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Chiswick Pets

32 - 34 Devonshire Road

0208 747 0715

Pet Care information for Small Mammals

This page contains general care information for: Syrian Hamsters ~ Gerbils ~ Rats ~ Rabbits ~ Guinea-Pigs

Syrian Hamsters (Lifespan: 2-3 years)
One of the most popular small pets for both younger and older children - and adults - hamsters are relatively easy to keep, are clean, and with a little training, easy to handle.hamster eating
Solitary creatures, Syrian hamsters (unlike Russian Dwarf Hamsters) should always be housed singly, as two adults will fight and often do such severe injury to one another as to be fatal.   In the wild they are nocturnal, so are most active in the evening and at night-time - due to this, they can sometimes be a little noisy for some people to have in a bedroom, though many people don't find this a problem.
Hamster cages come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colours and designs.  As with most animals, the bigger the better, though most hamster cages use multiple levels to reduce the amount of floorspace the cage takes up.

Most people feed a ready-mixed dry diet consisting mostly of nuts and seeds (see our Foods page)  - these are complete foods which mean it isn't necessary to feed anything in addition, though hamsters will always enjoy a little bit of fresh fruit or vegetables - just steer clear of anything very watery such as cucumber and lettuce, and remember they are only tiny!  Citrus fruits can also be harmful to hamsters, so unless contained in a treat specifically designed for them, should be avoided.  Fresh water should always be available, preferably in a drip-feed bottle to keep the water clean.  Hamsters love to store food in their cheeks - and can fit a surprising amount in their pouches - and will then go and hide it in their bed.  So if they seem to have eaten all their food within five minutes, they have most likely just hidden it away.  Hamsters don't tend to overeat, but instead will stock up for a years worth of famine!  If you give them any fresh food, it is always a good idea to check their nest the day after and remove anything that may be going off.  The whole cage should be cleaned out at least once a week, and some people have managed to "toilet train" their hamsters!  If the cage begins to smell, it is not being cleaned often enough - generally, hamsters do not produce a strong or offensive odour.

Whilst many young children own hamsters, it is worth bearing in mind that they are very small, very fast, and like any animal, can bite.  Because of this, children should be supervised when handling them, and parents should be prepared to handle a new hamster more often so that it learns to be calm and relaxed while being handled.  Baby hamsters especially can be jumpy, and if held too tightly may nip.  At first, try to handle the hamster little and often, and put them back in their cage if they begin to become stressed.  Hamsters need patient handling and they will become very sociable, but a hamster who is not handled regularly is more likely to bite.  For a hamster who is very nervous, take time to get them used to your scent.  Introduce your hand to their cage and let them sniff it, move onto touching them and letting them stand on your hand without trying to lift them up, and eventually they will be confident enough that you can handle them.


Gerbils (Lifespan: 2-4 years)
brown gerbil Gerbils are very active, busy and friendly little creatures, who love to dig, and love to chew.  They should be housed in groups of two or more, ideally in a cage with a deep base to allow them space to burrow.  Two of the same sex will live happily together if introduced young- a male and a female will very quickly multiply! Cages with a lot of plastic fittings inside are not particularly well suited to gerbils, as they will simply chew these to pieces!  Wood and cardboard such as toilet-roll tubes and egg-boxes can be provided to give them something to munch on - they won't eat the pieces, but instead use them for nesting material.  Gerbils tend to be awake whenever they thing something interesting is going on, and will intersperse periods of frantic activity with cuddling up together to sleep.  They are generally easy to handle and rarely bite, but don't spend much time standing still - they would much rather be running about!  Because of this young children can sometimes find it hard to keep up with them, and as with any animal parents should be prepared to supervise handling.

Most people feed a ready-mixed dry diet (often marketed as hamster food) consisting mostly of nuts and seeds (see our Foods page)  - these are complete foods which mean it isn't necessary to feed anything in addition, though gerbils will always enjoy a little bit of fresh fruit or vegetables - just steer clear of anything very watery such as cucumber and lettuce, and remember they are only tiny!  Fresh water should always be available, preferably in a drip-feed bottle to keep the water clean.   The whole cage should be cleaned out at least once a week.  If the cage begins to smell, it is not being cleaned often enough. Gerbils originate from desert environments, and are naturally very clean.

 

Rats (Lifespan: 2-3 years)
Though many people are at first sceptical, pet rats (or "fancy rats") do in fact make brilliant pets!  Vastly different from their wild cousins, they have been selected over hundreds of generations for their friendly, sociable temperaments and an enormous variety of colours, patterns and fur types - including big-eared "dumbos" and curly-whiskered "rexes".  Rats are popular family pets, and love to spend time with people, often happy to ride around on your shoulder, or sit on your lap and watch TV.  Being very intelligent, they can learn their names and can be trained to do a variety of tricks - but because of this, they do need more attention than other pets like hamsters or gerbils.  They love nothing better to be with you, or be out and about exploring the room- they are very curious though, so are likely to get into mischief if left to their own devices for too long! 

rat with teddyRats need fairly large cages, and the bigger the better.  As well as plenty of supervised playtime outside of the cage, rats should have lots of toys and things to do in their cage to stop them getting bored - a vast variety of rat toys are available, from tubes and cargo nets for climbing on, to cosy hammocks where they can rest inbetween play sessions.  Many rat cages use multiple levels, which gives the rats plenty of space to climb about, as they are naturally very agile.  Male rats, in particular, have a tendency to become overweight if they don't have sufficient chance to exercise.  The cage should be cleaned twice a week or more- if it begins to smell, it needs to be cleaned more often.  In addition, rats can be trained to use litter trays, which reduces the need to clean the entire cage.  Wood-chip beddings (especially pine & cedar), like those commonly used for other small mammals, should not be used for rats, as many rats are allergic to pine and it can cause severe respiratory problems.  Instead, many owners prefer to use paper-based beddings or cat litters (not gravel-type litters) or hemp fibre beddings which are also suitable.  Never use anything as bedding or a toy that could be toxic if eaten, as rats will eat almost anything!  In general, rats are best housed in pairs or small groups, and should not fight if given sufficient space and access to food, water, sleeping areas, etc.  Some people do keep rats singly, but if this is the case, they need a lot of attention from their owners so that they don't become lonely and depressed.

