Small rodents are some of the most suitable first pets for children due to their ready availability, affordability, small size and fairly short lifespans. Being housed in a closed environment, they are generally safe from harm and are also unable to soil or damage the home at large. However, rodents still require an investment of time, attention and resources to thrive and provide the best companionship.
Keep in mind that an amount of time should be put aside daily for exercise and play outside of the cage. It is unrealistic to expect a small child to be completely responsible for the care of an animal, so adult supervision is critical.
The most commonly kept small rodents are hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice. Gerbils have very little odour, followed by hamsters, rats and then mice have the strongest smell.
Even though they might smell somewhat, captive-bred small rodents tend to be many generations removed from their wild ancestors and are unlikely to be carrying dangerous diseases or parasites. Nevertheless, good hygiene should be practised and hands washed after handling the pet or cleaning the cage. You should teach your child from an early age that she shouldn’t put her hands in her mouth until they are washed.
Within reason, small rodents tend to be gentle animals who, with some initial taming, do not bite readily. While gerbils and rats seldom bite, well-socialised mice and hamsters can also be gentle, but do tend to be nippier initially.
As a parent, you should teach your children that no rodent enjoys being held tightly and they should pick the pet up by gently cupping him in their hands. Be aware that frightened rodents can jump unexpectedly and a fall from a height could be fatal. To prevent this, the young owners should be encouraged to initially play with their pets while sitting on the floor.
Rats, mice and gerbils are social animals and will do much better if kept with a companion. It can be tricky to introduce adults to one another, so the ideal is to allow several juveniles to grow up together. Dwarf hamsters can be kept successfully in groups, but all hamsters are happy alone and Syrian (golden) hamsters will fight each other viciously. Find out from the breeder whether you should get more than one rodent or not.
Home, sweet home
A suitable home for the pet rodent need not be fancy but must be escape-proof and large enough to allow for the expression of natural behaviours. Rodents are busy, intelligent little animals and can easily become bored. Basic wire cages with plastic bases will suffice as long as suitable hide boxes, nesting material and enrichment such as wheels to run on are provided.
Ideally, an exercise wheel should be manufactured of solid plastic instead of bars, as many animals have been severely injured by accidentally slipping a foot between the bars while running. Always buy the largest cage you can afford. Think about how much happier you yourself would be living in a lovely house rather than a bachelor flat.
Tunnelling rodents such as hamsters and gerbils will also do well in the modular plastic tubing systems, but these are unsuitable for rats and mice.
Food, glorious food
The diet of small rodents in the wild consists largely of seed heads, with the addition of some other plant material and a small number of insects. In the shops, there is a variety of commercial seed- and nugget-based mixtures that all vary in quality. Care should be taken to buy the best quality food you can afford.
Generally, the best quality diets are those consisting of an extruded pellet where each nugget contains the same nutrition. These products are superior to those consisting of a variety of different seeds, because just like people, rodents will select out the tastiest items which may not be the healthiest parts of the muesli.
A small amount of fruit, vegetables, cooked egg, grains and seeds can be offered as a treat for the pet. However, there are certain foods to avoid, which include fatty and sugary treats, onion, citrus fruit, walnuts, rhubarb, grapes/raisins and chocolate.
Remember that fresh, clean water is an absolute must for your rodent to be healthy. Using a drinker bottle instead of a bowl will prevent the pet from soiling the water.
Most rodents will take food and store it in their nests. One should ensure that fresh and moist foods don’t end up decomposing in the nest, causing disease.
In conclusion, if properly tamed, housed and fed, small rodents can make fascinating and rewarding pets. They display many interesting behaviours and can easily be trained. Purchase your pet from a reputable breeder to ensure that you buy a healthy animal and find a vet experienced with exotic animals in your area to assist you in case of injury or illness.