As we welcome in April, let's pause for a special bid to March, which is Guinea Pig Adoption Month. But maybe that special designation should be expanded to include hamsters, rats and mice. All make fascinating companions for humans.
Guinea pigs are in a class of their own. Larger than hamsters, but smaller than rabbits, they can weigh a couple of pounds and generally live for five to seven years.
Guinea pigs are fun and gentle. Guineas will rarely bite and are known for squeaking with delight when their favorite humans enter the room.
Hamsters, or hammies, are native to many parts of the world. Their name is derived from the German word hamstern, which means “hoard,” because that is exactly what they do with any extra food they might find. Hamsters have an average lifespan of one to two years.
Hammies are entertaining and active at night when you’ll most often hear them digging and wheel running. They have gained a reputation for biting, but they mostly tend to nip when awakened during the day—the time when they are “biologically programmed” to sleep.
Don’t confuse domestic rats and mice with the kind you’d find in a field or attic. Domestic varieties have been bred and kept as pets for hundreds of years. The domestic rat is a descendant of the wild brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) and lives an average of two to three years. Rats are intelligent and curious, and they may have adapted to living with humans more than the other pockets. Many owners compare the companionship of a rat to that of a dog. But, don’t tell your dog!
Mice typically live one to three years. Mice are curious, charming pets, and will be active at various times throughout the day while their brother rats are nocturnal.
All four pocket pet types can be adopted for as little as $5. Check your local shelter websites to find out which ones offer pockets for adoption. SPCA Tampa Bay offers some pocket pets for adoption. Check out the website (under Rabbits & More) or stop by the shelter.
Here are some of the basic costs for care: A plastic cage with wheels and fun tunnels can run about $35. Food runs about $50 to $75 a year, more if you buy fresh fruit.
Toys and treats cost around $25, then add $50 for annual veterinary check-ups and $225 to $400 per year for litter and bedding material.
Are they fun?
Guinea pigs are social animals. If you keep two or more females together, they will become great friends. If you want two males, it’s smart to choose two babies from the same litter. Here’s a little known fact… you can even train a guinea pig to use a litter box— if you have lots of time and patience! Guineas need more space than the other pockets. Plan on a minimum of four square feet of cage space per animal.
Syrian hamsters are solitary and MUST live alone. Dwarf hamsters are social and like to live in pairs. Do not house male and female dwarf hamsters together. Hamsters, like rodents, breed quickly—and often—with large litters. Hamsters are often thought of as great pets for children, but they are nocturnal by nature—which may not fit well with your children’s schedule or yours.
Rats are very social too and do best if kept with other rats. Same sex pairs or groups are ideal. Males usually get along fine with other males especially if introduced at a young age or if they are littermates. Rats are relatively easy to care for, but they are not low maintenance pets. They like a fair amount of attention and love exercise time outside of their cages. Rats are nocturnal, like their hamster brethren.
Mice are very social with members of their own kind, and females will do especially well in a group. Males can be kept together if introduced at a young age—if introduced when adults, they will fight.
What do their habitats look like?
All pocket pets appreciate solid-bottom cages — no wire floors, too irritating for tiny feet. Plastic-bottom “tub cages” with wire tops also make great homes. Never use a glass aquarium, due to poor ventilation. Always keep the cage indoors and away from drafts and extreme temperatures. Line the bottom of the cage with aspen or hardwood shavings or some other form of safe bedding, such as grass hay. Do not use cedar or pine chips—the oils they contain can be dangerous to your pets.
Hammies are major creatures of comfort – they love small pieces of paper towel or napkin to shred and make nests in. They’re exercise-driven, so please make sure they have a wheel for running. They like to hide and love crawling through tubes, which can be homemade or part of their cage habitat.
Don’t forget the furniture! Provide small boxes or flower pots for your pocket pets to hide in. Mice like cardboard tubes to chew and run through. Plastic habitats—the kind designed for hamsters—will also work for mice. You can put small branches in the tubes so the mice can climb up and down these “steps.”
What do they eat?
Guinea pig feed on pellets. They also like small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables every day. Try grapes, cucumbers, corn, peas, carrots and pears. Half a handful of veggies and a slice of fresh fruit per guinea pig is plenty.
Unlike other animals, guinea pigs cannot manufacture Vitamin C, so you’ll need to ensure that your pets get enough of this essential nutrient every day. A quarter of an orange will do, but you can also include some fruits and veggies that are high in C to their daily ration of fresh foods, such as kale, dandelion greens and strawberries.
Hamster mix contains seeds and grains, cracked corn and alfalfa pellets. Hammies also need fresh fruits and vegetables such as spinach, lettuce, carrots and apples every 2-3 days.
Mice will do well on a good commercial rodent chow, either in block or pellet form.
Rats thrive on rat blocks, a high-quality pellet chow formulated for them. Look for a brand that lists soy meal as the main ingredient. This food should be available at all times. Rats also love people food... I think we all know that!
All pockets need fresh, clean water should be available at all times. Use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube.