3rd September 2015
‘Pocket Pets’, a term that refers to small companion mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, ferrets, mice, and hamsters (to just name a few!), make great pets! Provided with adequate enrichment, care, and attention, they are surprisingly entertaining, interactive companions that develop bonds with their human caretakers. Also, adding a pocket pet to your family is a great way to introduce the responsibilities of animal care to your children, with you, the parent, being the primary caregiver, of course!
Last year alone, PAWSibilities successfully adopted out 174 guinea pigs, 35 rabbits, 5 mice, and 2 rats! Although we rescue and rehabilitate a variety of pocket pets, this article will focus on introducing the importance of enrichment and suggest techniques for our most common pocket pets: guinea pigs and rabbits. Be sure to check out the links at the end of the article for more detailed information and resources!
First, your pet must have an adequate amount of cage space. Typical pet store enclosures usually do not provide enough room to allow small pets to express all of their natural behaviors. It is important that your pet has room to enjoy playing, eating, and sleeping with enough space to limit waste build-up. Without a large cage, your beloved pet will be essentially living in a litterbox, even with regular daily cleaning! More space will encourage your pet to exhibit play behaviors. Guinea pigs will be able to run around and rabbits, with added cage height, will be free to jump and hop. Natural exercise such as this is important in maintaining a healthy weight and preventing spinal injury. The minimum suggested amount of cage area to allow for one guinea pig to behave naturally is 7.5 sq. ft. In comparison, a standard pet store cage is often less than 5 sq. ft. and some are even 2.5 sq. ft. or less! A single rabbit requires a minimum living area of 12 sq. ft. while some readily available options may not be more than 3.5 sq. ft! Thoroughly research your enclosure options before buying. Other than free roam time, this is where your pet will spend the majority of his time!
Avoid cages made of untreated wood or cages that have wire bottoms. Untreated wood absorbs moisture, leading to mold and unpleasant odors, and wire is difficult for pocket pets to stand on, causing foot and limb stress or injuries. It is also important that your guinea pig or rabbit is provided with the appropriate bedding material. Avoid any material that contains phenols, such as cedar and untreated pine, as they are very hazardous to the health of your pet. Maintain clean, waste-free bedding. Rabbits prefer to use a specific area of their enclosures as their “restroom”. Oftentimes, owners can take advantage of this behavior and train their rabbits to use a litterbox! You can find great links at the end of this article about litter-training your rabbit and appropriate litter options.
The best place for your pocket pet is indoors. Keeping a pocket pet outdoors or in a garage is hazardous to their health and safety. They are exposed to unpredictable weather and temperatures, predators such as coyotes and raccoons, and various preventable diseases and parasites, such as fleas and mites. Being forced to live outdoors causes stress on your pet, negatively affecting their wellbeing and shortening their life. With your pet indoors, you will be able to interact with her and develop a bond.
Where you place your pocket pet’s cage indoors is also very important. Avoid drafty areas and be sure that the cage is in a bright room, away from direct sunlight. Temperature and humidity should be maintained at an ideal level. The cage should be in an area where the entire family can enjoy their company! Keeping them close by will also encourage you to monitor their access to food and water. Do some research to find out what foods you should and should not offer to your pet as well as how much is appropriate for their age and size.
Pocket pets, especially guinea pigs and rabbits, are social animals. They thrive in the company of their own species. Because of this, we suggest owning at least two of each animal so that they can express natural social behaviors, such as mutual grooming and communication. Be sure that you do not pair your pet with the opposite sex, unless both animals are spayed or neutered! Accurately sexing some pocket pets can be difficult with an untrained eye, so double check with your vet. There are already an abundance of animals waiting to be adopted in our nation’s shelters; be sure to prevent any accidental breeding! By reducing and stabilizing hormone levels, spaying and neutering your pocket pets can also help to eliminate undesirable behaviors such as furniture chewing, territorial marking, and aggression.
It is important to provide a variety of enrichment activities for your pocket pet to benefit their wellbeing and yours! Watching and interacting with your pet during this time will be enjoyable for you as well! There are many additions to improve your pet’s enclosures so that he feels safe, is mentally stimulated, and gets exercise. These include shelters that provide a place to scamper to in case they feel threatened or need a quiet place to rest. There are a variety of store bought toys available, but with some creativity, you can offer your pet low-cost toys and games from household items. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom for some fun ideas! Providing your guinea pig or rabbit with designated interactive time outside of its cage is very important for the wellbeing of your pet. There is a lot of information about how to make the most of this “free roam time,” so be sure to research your options and get some ideas! Consider adding some of DIY, low-cost games! Safety should always be a priority. Be aware of and remove dangers such as wires (they should be completely inaccessible) and places or items that your pet can get into, but not easily out of. Always be sure that you supervise this play time. Allowing your pet to have access to a specific room or using a large exercise pen are great options to limit their access to the entire home. Do not use exercise wheels or balls for your guinea pig, and especially not your rabbit. The curvature of the wheels and balls do not match the natural curvature of a guinea pig’s spine and can cause serious skeletal injuries.
Each of your choices as a pet owner will affect the happiness of your pets, so be sure to make educated decisions that benefit the wellbeing of your companion!
If you are interested in information about the enrichment of other species of pocket pets, we encourage you to research appropriate techniques for the species you are interested in!
Please visit our Adoptable Animals page to find pictures and information about our available pocket pets. You can also stop by to meet them during our adoption hours!