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Rodent Care Guide
Rodents Care Tips: Everything You Need To Know
Hamsters, gerbils, rats, and mice make excellent pets because they are social and don’t take up too much space. While they are very different from each other in many ways, they share many natural habits, so caring for them is oftentimes similar. For that reason, we’ve created one pet care guide for all our favorite rodents.
The Natural History of Rodents
The domesticated rats we are familiar with were originally bred from brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) in the 18th century in Europe to be used for blood sport. Later on, these rats were bred as pets. Rats are praised for their intelligence and affordability, which makes them a popular rodent pet. A healthy rat can live between 2 - 3.5 years.
Hamsters are originally from arid/semiarid areas of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The most common breed of hamster today originates from the wild Syrian hamster, or golden hamster, a rodent of the subfamily Cricetinae. They were successfully bred and domesticated in 1939. Their average lifespan is around 2 - 3.5 years.
Gerbils are also members of the Muridae family, like their other rodent cousins. The Mongolian species of gerbil was first popularized in the 19th century when it was brought from China to Paris. Only later, in the 1950s, did they make their way to the United States. The Mongolian gerbil is the most common breed of domesticated gerbil today. Gerbils in captivity have a longer life expectancy than other rodents, they live 3 - 4 years, on average.
Pet mice are a domesticated version of the house mouse (Mus musculus). The first historical mention of a pet mouse occured in China, in 1100 B.C. They became popular in 17th century Japan. A healthy mouse lives on average between 1.5 - 2.5 years.
Common Breeds of Rodents
Rats: Selective color breeding has created a variety of colored rats such as agouti, blue agouti, albino, amber, fawn, black, and blue.
Hamsters: The most common breeds are the golden or Syrian hamster (Mesocricetus auretus), and the dwarf hamster.
Gerbils: Mongolian gerbils have been around the longest, but the fat-tailed/duprasi gerbil is a new popular breed.
Mice: Selective color breeding has created a variety of colored mice in black, blue, brown, white, lilac, red, silver agouti, and cinnamon.
Where Should You Get Your Rodent?
Domesticated rodents have been around for centuries. Selective breeding has not only created a variety of popular colors and patterns, they have also created differences between the wild rodents, and the ones we keep as pets. For these reasons, it is best to buy a rodent from a certified pet store.
How to Care for Your Pet Rodent
Rats: Rats enjoy climbing and exploring, so a multilevel habitat would be best to encourage their athletic adventures. The cage should be a wire cage with a solid bottom. They have sensitive respiratory systems, so good ventilation is essential. It must be an appropriate sized cage, since they will probably spend most of their time in it. A substantial sized cage would be anything bigger than 36” long x 12” wide. Ferret condos are a good choice, especially if you have more than one rat.
Hamsters and Mice: These guys can be placed in glass aquariums or wire cages that have solid bottoms and wires that are close enough together to prevent escape (1/4 to 1/2 inch depending on the size of your hamster or mouse). For your sake, we suggest an enclosure that is easy to clean, especially if it will be done by a (supervised!) child. Avoid plastic enclosures because your pet will likely chew right through it in no time.
Gerbils: Gerbils are a bit different than the other rodents. They should be placed in a glass or plastic aquarium, with a secure mesh top for airflow, and it should be deep enough to accommodate natural burrowing. They need to dig tunnel systems, and not have you dig it for them.
Be sure to keep your pet’s home away from drafts, and preferably near your household activities to keep them stimulated.
All habitats should include proper bedding and nesting material. Rodents' feet should never be kept on wire bottoms because it can be harmful and lead to injury. The most common and comfortable bedding is recycled paper. Other options are paper towels, tissues, or old mittens or socks. For rats, fleece, towels, or other soft fabrics can be used on top of the solid bottom.
Avoid cedar and pine shavings, or corn cob byproduct; these can cause irritation to your pet rodent’s skin and lungs.
Rodent Enclosure Accessories
Whether you have a gerbil, hamster, rat or mouse, your rodent’s cage or enclosure is not only the place they sleep in, it’s where they spend most of their lives. Therefore it is important to maintain a level of mental stimulation for your pet within their enclosure. This includes:
A Hiding/Nesting Place: You can purchase little huts and hiding places from the pet store, or you can give them some household items such as cardboard boxes and tubes. Don’t put anything inside their hiding spot besides bedding.
Exercise Toys: Exercise wheels are important, especially since female hamsters are known to run up to 10km a night. Other toys include cardboard boxes, wooden bird toys, cat puzzles, and ropes.
A note about the exercise wheel: Make sure there are no sharp pieces of metal sticking out, and that the hair of your rodent isn’t too long that it could get stuck in the wheel.
* Spherical Balls: These are all the rage in the hamster subculture right now! An increasingly popular hamster accessory, please use them with care. They can harm your hamster if they are used around stairs or left in direct sunlight.
Rodent Enclosure Temperatures
Keep your rodent enclosure away from drafty areas, and in a cool area during summer months. Mice have small bodies which make it difficult for them to regulate their body temperature. Rats and hamsters do not have sweat glands and therefore they have difficulty releasing heat, which can cause heat stress. The ideal temperature for rats is between 70-78 degrees, with 45-55% humidity. For hamsters it’s about 75- 85 degrees, with 40-60% humidity.
Rodent Diet and Nutrition
What Do Rodents Eat?
All rodents are omnivores, but gerbils and mice tend to eat a more herbivorous diet. There are specially designed food pellets for the particular diets of each rodent, which is the ideal food. Fresh food supplements are encouraged, yet in moderation.
