Choosing Your Critter

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Determining whether an adopted small animal is the best pet for you
  • Choosing the perfect critter to adopt
  • Finding a critter through a shelter or small-animal-specific rescue group
You adopt dogs and cats at animal shelters, right? Actually, animal shelters take in more than just your standard-issue canines and felines. Many people relinquish their smaller critters to shelters when they can’t care for them anymore, so shelters often have ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, and other small furry little creatures that desperately need homes. Adopting a small animal from a shelter or small-animal rescue group is a great way to do something nice for an animal in need. A small animal may just fit your needs better than a needy, barking dog or a prowling, yowling cat.
In this chapter, you find out what it means to adopt a small animal and what owning a small animal entails. Small animals are perfect for certain kinds of pet owners but not such a great choice for others. You get a quick overview of the variety of small animals that frequently are available for adoption and what each is like, so you can decide whether a small animal — and which one — is right for you. You also get information about where to find small animals to adopt and how to go about adopting one from a shelter or rescue group.

Considering a Little Critter

Adopting a small animal may seem like a no-brainer, yet, small animals are pets, too, and they require veterinary care, maintenance, attention, stimulation, and interaction, just like any other pet. Before you decide that a small animal is an easier alternative to a more traditional pet, check out the following facts about little critters (for details about specific small animals, see “Finding the Critter That’s Right For You” later in this chapter):

– Most small animals are nocturnal and thus are busy, active, and sometimes loud and distracting at night. Although they probably won’t vocalize, they will be busy running in their wheels and moving around.

– Many small animals live surprisingly long lives, so caring for a critter can be a long-term commitment.

– Because most small animals live in enclosures, they need to be kept fastidiously clean and well fed with a constant supply of fresh clean water to prevent starvation or dehydration that can quickly occur. When an animal is tiny, it needs to eat and drink often.

On the other hand, small animals can make rewarding pets for people who aren’t so sure they want to walk a dog every day or spend their evenings vacuuming up cat hair. Small animals are undeniably adorable, cuddly, and tactile, with their soft fur and wiggly ways. Some love to be held, and others prefer to interact with you in other ways. Most of them can be hand-tamed and even trained to come when called or perform tricks for treats.
The short version is just this: Small animals take a different kind of work than dogs and cats, but caring for them provides many of the same rewards and benefits. Is this the pet for you? Read on to find out.

Exploring the appeal of small-animal pets

Small animals make great pets . . . for some people. They can be fun and interesting to observe in their habitats or just the cutest creatures that you can imagine. Consider adopting a small animal if any of the following apply to you:

– You want a pet, but you’re away from home most of the day and can’t come home in the middle of the day to walk a dog or stroke a cat.

– You travel frequently and can’t take a pet with you, but you have a willing friend, neighbor, or pet sitter who can tend to your pet’s needs while you’re away.

– You don’t want to exercise a dog every day.

– You like to have life and movement in your home but aren’t crazy about a big furry pet following you around all day or getting on your lap all the time.

– You don’t mind cleaning out a cage and changing litter once a week. Little bits of animal waste are fine, as long as they don’t resemble your own.

– You think it makes perfect sense to pay a veterinarian for the care of any critter, no matter how small.

– You feel sorry for all the little prey animals out there that are subject to the hungers of animal predators and the dangers of traps — you want to save them all.

– You think common pets are boring. Exotic mammals like ferrets and chinchillas fascinate you, and you want to learn their ways and take care of their needs.

Deciding you and small critters aren’t a fit

Small animal ownership isn’t for everyone or every situation. Even if you like the idea of adopting a small animal, you probably need to avoid doing so if any of the following apply to you:

– You have prey-oriented dogs or cats (or snakes) that are clever at solving problems — like how to get to that gerbil — and good at getting into things you thought you’d safely put away.

– You tend to be forgetful and may neglect to feed and water a small animal every day. Small animals can’t last very long without food and water, and they can’t bark or meow or get in your way to remind you to feed them.

– You don’t like cleaning out a small animal cage every week.

– You fear getting bitten, nipped, or scratched. Small animals are prey animals with strong instincts to protect themselves when they’re fearful.

– You want a pet that, like a baby, will interact frequently with you in a rewarding way, making you feel truly cherished and special. Although many people obtain these benefits from small animals, small animals don’t interact with people in the same way dogs and cats do, and thus they may not provide you with the kind of bonding and total adoration you seek.

