. Because degus love to dig, a digging box using organic soil and sand is sure to go down well and a treat ball will help to keep them busy – plus it’s great exercise. Toys, like jingly balls, sisal and corn toys are also fun for degus to play with.
Degus are very sociable so they should never be kept alone as this can make them very stressed. They should live in groups but male groups shouldn’t be kept nearfemales as they’re likely to fight.
What do degus eat?
Degus can’t digest or metabolise sugar and carbohydrates and they’re very prone to diabetes so it’s important to make sure they get the right diet.
A mix of guinea pig and chinchilla pellets, the ones without molasses, are best. They also enjoy sweet potato (however take care not to feed the skins because they can be toxic), dandelions and leafy vegetables. Degus should have hay available all the time – you can make it fun by filling in a box and letting them forage.
Keeping degus healthy
Degus should be bright with clear eyes and ears and glossy looking fur. They should have clean tails with no signs of faeces from their rear end. Their teeth should be yellow and not white – white teeth are a sign of a vitamin A deficiency. If you notice a wetness around their mouth, this could be a sign of overgrown teeth. Discharge and difficulty in breathing could be an indication of a respiratory problem.
The average litter size of a degu is five but it can be any number from one to eight. The weaning age is around five to six weeks and the breeding life of a degu is six years.
What to consider when getting a degu
Degus love human interaction but they don’t really enjoy being handled a lot so they’re not ideal for young children. They are highly active during the day, love to burrow, climb and gnaw and can live for up to eight years.
There is only one species of hedgehog that is designed to be kept happily in captivity, and that is the African pygmy hedgehog, a hybrid breed of two other African hedgehog species. These are now becoming very popular as pets across the world and within the UK, and are undeniably adorable and highly entertaining little animals! It is vitally important to remember that only this captive-bred species is suitable to keep as a pet, and you should not seek to find and domesticate wild hedgehogs within the UK; they will not thrive in captivity, and their numbers are already on the decline.
If you think the African pygmy hedgehog sounds like a good choice of potential pet for you, read on to learn more about these little animals and the care that they require.
So, do African pygmy hedgehogs make good pets, and should you consider owning one? This article on their care and maintenance will help you to decide.
About African pygmy hedgehogs
The African pygmy hedgehog is a hybrid of the four toed hedgehog and the Algerian hedgehog, and is the most popular species of domesticated hedgehog in the world. The practice of domesticating hedgehogs and keeping them as pets began in the 1980’s, a relatively recent time frame in animal husbandry terms.
They are very delicate little animals, and not suitable as pets for younger children. Hedgehogs, like any domesticated animal, can bite when alarmed or hurt and so you will need to treat them with respect. They need gentle, patient handling, and you must be willing to spend the necessary amount of time taming them and getting them used to you during the initial months.
In order to thrive, African pygmy hedgehogs require a balanced diet composed of various different foodstuffs. A good quality dry meat based cat food (not containing fish or fish meal) which is high in protein is one of the commonly fed staples, and a balanced and varied diet can be achieved with supplemental feeding of meat based (not fish or fish meal) cat food from tins or pouches, boiled or scrambled egg, fresh fruit and vegetables, and lean cooked chicken, lamb or mince. When choosing suitable dry cat food/biscuits you should look at the percentage of fat and protein. The recommended fat percentage is 10%-15%, and the maximum protein should be 30%. When looking for suitable foods meat content should be the first ingredient, the higher the percentage the higher the quality. Hedgehogs are insectivores, which means that their diet in the wild is composed mainly of insects. In order to promote natural feeding and cater for all of their dietary requirements, you should include mealworms, crickets/small locusts/cockroaches, wax worms and silk worms in their feeding routine. Hedgehogs are nocturnal and so eat at night, and the best time to feed them is just before you go to bed.
The following foods should NOT be fed to African Pygmy Hedgehogs:
Milk/Cheese/Diary Products – Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant
Avocado/grapes/raisins – potentially fatal
Chocolate – dairy aspect, unhealthy and toxic for many animals
Citrus Foods – too acidic
Onion/Garlic – toxic for many animals
Fish – it is believed that hedgehogs cannot digest fish or fishmeal properly.
When changing your hedgehogs diet whether to a new biscuit food or introducing a new vegetable, remember to do it gradually and in small amounts to prevent stomach upsets.
Your hedgehog should also have free access to clean, fresh water, such as from a wall-mounted water bottle.
Like any animal, how tame your hedgehog will become depends on how often and how well they are handled, and ideally, handling should start while your hedgehog is young. As very small animals, the pygmy hedgehog may become frightened or alarmed by overenthusiastic handling, so approach them calmly and quietly and move slowly. If your hedgehog curls up into a spiky ball, they are likely alarmed and feeling defensive, so back off until they relax. In order to pick up your hedgehog, scoop them up into your hands, supporting their underside. Once your pygmy hedgehog has got used to the approach of people and being handled regularly, they will usually learn to sit quite happily in your hands or lap for a while.
