Buying small pets

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The DoneDeal guide to buying small pets

Guinea pigs, Hamsters, Rabbits

Choosing your guinea pig

  • When viewing guinea pigs, whether in a shop or elsewhere, use your eyes and nose. Cages have to be cleaned every day, so there should be no smell whatsoever. If that’s been taken care of, it’s a good sign that the animals will be in good health.
  • Whoever you are dealing with should be able to give you plenty of information on the guinea pig you are interested in; if not, proceed with caution.

Housing

  • Guinea pigs are social animals and prefer to live in small groups, but ensure you have confirmed the gender of your guinea pigs before housing together. Guinea pigs, like all rodents, multiply rapidly.
  • The living quarters need to provide a minimum of four square feet of cage space per guinea pig. You’ll need a solid-bottom cage – no wire floors. Plastic-bottomed “tub cages” with wire tops also make great guinea pig homes.
  • Never use a glass or plastic aquarium; these provide poor ventilation and can be harmful.
  • Always keep the cage indoors, away from drafts and extreme temperatures, as guinea pigs are very susceptible to heatstroke. They prefer an environment kept at 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 16 to 27 degrees Celsius).
  • Line the bottom of the cage with 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.
  • Guinea pigs love to hide when they play, it is very important to provide them with hiding tubes and/or boxes. Plastic pipes, flower pots bricks and rocks for climbing are also good.
  • All guinea pigs need a cave for sleeping and resting; a medium-sized flower pot or covered sleeping box can be purchased at good pet stores.

Diet

  • Commercial guinea pig pellets should make up the bulk of your pet’s diet. Pellet diets are nutritionally complete and made from plants, seeds and veggies.
  • Feed your guinea pigs twice daily, in the morning and evening.
  • Good-quality grass hay must be available at all times; this maintains a healthy digestive system and healthy teeth.
  • Unlike other animals, guinea pigs cannot manufacture Vitamin C, so it is vital that your pet’s diet is supplemented. Good-quality pellet food is supplemented with Vitamin C; however this supplement does not have a long shelf life. Store the food in a sealed container in a cool, dry place.
  • Offer small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables to your guinea pigs every day (half a handful of veggies and a slice of fresh fruit is enough). A quarter of an orange, kale, dandelion greens and strawberries are great sources of Vitamin C. You can also give cucumbers, corn, peas, carrots or pears.
  • Leftover fresh food must be removed daily, and fresh, clean water should be available at all times. You can use an inverted bottle with a drinking tube, which must be cleaned daily.
  • Guinea pigs are shy and can be nervous; they do not like new things and any changes have to be introduced slowly. Changing their feed bowls suddenly could lead them to refuse to eat.

Handling

  • Guinea pigs are naturally very shy, so get them used to each other – and to being handled – slowly.
  • Start by feeding them small treats. When they’re comfortable with that, carefully pick up one pig at a time, with one hand supporting the bottom, the other over the back.

Exercise

  • Once you have hand-tamed your guinea pigs, you can let them get some exercise in an enclosed area or small room every day.
  • Carefully check the room for any openings and escape routes where they can get lost or injured.
  • Guinea pigs love the chew so make sure they do not have access to electrical cables.

General care

  • Remove soiled bedding, droppings and stale food from the cage daily.
  • Clean the cage completely once a week by replacing dirty bedding and scrubbing the bottom with warm water. Be sure everything’s dry before adding fresh bedding.
  • Guinea pigs’ teeth grow continuously, so it is important to provide something to gnaw on at all times. Branches and twigs from untreated trees will work, as will any small piece of wood that hasn’t been treated with chemicals.
  • With long-haired breeds in particular, grooming helps prevent tangles and matting and provides a good opportunity to examine your pet’s health and develop a greater bond between you and them.

Veterinary care

  • If you think one of your guinea pigs is sick, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Common signs of illness include sneezing, coughing, diarrhoea and lethargy.
  • Guinea pigs are also susceptible to external parasites such as mites and lice.

We spoke to Michael McCahill, a vet with Walkinstown Vet Practice and reused information provided.

Choosing your hamster

  • Don’t select a hamster based purely on the colour of its coat; much more important is that it is healthy and of good temperament.
  • Look at the eyes; they should be bright, clear, and discharge-free.
  • Check that the area under the animal’s tail is dry, and that there are no wet droppings in the cage.
  • Make sure its skin is smooth and fur glossy.
  • Check that the hamster does not seem lethargic.
  • With females, check that the hamster is not pregnant (if she is, you should be able to feel a bulge below the rib cage).
  • Once you’ve picked your hamster, make sure you have everything you need ready at home to properly look after them.
  • According to the RSPCA, you need to familiarise yourself with a hamster’s ideal housing and diet, as well as know what behaviour to expect from them and, importantly, how to spot when they’re unwell.