– You have kids who — charming as they surely are — can’t keep their hands off things and haven’t yet developed a sense of self-control.

Pairing kids with critters: Perfect pet or potential problem?

When considering a child’s first pet, people often think first of small animals. Although small animals can indeed make great pets for responsible, gentle children, they’re not the default perfect pet for all kids. Consider that small animals:

– Don’t bond with children in the same way that dogs or even cats do.

– Are delicate. If a child wants to poke, prod, and carry around — or even drop — a small pet, tragedy can result.


Many small animals have been severely injured or killed unintentionally by the careless or clumsy handling of a small child, and many small children have been bitten and scratched by small animals trying to defend themselves. There is no quicker way to turn a child off of pet ownership like a sharp bite from a hamster or a sound scratching from a rabbit scrambling for safety.


– Are not more disposable than dogs or cats. However, many people see them that way, which is why so many small animals are abandoned in shelters and with rescue groups. Please don’t adopt a small animal to test a child’s readiness for a better pet and then abandon the animal (or worse, allow it to perish) just to prove the child isn’t ready for pet ownership. This kind of thing happens all too often and is exactly the kind of thing that shelters and rescue groups are trying to prevent when they place small animals with people they hope are responsible caretakers. Don’t forget: Small animals are pets, too!

On the other hand, kids who are responsible and mature enough to understand how to handle a small animal with safety and care actually can get a great deal of enjoyment and even education from a small pet animal. I have two little boys, so don’t be offended by the following evaluations of childhood maturity and responsibility. I know what it’s like to recognize when my own kids weren’t yet ready for the temptation of a small pet to play with — neither could be reliably trusted to hold our hamster until about 8 years of age. When deciding whether your child can be mature and responsible enough to handle and help care for a small animal, consider the following:

Age: Any child can live with a small animal, but children younger than 7 may not be able to handle a small animal. Let them look but not touch, unless you’re holding the animal and allowing the child to pet it while you maintain control.

Maturity level: Is your child a little grown-up in miniature? Or, does your child tend to lose control, have tantrums, try daredevil stunts? Is your child coordinated or prone to dropping things or losing track of what he’s doing? Evaluate whether your child makes smart decisions on his own, or whether she has a good sense of what is safe for herself and others. Please be realistic about your child’s maturity level before giving him or her that little gerbil or bunny as a pet.

Responsible nature: Does your child play quietly, act calm, and have empathy for small creatures? If so, your child may be a good match for a small animal. But if your child isn’t responsible for his own actions yet, is likely to take a small animal out without asking, or may just want to see what happens if she pushes the guinea pig down the driveway on a skateboard, please spare the poor creature and wait until your child is willing and able to maintain self-control and follow the rules.


Any pet in any household is the responsibility of the adult, and the adult must be the ultimate caretaker. Children can learn plenty about responsibility by taking care of a small animal, but if they forget to clean the cage or change the water, the adult must be vigilant enough to intervene and make sure these important jobs are accomplished, one way or another.

If you think you’re the small-animal type, take the next step; check out the following sections, which briefly describe the joys and challenges associated with specific small animals. Look for aspects you can’t live with and the ones that sound particularly appealing. Your answer — the particular pet you have been waiting for all along — may be obvious.


After getting tired of caring for small animals, many owners either release their rabbits, mice, or other domesticated small animals into the wild where they rarely survive, or they give them to a shelter where many end up being euthanized. Reading the following sections is vital to ensuring that your new pet doesn’t end up as a statistic.


By the way, keeping gerbils, ferrets, certain kinds of birds, and hedgehogs as pets is illegal in California. Some of these pets also are illegal in other areas, so check your local ordinances to make sure the pet you want is on the up-and-up.

Ferret facts

Ferrets (see Figure 12-1) are adorable but challenging little creatures with high energy levels that don’t really ease up much as they age, so consider the following before you decide whether you’re up for the challenge of owning a ferret:

Time commitment: Ferrets are a commitment — they can live up to ten years or even longer. They also need a few hours every day out of their cages for supervised play time, and plenty of attention, interaction, and even training from you. Ferrets are not a low-maintenance pet.

Attention requirements: Ferrets require plenty of exercise, interaction, and training. They can, however, be taught to walk on a leash and use a litter box, and most of them enjoy a good (leashed) romp in the snow.

