Keeping Pet Rodents
Pet rodents (hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, and guinea pigs) are very popular pets. They make good first pets for young children and as a rule require minimal care. Compared to dogs and cats, they have a shorter life-span (2-5 years depending upon the species). Young children should be told this so that the "sudden death" of a 3-year-old pet isn't unexpected. As with any pet, they do occasionally get sick, and their illnesses are often severe. All pet rodents should be examined by a qualified veterinary surgeon within 48 hours of purchase. This "new pet" exam is critical to detect signs of disease and help new pet owners get off on the right foot. So many problems are caused by misinformation; the first veterinary visit can help prevent well-intentioned owners from doing the wrong thing and ultimately contributing to the pet's early death.
Common to all of the pet rodents is the fact that the front teeth, the incisors, grow continuously throughout the pet's life. Overgrown incisors are a common problem and can be prevented by allowing the pet access to pieces of wood and other chewing devices. Treatment involves trimming by your veterinary surgeon, often under anaesthesia. Rodents are herbivorous animals, and the digestive tract is, in some ways similar to that of other plant-eaters such as horses and cattle.
No obvious tail is present. Unlike other rodents, only one pair of mammary glands is present. The guinea pig is the only pocket pet with premolar teeth. Unlike most animals, the young are precocious at birth, meaning they are fully developed, born with hair, and the eyes open. Guinea pigs rarely bite, which makes them ideal pets. However, they do squeal when handled.
Porphyrin from the Harderian glands around the eyes causes tears and nasal secretions to appear red. The mammary glands extend along the sides and back of the pet, and therefore breast cancer can appear as a lump ANYWHERE on the body. Young mice are born hairless with their eyes closed.
Similar to mice, rats have a Harderian gland that produces red tears and nasal secretions. The young are born hairless with their eyes closed.
The male has glands used for territorial marking and which are poorly developed in females. Hamsters have a cheek pouch on each side of the inside of the mouth. Food, and even baby hamsters, may be temporarily stored here! Hamsters are the most aggressive of all the pocket pets and often bite. Hamsters can hibernate. A sleeping hamster should be awakened carefully! Because of this a hamster appearing dead may merely be in a deep state of torpor and should be warmed and awakened, not buried!
Since gerbils are desert animals, they have a very low water requirement. Due to this low water intake, gerbils urinate small amounts. Gerbils usually mate for life; they should be paired before sexual maturity. Many gerbils exhibit mild spontaneous seizures (epilepsy), especially when startled. These usually don't require treatment. Gerbils have high blood cholesterol and lipid (fat) levels but interestingly do not show heart disease and atherosclerosis.
Selecting Your Pet
Most owners will buy their pet rodents locally through a pet store. Avoid sick-looking animals. Don't try to be a "Good Samaritan". Remember that, with exotic pets, if it looks sick, it's really dying! Trying to nurse a sick pet rodent back to health after purchasing it will rarely work. Just the stress of the new environment and feeding is often enough to kill it. So, start out right with a healthy pet. Always inquire about the guarantee in case the pet is found to be unhealthy.
The pet rodent should have no discharge from the eyes, nose, or mouth. If you can open the mouth (without being bitten!), make sure the front teeth, the incisors, have not overgrown (they should form a nice, even fit). The animal should seem frisky and try to run and resist handling to some extent. No coughing, sneezing, or wheezing should be present. Examine the rectal area. It should be dry and free of diarrhoea or caked-on stool. This is especially important for young hamsters; many baby hamsters at pet stores have a disease called "wet tail", which is usually fatal. Ask the employee for help in determining the animal's sex. Keep in mind that pet store employees may know little more than you about the pet. Also the sex of a young rodent can be very difficult to determine, especially if there are no other animals to compare the individual with. Hopefully the sex can be correctly determined during your pet's first veterinary visit but do not be too hard on the vet if this proves difficult!
The first veterinary visit
Within 48 hours of your purchase, your pet should be examined by a veterinary surgeon knowledgeable in the treatment of pet rodents. The visit includes determining the animal's weight, as well as checking for lumps or bumps.
The animal is examined for signs of dehydration and starvation. A faecal test may be done to check for internal parasites. The veterinary surgeon can also attempt to determine the sex of your pet. If all turns out well, your pet will be given a clean bill of health. Like all pets, pet rodents should be examined annually and have their faeces tested for parasites during the annual visit.