Housing

  • Provide a dry, draught-free place for them (in the wild, hamsters live in warm climates). Ideally, have it in a quiet spot where they can rest.
  • Keep them in a room where the lights go off at roughly the same time each night.
  • Keep their cage away from things that generate high-frequency sounds, eg TVs, computer screens, vacuum cleaners or sources of running water. Hamsters are very sensitive to such sounds (which we cannot hear), and can find this stressful.
  • Use suitable nesting materials. Don't use anything that separates into thin strands, eg cotton wool. These pose a risk to their health due to the possibility of entanglement or ingestion.
  • Ideally, give them a deep layer of litter in which to burrow.
  • Choose an appropriate cage. Hamsters are good diggers, and can escape easily from poorly constructed cages. Pet hamsters like a cage with a solid floor covered with a suitable litter material.
  • Include some suitable gnawing material to help them maintain sharp teeth, and stop the teeth growing continuously.
  • Incorporate both space and ‘enrichment’ in the cage. A running wheel is good, but don’t let this be the only enrichment provided.
  • If you do get a wheel, make sure it’s a large one, preferably with a non-slip running surface. If your hamster develops sore feet, remove the wheel temporarily and seek advice.

Diet

  • Make sure they have fresh, clean drinking water available continuously. Check the water bottle daily for leaks or blockages. Clean the bottle and nozzle properly.
  • Ideally, use a bottle with a valve-less sipper tube, as hamsters aren’t able to apply strong suction.
  • Feed them a compound, pelleted ration or a mixture of seeds. Commercial rations are formulated to meet their biological needs. Hamsters naturally eat a mixture of seeds, cereals, insect larvae and insects.
  • Keep it varied by adding small quantities of greens, cleaned root vegetables or pieces of fruit such as apples. Avoid grapes or rhubarb as these can be poisonous to rodents.
  • Place food in flat dishes or on the cage floor.
  • Monitor the amount they eat and drink. If consumption falls, the faeces become moist or their hind-quarters become soiled, talk to your vet immediately.

Behaviour

  • Hamsters are usually only active at night, so leave plenty of space for them to play during night hours.
  • They like to sleep during the day, so allow them peace to do so.
  • They may go into hibernation during the winter; if so, leave them alone unless you believe they’re unwell. Hamsters can wake up during hibernation to feed, so make sure they have plenty of fresh water, food and nesting material, and check them regularly.
  • If you let them out of their cage (when they have become tame), keep an eye on them to see they don’t stray or get up to mischief. If you have another pet, ensure your hamster is safe. Never leave a hamster out of their cage unattended or overnight.

Health

  • Observe your hamster closely; this will help you notice if they’re behaving differently. Hamsters don’t show outward signs of pain, so may suffer before you realise anything is wrong.
  • Keep them away from poisonous materials, be they food, plants or chemicals.
  • Treat them only with the medicines recommended for them by a vet. Human/other animal medicines are dangerous to hamsters.
  • If they show any repetitive behaviours, contact your vet. This can be caused by a barren environment, stress, frustration and/or a lack of mental stimulation.
  • Check their front teeth regularly; if they become overgrown, take them to a vet. Hamsters’ teeth grow continually, and they gnaw to keep them worn down. Dental problems aren’t uncommon.
  • Groom them regularly, especially if they’re long-haired. But never trim their whiskers; hamsters’ sight is poor and they need them for exploring objects.

In good company?

  • If you have several hamsters, do your homework before housing them together; not all species can be housed in groups.
  • Do not house unfamiliar hamsters, and different cages of hamsters, next to one another as they can find this stressful.
  • When it comes to handling, make sure you let them slowly get used to you. They are timid animals, and although they can become accustomed to careful handlers, they become frightened and aggressive if they feel threatened.
  • If they’re with another animal that could hurt them (whether accidentally or on purpose), such as another one of your pets, keep a close eye on them even if you think they are friends.

For more detailed information on caring for hamsters, see http://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/rodents/hamsters

Choosing your rabbit

  • When viewing rabbits, whether in a shop or elsewhere, use your eyes and nose. Cages have to be cleaned every day, so there should be no smell whatsoever. If that’s been taken care of, it’s a good sign that the rabbits will be in good health.
  • Whoever you are dealing with should be able to give you plenty of information on the rabbit you are interested in; if not, proceed with caution.