Tendency for trouble: Ferrets are good at getting themselves into trouble or getting into things you didn’t think they could possibly find, reach, or fit inside. They can climb, leap, and knock things over, fall, or get stuck inside furniture, walls, toilets, and other “how the heck did he get in there” places. They also love to chew and eat things that you really wished they hadn’t gotten their teeth around, especially sponge or foam rubber, which can get stuck in their intestines, causing a blockage and requiring expensive emergency veterinary care.

Housing: Ferrets don’t tolerate heat well, so they must be kept inside under temperate conditions. In addition, because of their tendency to get into trouble (see previous bullet) when not supervised, ferrets need to live in a roomy, comfortable enclosure — typically a ferret cage — with plenty of places to climb, explore, sleep, eat, and play.

Cost: The ferret cages I describe in the previous bullet can be expensive and so can ferret care. Ferrets need a premium ferret food (if you absolutely can’t find ferret food, you can use Iams kitten food — many other brands of kitten food are not nutritionally appropriate for ferrets), regular vet visits, and they must be spayed or neutered to prevent serious behavior and health problems and control odor. Spaying is a must, because females can get a life-threatening anemia if they’re neither spayed nor bred. Ferrets also need regular vaccinations, just like dogs and cats.

Odor: Neutering the male ferret helps a lot with odor control, but even a neutered and descented ferret has a unique musky odor that ferret owners must be willing to tolerate. Although most ferrets are spayed or castrated and descented before they leave the breeding farm (most end up with a “dot dot” tattoo in the ear to indicate their status), ferret clubs and associations are beginning to discourage descenting because they think it isn’t necessary — ferrets rarely use their scent glands and with or without the glands, the body odor stays the same.

Special considerations: Some ferrets in need of rescue actually are deaf — usually the white ones. This condition is hereditary and is common in many white animals, including dogs and cats. But a deaf ferret still can make an excellent pet. Hearing-impaired ferrets require extra patience and training, however. For more information about deaf ferrets, see the section on ferret health in Chapter Taking Charge of Your Critter’s Care.

Be aware that some states, cities, and local areas require permits for ferrets, and some don’t allow ferrets as pets at all. For example, it is illegal (although this law always is being contested) to own a ferret in California. Please don’t adopt a ferret if you live in an area where they are not legal. You risk having the animal taken away, and your adopted ferret doesn’t need to lose yet another home.

Figure 12-1: Ferrets are related to weasels, minks, and otters, and they resemble their long-bodied, bright-eyed cousins. The ferret’s long skinny torso enables him to squeeze through tiny spaces.

Rabbit run-down

Who doesn’t love an Easter bunny? The following may help you decide whether you do:

– Rabbits may look cuddly and cute, but many of them do not enjoy being handled or held. Rabbits are the quintessential prey animal, and they exhibit strong instincts to protect themselves by fleeing in fear at the slightest hint that they may be in danger.

– Rabbits need regular vet care, and they need to be spayed or neutered to prevent the extremely high risk of cancer of the reproductive organs in females and unpleasant behavioral changes related to hormone surges in males, including aggressive behavior like lunging and nipping, and destructive behavior.

Of course, if you have two bunnies of opposite sexes, altering them prevents reproduction — something that’s otherwise nearly impossible to prevent in rabbits (you’ve heard that story).

Guinea-pig guide

Guinea pigs, or cavies as their fans and devotees call them — their actual Latin name is Cavia porcellus — are winning little critters originally hailing from New Guinea. They come in several different types, with short, wavy, or long hair (see Figure 12-2). The following considerations give you an idea of what to expect from raising a cavy:

Vocal creatures: Guinea pigs talk a lot with many different sounds: squeaks, wheeks, whinnies, snorts, grunts, purrs, and more. Many of these sounds are reserved for communication with humans. If your pigs see you opening the refrigerator door, prepare for a chorus of excited wheek-wheek-wheeks.

Attention requirements: Guinea pigs are social and much happier with other cavies around, particularly in a so-called harem with one male and several females. They also like plenty of attention from humans, particularly the ones bearing food. Although they need regular attention, guinea pigs are lower maintenance than some small animals. As long as they have food, water, a clean cage, and other cavies to cavort with, they won’t mind if your attention is elsewhere.

Care and maintenance requirements: Guinea pigs need vet care if they are injured or sick. Females need to be spayed, or you should be prepared never to let them mingle with males when they’re fully mature, because the pelvic bones fuse with only a narrow opening if they’re not bred while young. Breeding attempts can subsequently injure the mature female. Their cages need frequent thorough cleaning and frequent fresh water changes, and guinea pigs require extra vitamin C added to their diets, preferably in the form of supplements and fresh fruits and vegetables. The long-haired pigs need regular grooming to keep their coats in good condition.