Rats and hamsters are prone to obesity, and therefore you must control their food intake. Mice too tend to eat if they are bored. If a variety of seeds and fruit are mixed in with their pellets, they will select the less nutritious, more delicious foods to eat. Do not put in more food than required for their daily amount.
Encouraged Daily Treats and Supplements: Fresh leafy greens, kale, lettuce, bok choy, dandelion greens, broccoli, celery, carrots, squash, cauliflower, cucumber, parsley, swiss chard, mint, cilantro, clover, collard greens, escarole, endive, radicchio, beet greens, radish tops, and wheatgrass.
Fresh fruits and unsalted nuts should be offered sparingly. Be sure to wash all produce before feeding it.
Leeks, chives and onions are best to be avoided. It is also best to avoid any gas causing vegetables such as cabbage.
Just as with any pet - and people - fresh water is of the utmost importance, with the emphasis on F-R-E-S-H. Please make sure to change your pet rodent’s water every day, and keep the dish full.
Your pet should have two sources of clean water available to them at all times.
A tip-safe glass or ceramic water dish.
A sipper bottle attached to the outside of the cage (to avoid chewing).
The opening of the water vessels should be checked daily for debris or hair that could cause blockage. The vessels should be cleaned thoroughly at least once a week. Be sure any soap residue is rinsed well before returning back to the cage.
Hay supplies small rodents with physical enrichment as well as health benefits. Small rodents use hay for bedding and burrowing, as well as nourishment. Offering a variety of hays offers many benefits such as preventing picky eating, stimulates your rodent’s mind, and encourages natural foraging behaviors.
Three ways hay supports their health:
Digestive Health: Fiber in hay facilitates constant digestive movement. Constant movement in the GI tract is necessary; even a short interruption can lead to serious health issues.
Dental Health: Hay is the perfect material for small herbivores to constantly chew in order to maintain necessary dental wear, since their teeth never stop growing. Without hay, dental issues like disease, tooth elongation, and malocclusion could occur.
Mental Health: Chewing hay encourages natural foraging behaviors and provides your pet rodent with mental stimulation. A variety of hays with various tastes and textures engages your pet’s mind. One fun idea is to try placing different hay varietals in each section of your pet’s cage. This can help stimulate their minds and keep ‘em curious.
All rodents can and should be socialized. When socialized, they are less likely to bite, which makes them great pets for children. Handling and socializing your rodent from early on enables them to socialize comfortably with everyone in the family. Make sure to note that rats, hamsters and mice are all nocturnal, while gerbils are not.
Rats: They are on the bigger side, and are known to be quite intelligent. This means that they require more social and mental stimulation. Though that may be more work, it also means that they can be taught tricks. They can be trained to respond to their names, use a litter box, and climb ropes. It’s fine to have one rat, but they are known to thrive in pairs or larger groups. Do not leave your rat unattended outside of its cage; they are prone to chewing on electrical wires, floor boards, furniture, and carpet.
Hamsters: They move slow enough for children to hold them. They can become stressed if mishandled, especially if they are handled while sleeping, startling awake, which may cause them to bite you. Hamsters do well on their own, but they can get along with other hamsters depending on the breed and sex. Do not leave your hamster unattended outside of its cage; they are prone to chewing on wires, floor boards, furniture, and carpet.
Mice: They are much calmer pets, and they rarely bite. Mice enjoy socializing with people and other mice.
Gerbils: These critters are diurnal, which means they are active during the day, and inactive or sleep at night. They are active, fast, and do well in pairs.
Rodents self-groom. Just another reason they make pretty easy pets!
Medical Care for Your Pet Rodent
Common Rodent Health Concerns
A common rodent issue is overgrown teeth. Due to their open rooted teeth, small rodents must have the necessary hay to help ensure that their teeth do not overgrow. Constantly chewing on hay maintains the correct length of their teeth.
GI Stasis: Gastrointestinal Stasis is a serious condition that occurs when the digestive system slows down or stops. In order to prevent it, it’s essential to feed a high fiber diet centered around hay (at least 70% of their diet). You can see signs of it by noticing underlying issues such as pain, dental health issues, and other infections.
Rats are prone to obesity, respiratory disease and mammary tumors. To prevent tumors and behavior issues it is recommended to spay and neuter your rat.
Hamsters should be taken to the vet immediately if GI Stasis is suspected as they are the least strong of their rodent cousins. “Wet Tail” is common among hamsters, it is a term referring to hamster diarrhea which can be fatal within 24 hours of symptoms.
How Can I Tell When My Rodent Is Sick?
Contact your specialized rodent vet if your pet is showing any of these signs:
Wet or soiled tail
Blood in urine
Sneezing or trouble breathing
Overgrown front teeth
Lumps or sores on the body or feet
Abnormal eating or drinking
As a protective mechanism, rodents don’t immediately show signs of ailment. You will probably begin to notice signs of illness around a week after something has gone wrong. In order to make sure that you keep track of any physical changes that might be alarming, it is recommended to check on your rodent daily, and weigh them weekly.
If your rodent shows any of the signs below, he/she may be in need of immediate medical care:
Mood or behavior changes
Decrease in appetite and thirst
Discharge from eyes, ears, or nose
Boarding for Your Pet Rodent
At Long Island Bird & Exotic Pet Vet, we offer your rodent a proper habitat to stay in when you cannot be home. Their cages will be kept clean and fresh, their water will be changed daily, and we can supply them with the proper toys and exercise wheels. Whether you’re out on business or pleasure, we promise to provide your pet with lots of TLC, so you can travel stress-free.