Housing

  • The minimum recommended cage space for a small to medium rabbit is four feet wide, two feet deep and two feet tall with a solid bottom.
  • The base must be lined with plenty of straw or hay; soiled bedding must be removed daily.
  • The hutch must be fully cleaned weekly, by removing all bedding and washing surfaces with warm water. Allow the hutch to dry fully before replacing the bedding.
  • Rabbits should not be housed with other rabbits unless all are neutered. They very territorial; introductions can be difficult and can result in injuries. If introducing a new rabbit, it must be done in neutral territory under careful supervision.

Indoors...

  • Rabbits are great companions and will happily integrate with the household as part of the family.
  • If keeping your rabbit indoors, ensure the house is rabbit-proof by covering and preventing access to electrical wires or anything else your pet is likely to chew.

...or out?

  • Hutches can be kept outdoors; however, this can lead to isolation and unsocial behaviour.
  • If you are unable to keep a rabbit in the house, their hutch must be in a sheltered part of the garden, away from direct sunlight and wind.
  • During harsh winters it may be necessary to move the hutch into a secondary shelter, such as a barna shed, at night.

Litter training

  • Rabbits are very clean by nature; most rabbits will choose one corner of the cage and begin to eliminate there.
  • Once the toilet location is chosen, place a newspaper-lined litter box in that corner with a handful of hay in the tray. This will require cleaning daily when soiled, but will help keep the living quarters clean and reduce odour.
  • Don’t use pine or cedar shavings or other cat litter substrates. These can be harmful to your rabbit as they frequently nibble and eat such objects.

Diet

  • The single most important and largest component of your rabbit’s diet is grass hay, such as timothy or brome. This is crucial for keeping their intestinal tract healthy. Good quality, unlimited hay should be available at all times.
  • Use good-quality rabbit pellets, not cereal mix feed. Rabbits will remove their favourite food from cereal feeds and leave behind the fibre needed to maintain healthy teeth and digestion.
  • Fresh leafy greens will make up the remainder of their diet, ie very small daily amounts of dark leaf lettuces, collard greens, turnip greens and carrot tops. Too much fresh food will cause stomach upsets, diarrhoea and bloating, which can be fatal.
  • Rabbits drink large volumes of water, similar to a small dog, and must always have access to clean, fresh water, dispensed via a bottle or sturdy bowl.

Exercise

  • Rabbits require lots of stimulation and exercise, so provide safe exercise facilities and chew toys. Providing chew sticks and a digging box, such as a cardboard box filled halfway with soil or shredded paper, will give great entertainment.
  • If exercising your rabbit outdoors, provide a fully enclosed area that includes a hiding hutch section. Rabbits are prey animals and need to feel safe from predators. If strangers or cats and dogs arrive, they need to be able to retreat.
  • Supervise outdoor activity; don’t forget rabbits love to dig and can tunnel under fences.
  • The recommended exercise time for pet rabbits is several hours per day.

Handling and general care

  • Pick up your rabbit by supporting his forequarters with one hand and his hindquarters with the other, holding close to your torso. Failure to do so can result in spinal injuries to the rabbit.
  • Never pick up a rabbit by his ears; this can cause very serious injury.
  • Brush your rabbit regularly with a soft brush to remove excess hair and keep his coat in good condition. Brush from the back of the head down to the tail. Rabbits’ nails can grow very long and sharp; they may require regular clipping by your veterinary nurse.

Health and veterinary care

  • Rabbits require vaccinations for Myxomatosis (pox virus), still a current disease in Irish rabbits. The vaccination will not provide lifelong immunity, so an annual vaccine booster is needed
  • Rabbits should be spayed or neutered by a vet; this prevents unwanted litters, spraying in males and uterine cancer in females.
  • If your rabbit stops eating or moving his bowels for 12 hours or longer or has watery diarrhoea, or you observe soft stool around the anus and bedding, seek expert care immediately.
  • Other signs of illness include runny nose and eyes, dark red urine, lethargy, fur loss and red, swollen skin.
  • Rabbits can be affected by parasites, more commonly fleas, lice and fly strike. So be extra vigilant with their hygiene and hutch care, particularly in warm weather.
  • Rabbits are very sensitive when it comes to medication, so only treat them with products recommended by your vet.

Rabbits and children: some words of caution

  • It’s only natural for children to want to hold, cuddle, or carry an animal around, but this is precisely what frightens most rabbits.
  • Rabbits can’t cry out when distressed but may scratch or bite to protect themselves from well-meaning children.
  • Always ensure rabbit and children interaction is supervised.

We spoke to Michael McCahill, a vet with Walkinstown Vet Practice.