As the holidays approach, many children will ask Santa, or their parents, for a new fuzzy family member. In the world of exotic animals, pocket pets are becoming very popular, particular guinea pigs, rabbits and ferrets. Before choosing a pocket pet as a Christmas gift, owners should be aware that the housing, and care, for one of these little bundles of joy can be intensive. They also have different dietary needs than a traditional pet. Rabbits, guinea pigs, and ferrets can become a wonderful addition to your family this holiday season, but will require the same time, and attention, as a regular pet.
Housing and Environment:
While most pocket pets are small, they will require supplies, time and some specific conditions. In general, their optimal temperature range is between 62 and 70 degrees. Temperatures in the 80s are going to be too high. Prolonged exposure to these temperatures will often result in heat stroke. Cages come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some have wire bottomed floors with pull out litter trays, while others have solid floors. For ferrets, solid floors tend to work best. If considering a wire bottomed cage for your rabbit or guinea pig, be sure to provide a section of solid floor in the cage. The constant pressure of the wires on their paws can cause pododermatitis or “Bumblefoot”. This condition leaves sores or lesions on the feet, which can lead to infection.
Cage size will be dependent on the species, breed and number of pets you choose. Rabbits come in an assortment of sizes, so it is a good idea to check which breed you are getting. For example, the Lion head and Jersey Wooly breeds tend to be 3-4 pounds while the Rex and New Zealand breeds can be 10-12 pounds. Other rabbit breeds can grow to be twice that size! Rabbits like to rest in a sternal position, with their limbs fully stretched. The “3 Hop Rule” is a good reference when considering cages. Your bunny should be able to complete a minimum of three hops from one end of the cage to the other. There should also be enough room to accommodate a food bowl, water bottle, and a wire rack for hay. The wire rack helps keep the hay off the floor of the cage. Most rabbits will not utilize multiple levels, so a flat, one story cage is sufficient.
Guinea pig cages should be big enough to accommodate a hide box, food bowl, and a water bottle. A minimum of 36 inches in length is a good place to start. Some cages will have a small platform and ramp, but will be predominantly one level. While there are different breeds of guinea pig, most are around the same size so cage choice is not breed dependant. Several guinea pig enthusiasts observe guinea pigs do very well in pairs so if getting more than one piggy, a bigger cage may be required.
Ferret cages have a variety of styles. Some are a single level with a platform while others are multi leveled in a “condo” style. A minimum of 18x30 inches is recommended. Ferrets do a lot of sleeping, sometimes 18 to 20 hours a day, so be sure to provide an area where they can bundle up and nap. This will become their “den”. Something as simple as a towel or t-shirt can be used. There are also hammock and ferret houses which can be suspended throughout the cage. If using a multi-level cage, be sure not to hang anything over an open area or ramp, in case your sleepy ferret rolls out of their bed. These creatures are escape artists; they can squeeze through tiny spaces. If they can fit their heads through an opening, chances are good that will become an escape route. Look for cages that have latch style doors and be prepared to get creative if the cage is not ferret proof. A heavy duty food bowl and water bottle should also be provided.
The majority of pocket pets will require bedding in their cage. This will need to be cleaned often, sometimes daily depending on the number or size of your pet. For guinea pigs, this can be a little more intensive because they do not always deficate in the same area, and bedding will need to cover the entire floor space. For rabbits and ferrets, there is way to make the cleaning process easier. Both of these exotics can be litter pan trained, as they will typically use the same area of their cage for eliminations. Each species has it’s own tricks to the litter pan training process but with time and patience, it will cut down on clean up time considerably. Once trained, bedding is only required in the litter box instead of the entire cage.
Each pocket pet has its own dietary needs, some are more simplistic than others. There are many products available commercially, specifically designed to accommodate each species. Ferrets are carnivorous so their feed is going to have a higher protein content. Fruits and dairy products are not favorable as they can lead to urinary or digestive problems. Ferrets have short digestive tracts so they will need to eat often. They may eat every three to four hours so it is important to make sure they always have access to food.