Hedgehogs have very poor eyesight, and so they are not apt to use visual cues to pick one member of the family out from another; instead, they use their sense of smell to work out who is handling them. You might find that they are much more outgoing and welcoming of the person that handles them the most!
Housing and environment
Like most hedgehogs, the African pygmy is rather solitary by nature, and in the wild hedgehogs only generally come together to mate- so keeping one African pygmy hedgehog on their own is best. Keeping more than one male in the same cage will generally lead to fighting which can result in death, and this is often the case with females kept together as well.
A lone African pygmy hedgehog will need a cage at least three feet by 1.5ft by 1.5ft, more if possible.
You should not use a cage with a wire floor, or alternatively cover any wire flooring, as it might damage your hedgehog’s paws or claws. Take care that the spacing of the wire on the walls is small enough that your hedgehog won’t get his head stuck between the bars- or be able to escape! Those with horizontal bars should be avoided, as hedgehogs are not great climbers and could fall and injure themselves.
Suitable choice of bedding is shredded paper fleece liners ( checked regularly and loose stitching/threads removed), Finacard as other wood-based product such as shavings, sawdust or wood chips can cause injury and may contain oils from the wood, such as cedar or pine, which can irritate the skin and your hedgehog’s respiratory system. It is also best to avoid straw or hay, carpet or towels (anything with loops or threads) as this can get wrapped around paws and cause injury.
An exercise wheel similar to the kind you can buy for hamsters should be provided, but this should be made of solid metal or plastic and not mesh or wires to avoid injury to their paws.
Hedgehogs need to be provided with bed space and a hiding place. Fleece snuggle pouches, plastic igloos, wooden huts, squares of cutup fleece, finacard or similar are all suitable.
Hedgehog housing should be placed in an area that has access to 12 hours of daylight and must be free from draughts. African pygmy hedgehogs are sensitive to cold and changes in temperature, so you will need to heat the cage by means of a heat pad. Heat mats and ceramic heat emitters should always be used with a thermostat attached. Reptile heat mats get very hot so are not recommended for use with African Pygmy Hedgehogs. UV lighting in cages should not be used either. These hedgehogs need to be kept at a constant temperature at a range of between 18 – 28 degrees centigrade, with the ideal being 21 to 24 degrees Celsius at all times.
Hedgehogs are nocturnal, meaning that they will be sleepy and inactive during the day, and you must respect this and allow them to sleep without interruption until the time that they naturally wake up and become active. Hedgehogs are also rather messy animals, and you will need to clean their cage and any equipment within it on a daily basis in order to keep them happy and healthy.
You will need to provide a sturdy ceramic food bowl for your hedgehog’s meals, and clean and remove any uneaten food daily. A water bowl that cannot easily be knocked over is advised for drinking.
A nesting box with a small opening should be provided for your hedgehog to hide and sleep in during the day. It is advised to use recycled cardboard, such as Fina Card, as a bedding/substrate, or alternatively a fleece liner. It is not advised to use wood shavings due to the dust, as it can be irritant to your pet’s skin and eyes. Pygmy Hedgehogs are prone to upper respiratory problems and wood shavings can cause this.
A thermometer should be put in a safe place in the cage, to make sure that the temperature remains constant and at a suitable level.
Your hedgehog will require twelve hours of light per day, in order to regulate their natural rhythms. A broad spectrum bulb or a standard light bulb on a timer is fine to use.
You will also need to provide toys and entertainment for your hedgie, in the form of plastic cat balls to chase and roll about, rags to burrow in, cardboard boxes and tubes to play in, and other pet safe toys.
In the wild, hedgehogs are always on the go during their waking hours, and cover some fairly wide distances when out and about foraging for food. As fairly rounded little animals anyway, domestically kept pygmy hedgehogs can be prone to obesity due to a lack of exercise, so it is important to provide for their natural need to be active. There are a great many different types of toys and pieces of equipment that you can use within the tank to allow your hedgehog to stretch their legs and stay interested, including specially designed hedgehog exercise wheels!
They will also enjoy running through tubes and pipes, and being allowed to walk around loose in the home when carefully supervised.
Remember that the African pygmy hedgehog is still considered to be a very unusual pet in the UK, and lots of vets, even those specialising in exotic animals, will not be experienced in their care or equipped to deal with any problems.
Most pets need veterinary care at some stage of their lives, so it is essential to find a veterinary surgeon that is capable and confident in their ability to treat your pet before you consider buying.
You should always check with your local veterinary surgery before you bring home an African pygmy hedgehog, to make sure that they are able to provide advice and assistance to you and your pet, should you ever need it. If your local practice feels unable to provide a service for your pet, they may well be able to recommend a colleague who can. Alternatively, local breeders and other experienced keepers of pygmy hedgehogs should be able to help in recommending an appropriate veterinary surgery for your needs.
It’s important to research thoroughly in order to make an informed decision when buying any pet, but this is particularly true in the case of unusual and exotic animals like the African pygmy hedgehog.
Visit the National Exotic Hedgehog Rescue website for for more information or download their full care sheet here