Housing: Because they can get foot injuries from wire-bottomed cages, guinea pigs need to be housed in cages with solid bottoms. They need plenty of room so they should have a spacious enclosure.

Tendency for trouble: Guinea pigs are relatively docile, tending not to bite and scratch, so they make good pets for gentle kids whose parents are willing to take the responsibility to ensure they’re kept clean, watered, and fed.

Figure 12-2: Guinea pigs like to talk to you and sit on your lap, but they can be nervous about being held high above the floor unless you get them used to it at a young age.

Rats rule

Rats are among the most sociable and arguably the most intelligent of the small mammals. With good cleanliness practices and lots of interaction, rats also are among the most rewarding of the small animals because they are so interactive and interested in you. They are also very easy to train and can live five to seven years in captivity. Just check out the following to see whether rat-human bonding is the kind of pet experience you seek:

Attention requirements: Rats want and need plenty of attention and can actually interact with humans in a fairly sophisticated way, compared to some small animals. Rats also prefer to live with other rats, so get at least two same-sex rats (you don’t want to contribute to an unwanted litter and more unwanted rats!).

Tendency for trouble: Rats enjoy supervised play time outside their cages, but free-roaming rats can get stuck in some pretty weird places and just won’t be safe — not to mention the chewing damage they can cause to your home — if you let them do their own thing.

Housing: Rats have particularly delicate respiratory systems and never should be kept in bedding made from wood shavings with phenols in them, particularly cedar and pine. (Some wood shavings are marked “phenol-free” and those are fine.) Most rats have a pathogen in their lungs called microplasma that is almost impossible to get rid of. If aggravated by phenols, bad ventilation, or a dirty cage, it can cause pneumonia and other serious respiratory problems and even death. Antibiotics administered by a vet can control the condition but usually won’t cure it. Therefore, their cages need to be well ventilated — no glass tanks please — and kept very clean, with recycled paper bedding. Rats also can develop a foot infection called bumblefoot, which may be caused by wire cage floors.

Hamster and gerbil handbook

Hamsters and gerbils sure are cute little critters, and they are the ubiquitous child’s first pet. See if they work for you by considering the following:

Attention requirements: Gerbils are sociable, but be sure any small animals housed together are properly sexed! It can be hard to tell what sex a dwarf hamster or gerbil is, and you don’t want to make more unwanted babies. That’s how many hamsters and gerbils wind up in shelters. Hamsters and gerbils require less interaction than some small animals, although many are happily hand-tame. If nobody ever handles these small mammals, they’d probably be perfectly happy with their hamster or gerbil friends and appropriate housing (see the upcoming bullet in this list).

Tendency for trouble: Small children always need to be supervised when handling hamsters and gerbils. One quick jump and these little critters can plummet to the ground, injuring themselves or scampering off and getting lost.

Housing: Appropriate housing includes a large clean cage with a wheel for exercise, multiple levels for exploring, and fresh food and water.

Special considerations: Golden hamsters are larger than dwarf hamsters, but both have similar care needs. Golden hamsters, however, need to be kept singly to prevent fighting. Same-sex dwarf hamsters, on the other hand, get along just fine together and enjoy the company.


Always be sure the hamster or gerbil you adopt has dry fur, particularly a dry tail, and bright clear eyes. Otherwise, you may be adopting a sick pet that needs veterinary care.

Backing away from that wild baby bunny
Don’t even think about taking in that seemingly abandoned baby bunny in the yard. Okay, you may not be able to keep from thinking about it, or even moving it out of the way of the dogs in your backyard, but here’s the truth: Wild baby bunnies almost always die in captivity. That nest of bunnies you found probably isn’t abandoned, anyway. Mother rabbits usually make their nests out in the open, and come to nurse their babies about five minutes during the middle of the night, then leave for the rest of the time. The mother probably is coming back, but if you move the bunnies, she will be extremely distressed trying to find them. 
If you disturb the nest, try as best you can to cover it back up the way it was and then leave the baby bunnies alone. Leaving them alone gives the bunnies their best chance for survival. If you know for a fact the mother has been killed — for instance, if your dog or cat killed the mother — or if the baby bunny is injured, immediately contact the humane society to find a skilled wildlife rehabilitator. Rehabilitating a baby bunny is extremely tricky, and most people won’t be successful trying to do it themselves. For more information about this subject, see the House Rabbit Society’s Web page at

Mouse manifesto

Mice are tiny guys that are pretty much the same as the wild mice you may find running around under your sink or in your basement. Although pet-store mice are more likely to be white, mice come in many colors and even some patterns. They also multiply with astounding frequency, leading to too many mice for too few homes. Use the following considerations to decide whether a mouse can work for you:

Attention requirements: Mice are tiny, quick, and good at hiding, so of all the small animals, they’re the ones that are least in need of human handling. Some mice can become tame and really enjoy being handled, but as long as they have cage buddies, their social needs are fulfilled.