Guinea pigs and rabbits, have similar dietary habits. Both should receive timothy hay based pellets. However, the ingredients of these pellets are a little different. Guinea pigs require high doses of vitamin C because they cannot synthesize their own. Most guinea pig pellets will have more of this vitamin and should not be substituted with rabbit pellets. When offering pellets, providing a daily, measured amount is recommended once adulthood has been reached. Giving free choice pellets to an adult guinea pig or rabbit can cause obesity. The remainder of the diet should consist of hay, veggies, and small amounts of fruit. Rabbits and guinea pigs should always have access to hay and can eat as much as they want. There are many different types of hay; timothy hay or mixed grass hay is usually best. When choosing vegetables, look for dark leafy greens such as collard greens or kale. For guinea pigs, veggies with vitamin C are also going to be beneficial. Fruits are allowed but should be used as treats and given in small quantities. Feeding time is a great way to bond with your guinea pig or rabbit. If they are housed close to the kitchen, some will recognize the sound of the refrigerator door, or vegetable tray, opening and become very excited at feeding time!
Health and Grooming:
Now that the housing and dietary needs have been addressed, there are some basic health and grooming necessities to keep in mind. Almost all pocket pets will need their nails trimmed periodically, to make sure they do not get caught on anything and to prevent accidental scratching. Rabbits and guinea pigs have hypsodontic teeth; this means the teeth are open rooted and continuously growing. Owners can offer them wooden chew toys in an effort to keep the teeth to a healthy size. A veterinarian may need to trim the teeth if chew toys are not adequate. Some rabbit and guinea pig breeds have long or coarse hair and will need to be brushed regularly to avoid matting and provide good hygiene.
Ferrets will need regular bathing; some more often than others. Many people believe ferrets are foul smelling, and while this can be the case, if provided with the proper bathing regiment and a clean cage, they are no more or less smelly than a dog or cat. Over bathing causes an increased production of sabeceous gland secretions; this will actually make your ferret smell worse! Bathing once every 2 to 3 months is often sufficient. Be sure to use ferret specific shampoo.
A physical exam by your veterinarian is a good idea, so any health issues can be identified. At that time, discuss the benefits of getting your new family member fixed. Ferrets are typically fixed before they are sold. And remember, if getting a pair of pocket pets, some are harder to sex than others. You might want to consider housing your pets separately until a veterinarian can confirm the gender. Rabbits are able to reproduce at about four to five months old, guinea pigs at about two to three months old. It does not take long to have more pocket pets for Christmas than you originally bargained for.
Enrichment, Fun, and Bonding:
The last aspect of pocket pet care is enrichment. These little guys benefit from play time just as much as any other pet. The more time you spend with your new addition, the better your bond will be, and the more they will become accustomed to being handled. These pets should not be left unsupervised outside of their cages. Rabbits and guinea pigs will have a tendency to chew on wooden furniture or the trim/ base boards in the room. Ferrets are notorious for getting into the backs of couches or chairs; they are very adventurous and enjoy exploring. Electrical wires should not be accessible as these can also become inviting chew toys. Instead, try to set up a safe area for them to explore and interact with you. There are play pens that can be made, or purchased, to provide a good play area. You can fill this area with wooden chew toys for rabbits and guinea pigs, or balls, tubes and tunnels for the ferrets. Try offering veggies to your guinea pig or rabbit to entice your new pet to interact with you. In the beginning, you may have to be patient and go slow. It might take a little time for your new friend to become comfortable with you, but a bond shared with a pocket pet is highly rewarding. They are capable of recognizing you just as a dog or cat, and will show signs of excitement when they see you. Avid pocket pet owners will be the first to agree, the affection received from one of these fuzzy individuals can melt your heart.
Guinea pigs, rabbits or ferrets are engaging and could be the perfect present for someone this holiday season. They can be a great way to learn responsibility but might be too much for a younger recipient to care for on their own. Though they can be a lot of work, do not let that dissuade you from brining one home this year. Just keep in mind, if hoping to keep your new pet a secret until Christmas morning, wherever your pet will be hidden needs to meet all the housing and care requirements until it is time to unwrap gifts. The joy of receiving a new pet to love and cherish is a gift that will keep on giving. For anyone that decides to explore the pocket pet world, may you share a joyful winter with your new furry family member.