Rats are omnivores, but can be fed a vegetarian diet.  Many complete foods are available, meaning there is no need to feed anything in addition, though they will of course enjoy a little bit of fresh fruit or vegetables - just steer clear of anything very watery such as cucumber and lettuce.  Remember that rats will eat just about anything they are offered, so be sensible in your choice of foods - avoid too much fat and sugar, and remember that human foods like chocolate, which many rats love, are very unhealthy for them.  Fresh water should always be available, preferably in a drip-feed bottle to keep the water clean.

Very young rats are apt to be nervous, but with a little handling will soon learn to be friendly and trusting, and will want to be picked up and handled at every opportunity.  As with all pets, children should be supervised when handling rats, but once they are used to it many children find rats very easy to handle as they are that much larger and more laid-back than animals like hamsters.
 

Rabbits (Lifespan: 5-10 years)
Rabbits come in a vast array of shapes and sizes, including the tiny Netherland Dwarf and the enourmous French Lop, as well as many sizes inbetween.  They are verylionhead cross rabbit popular pets amongst people of all ages, and can live indoors or out, and can even be house-trained to use a litter tray like a cat!  Rabbits should be kept in single-sex pairs - those kept alone will tend to become depressed and may develop problems with aggression; with the exception of house-trained rabbits who are usually kept singly.  Sometimes rabbits are kept together with guinea-pigs, though this is not 100% advisable as the two are different species and can do severe harm to each other if they fight, and besides, the companionship they get from one of their own species will be far better.

If they are not handled often, rabbits can become quite shy and nervous, but the more time they spend in your company, the braver and friendlier they will become!  Every rabbit has their own, very individual character, some are more playful, some are lazy, some are cheeky... however, whilst rabbits are very good pets, most do not like to be picked up and carried around for a long time, as this is not a very natural or comfortable position for them.  When picking rabbits up, one hand should be placed under their chest and the other supporting their bottoms to avoid injuring their backs, and they should be held close to you so that they feel safe and secure.  Bear in mind though, that many rabbits, especially youngsters, may wriggle to get comfortable, and the fact that they tend to be fairly strong sometimes means that younger children find it difficult to hold them.  Rabbits should never be lifted or held by their ears.

Rabbits are herbivores, and most people feed them a dry pellet food which should be supplemented with plenty of hay and fresh water, preferably from a drip-feed bottle to keep it clean.  Hay is an essential part of the diet and is also used for nesting material, in the winter straw should also be placed in the sleeping area for extra warmth.  If you have grass, rabbits will love to be put out to graze (ideally in a secure run with a lid) but bear in mind they can dig, so check regularly for holes or use wire on the bottom of the run.  Fresh vegetables such as broccoli, spring greens and carrots always go down well, as do small amounts of fruits like apple.  Just avoid things like lettuce and cucumber which are very watery and can lead to upset stomachs. 

We would recommend that both male and female rabbits be neutered/spayed as this reduces the likelihood of hormonal aggression, reproductive cancers, and unpleasant habits like urine spraying.  Most vets will do this around six months old.  Ideally, rabbits should also be vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhage Disease.  In the summer, it is very important to ensure the rabbits cage is kept clean, and also that the area around the rabbits bottom is kept clean to avoid often fatal Fly Strike, which is caused by blowfly maggots.


Guinea Pigs (Lifespan 5-7 years)
guinea pig in runGuinea pigs are very popular pets, and their gentle, friendly nature makes them a particularly good choice for children.  Unlike rabbits, they are easy to handle and will sit still for long periods of time, especially if they have something to eat!  They are very sociable (and "talkative") and so should be kept in pairs or groups.  Single sex pairs will live happily together especially if introduced whilst young, and can live indoors or out.  Sometimes they are kept together with rabbits, though this is not 100% advisable as the two are different species and can do severe harm to each other if they fight, and besides, the companionship they get from one of their own species will be far better.

Guinea pigs are naturally skittish, and will dart for cover if startled, then cautiously re-emerge to see if there is food on offer.  Though they will almost always run away when someone approaches, once they know you they will come back out of hiding.  When picking guinea pigs up, it is important to support both their chest and bottom so as not to injure their backs, and ensure that they cannot fall.

They are herbivores, and most people feed them a dry pellet food which should be supplemented with plenty of hay and fresh water, preferably from a drip-feed bottle to keep it clean.  Hay is an essential part of the diet and is also used for nesting material, in the winter straw should also be placed in the sleeping area for extra warmth.  If you have grass, guineas will love to be put out to graze (ideally in a secure run with a lid).  Fresh vegetables such as broccoli, spring greens and carrots always go down well, as do small amounts of fruits like apple.  Just avoid things like lettuce and cucumber which are very watery and can lead to upset stomachs.  Guinea pigs love to eat, and will happily polish off raw vegetable scraps and many common garden weeds like dandelion.