Facts About Small Mammals as Pets

Jill Boriss, ASPCA

Clearing up some of the perceptions- and misconceptions- about small pet mammals.

hamster facts about small mammals as pets

Although the ancestors of today's hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rats, mice, rabbits and chinchillas were wild animals, the "pocket" pets we keep in our homes today are captive-bred and completely dependent on human caretakers for food, care, company and protection. These small mammals merit the same status in pet society as their larger counterparts.

Lifestyle Issues

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association's National Pet Owners Survey reveals that, as of 1998, one out of 25 households in the United States contained a small pet mammal, with rabbits the most common. As with any pet, the decision to own a hamster, guinea pig or other small mammal should be based on careful thought and knowledge, not whim or impulse - including the impulse to rescue. Some have relatively short life spans, while others can live as long as a dog or cat; they all require a lifelong commitment. Potential owners should consider whether their schedule allows enough time for routine care. They should also have their landlord's written permission to keep a pet and make sure that no family members are allergic.

Some of these little critters are nocturnal, meaning that they sleep during the day. This does not fit well with every household. Also, because they have many natural enemies, they are susceptible to stress, including noisy surroundings and the presence of larger household pets. Considerate owners may situate their exotic's cage in quiet locations and turn the radio dial to "easy listening." Some little guys enjoy early-evening activities, while others prefer to just curl up on their owner's lap to enjoy the Animal Planet network.

If children are part of the family, the age of the child is important in determining which exotic is suitable. In most cases, children under the age of seven are not recommended. With rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs, the combination can be dangerous. The most loving child may think these are "toy" animals who want to be held anytime and carried around. Just the opposite is true. All of them are fragile and can be squirmy in anybody's hands, especially a young child's. If accidentally dropped, they can suffer severe injuries or death, or may run away and hide. If lost, they cannot survive on their own. Outdoors, they are at the mercy of predators and other dangers.

Too often, when unfortunate accidents happen, a parent will buy a "replacement" pet for the child. Although well-intentioned, this is a lesson in irresponsibility. It is vital to remember that an adult should always supervise children as they interact with any of these small animals.

If there are other pets in the household, consideration must be given to the compatibility of the species. The safety of the small mammal should be a major concern, since he or she is often the natural prey of the other pets in the home. Some larger animals can learn to make friends with these little pets, but supervision is always necessary.

Dollars and Sense

The dollar cost for most of these pint-sized pets is low - from $5.00 for a mouse or rat to $95.00 for a chinchilla. The cost of housing and accessories throughout these animals' lives is relatively low. But their value shouldn't be measured in dollars and cents. As with any pet, medical expenses should be anticipated in the event of injury or illness. Unfortunately, according to the National Pet Owners Survey, only two out of 10 owners consult a veterinarian for a small pet.

Sources and Resources

Books, the Internet, clubs and associations can provide you with what you need to know about the characteristics of each type of animal - varieties, behavior, equipment and space requirements, diet and medical problems. Fortunately, more and more information as well as specialized products are becoming available.

Pet stores, breeders and club-sponsored shows can help a potential owner learn how to tell if an animal is healthy. Not all pet stores or breeders are knowledgeable or ethical. Any place selling small mammals as pets should be clean, have proper cages with enough space for the number of animals they contain and keep the sexes separated (except for newborns). The animal should look healthy and be active. The salesperson or breeder should be willing and able to answer your questions. A great way to obtain one is from a shelter or a rescue organization.

Health Care

Constant confinement can lead to stress, behavioral and health problems. Generally, signs of ill health include cloudy eyes, running eyes or nose, dirty or wet fur around the tail, unusual lethargy, bare patches of fur or any wounds. Routinely check your pet's ears and make sure his teeth are not overgrown. Follow diets prescribed for the specific animal and make sure there is fresh water daily. Hygiene is extremely important, so keep bowls, bedding and cage scrupulously clean.

It's easy to miss signs of trouble unless you handle your pet regularly. Regular gentle handling also will make it easier for your pet to be examined by a veterinarian and treated if needed. Never pick up any of these little guys by the tail. If you have to hold on, grasp the base, not the tip. Important to note: many can be spayed or neutered, and sometimes it is recommended. You can avoid heartache by finding a veterinarian who specializes in small mammals before an emergency arises.

Housing and Welfare

The size of the enclosure for one or more of these furry friends should meet certain minimum requirements, but the bigger the better. Wire cages with solid flooring are best because they provide good ventilation and protection from sore feet. Locate the enclosure away from drafts, direct sunlight, radiators and air conditioning. Check that the air temperature is appropriate for your particular pet. It could mean the difference between life and death. Provide toys, untreated branches or wood, nest boxes, litterboxes, bedding, bowls and other appropriate accessories.

It is a misconception to think that just because these small animals don't need to be walked, they are maintenance-free. For starters, they need more supervision and cleaning of their environment. Is there enough space, as well as security from hazardous objects, predatory dogs and cats or humans too young to understand that these creatures are fragile? Safe, supervised exercise time outside their cages is a necessity. Pet-proof the room or rooms that will be used for exercise and playtime. Most of these pets will chew anything, including electrical cords! Seal up any holes, cracks or crevices that may tempt the curious. By investing time, energy and emotion in the care of the smallest pets, large dividends accrue. The virtues of little critters far exceed their size.

Jill Boriss, a former member of the ASPCA Publications department, has owned several hamsters.

The ASPCA does not recommend keeping sugar gliders, chipmunks, hedgehogs or prairie dogs as pets.

Squeaking Out Against Small-Pet Profiling


Some people want what they believe are easy pets. "Shelf pet," "starter pet" and "pocket pet" are some of the labels that induce humans to acquire these animals. They are under the impression that hamsters, gerbils and other small mammals take up little space, provide amusement on command, require hardly any work and no veterinary care, are inexpensive, disposable and quickly replaceable. For a long time, small mammals have been the choice of research laboratories and school classrooms because of the so-called convenience of keeping them. On the other hand, many people, including those involved in animal welfare, debate the ethics of keeping animals either as experimental tools or educational objects, ignoring their need for environmental enrichment and social relationships. In addition to nutritious foods, ample space and good hygiene, small mammals, like larger pets, deserve active involvement with caretakers on a daily basis. -J.B.


Characteristics of Popular Small Pets



  • Most popular variety- the Syrian (golden) - needs to be housed alone.
  • Very short tail; cheek pouches for storing food.
  • Nocturnal; may get upset - even bite - if disturbed while sleeping.
  • In addition to a wheel, needs things to crawl through and to climb on for exercise.
  • May cannibalize offspring


  • Comes from desert lands with hot, dry climates.
  • Likes to burrow for shelter; needs enough litter for digging.
  • Must be kept indoors; needs the company of at least one other gerbil (same sex).
  • Exercise wheel must be free of openings that can catch long tails.

Guinea Pig, a.k.a. cavy

  • Very social and inquisitive; needs lots of attention but no noise.
  • Can share his home with another guinea pig.
  • Not a climber, and when lifted will feel insecure.
  • Extreme temperatures or dampness are dangerous.
  • Needs vitamin C in diet.
  • To better digest plant fiber, a cavy expels food material in pellet form (not to be confused with fecal matter), which he then eats, allowing more nutrients to be absorbed.
  • Speaks in squeals, squeaks and gurgles.



  • Not dirty; constantly grooming.
  • One of the most intelligent rodents; can learn his name, play peek-a-boo, tug-of-war and hide-and-seek.
  • Cannot vomit, and is thus careful about what he eats; doesn't need to fast before anesthesia.
  • Very social and should never be kept without another rat (same sex) for company.
  • Poor eyesight but excellent senses of hearing and smell. (Colored rats have better eyesight than albinos.)
  • See veterinarian at first signs of breathing problems. No smoking around rats!
  • Nocturnal, but can alter his schedule for human attention.
  • Pine shavings and cedar chips are toxic; so is ammonia from urine.
  • Will chew on anything!


  • Be careful of pet mice bred as food for snakes; health and temperament may be questionable.
  • Males will fight in a confined space.
  • Clean animals, always self-grooming, but males have odor.
  • Excellent hearing (ultrasonic) and sense of smell.
  • Cannibalism can exist.
  • To get more nutrition, may eat own feces.
  • Does not vomit.


  • Is a lagomorph, not a rodent; has paired upper incisors (one tooth behind another).
  • Average life span of well-cared-for indoor rabbit is seven to 10 years.
  • Not recommended for young children; not Easter toys or storybook stuffed animals.
  • "Freezes" when scared; if carried, this may be mistaken for contentment.
  • Should be kept indoors. Can die from a heart attack at the mere approach of a predator or vandal.
  • Needs solid flooring in wire cage to prevent ulcerations on feet.
  • No pine or cedar shavings or clay cat litters.
  • Spay or neuter.
  • Rabbits and guinea pigs can cohabit.


  • Can live an average of 15 years, and with proper care, up to 22 years.
  • Basically a pet for adults. Very susceptible to stress. Must be protected from noise and activity during the day.
  • Can be kept singly; two require plenty of room for both.
  • Must not be allowed to chew on plastic.
  • Bathe in special chinchilla sand or dust, available in a pet shop.
  • Not advisable to own with other pets.
  • High heat and humidity can be fatal.
  • Chew toys are a necessity.


For more informationFor more information on hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils and rabbits, as well as on classroom pets and ASPCA books, please write, call or log on to:

ASPCA Humane Education
424 East 92nd Street
New York, New York 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700, ext. 4402

American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association
(818) 992-5564

The Rat Fan Club
(530) 899-0605

House Rabbit Society
(510) 521-4631

For further reading

The ASPCA Pet Care Guides for Kids series includes Guinea Pigs, Hamster and Rabbit.

Are You the Pet for Me? by Mary Jane Checchi, St. Martin's Paperbacks


Litter Alert

There is sharp controversy over whether pine and cedar (softwood) shavings are safe litter materials for pocket pets. Some experts warn that the oils in these shavings may cause respiratory problems and liver damage. To be safe, ASPCA suggests that you avoid these products. Use hay, recycled paper pellets, aspen or hardwood shavings instead.

©2000 ASPCA