Tendency for trouble: Small children, in particular, may not be able to handle a mouse without letting it escape. Male mice tend to fight, but females generally get along just fine. Mice are hard to sex, so be sure you aren’t putting males and females together.

Housing: Mice need a well-ventilated cage with a solid bottom and paper bedding rather than wood shavings containing phenols that can cause them respiratory distress.

Special considerations: Mice also need careful monitoring for signs of disease. If a mouse gets sick, it needs to be taken to the veterinarian. Yes, even though it’s “just a mouse.” Vets have seen it all, so don’t be embarrassed to take in your tiny little friend for care.

Exotics: Chinchillas and hedgehogs

Exotic animals can be rewarding pets, particularly when you provide a home for a critter in need, but they also require a little extra know-how. Each exotic small animal has some specific, unique care, feeding, and socialization needs, so if you adopt one, be sure you get all the information necessary to care for the animal appropriately.

Chinchillas (see Figure 12-3) are gorgeous, cuddly, extremely shy little critters with beautiful coats that are sometimes used to make wearable fur. But you won’t use your chinchilla that way! Then again, be sure you really want a chinchilla. Consider:

  • Attention requirements: Chinchillas can live between 10 and 20 years, so a chinchilla is a big commitment. They’re also sensitive and easily frightened, but you need to spend time interacting gently with them and providing good food, fresh water, a clean environment, and of course, veterinary care.
  • Tendency for trouble: A baby chinchilla can be socialized to accept handling, but physical contact between humans and adult chinchillas that haven’t been trained to interact this way can be extremely stressful for the chinchilla. An adult chinchilla may never be comfortable with being handled.
  • Housing: Appropriate housing includes a large clean cage with vertical space for climbing and jumping. Chinchillas bathe in dust rather than in water and need plenty of room, especially if they’re not hand-tame.
  • Special considerations: Chinchillas are easily stressed and can take weeks, even months not to be fearful at your approach. These guys need plenty of patience and a consistent routine to feel confident and free of fear in a pet home.

Figure 12-3: A chinchilla is a small furry creature that can usually learn to be hand-tame only if taught from a young age

Hedgehogs (see Figure 12-4) come from Africa and are small spiny critters that roll up in a ball when frightened. Their spines are sharp and hard, and they feel a little like plastic toothpicks. Interested? First think about the following:

  • Attention requirements: Hedgehogs live about five to eight years in captivity. Most hedgehogs prefer to live alone, although a few get along fine with a hedgehog buddy. They require a proper diet, attention to their expressions of fear or contentment through body language, and veterinary care whenever they get sick.
  • Tendency for trouble: Be sure hedgehogs are legal where you live.
  • Housing requirements: Hedgehogs must be securely enclosed because they’re good climbers, fast runners, and great escape artists. They also need plenty of space to move around.

Figure 12-4: A hedgehog is a small spiny animal from Africa that has become more popular as an exotic pet during the last decade.

Save a Critter Today! Finding Adoptable Critters

If you love the idea of adopting a small critter, take the time to look around. Although many critters may need homes, your best bet for finding one is a shelter or rescue group that’s devoted to assessing the health and adoptability of the animals they take in. Unless you’re willing to devote the amount of time and money necessary to curing a small animal’s health problems, work with a shelter or rescue group that can ensure the small animals they adopt out are in good health and simply in need of a little TLC.
But how do you find such a place? Chances are, your local animal shelter occasionally gets critters, and may be looking for a home for some small animals right now. Check there. If the shelter doesn’t have the critter you believe will work best in your home and life, then seek out local or regional all-animal rescue groups or critter-specific groups. Here are some places to start looking, beginning with general links to rescue groups and shelters with many different animals, followed by critter-specific organizations:

– 1-800-Save-a-Pet (800-728-3273), a database where you can search pets in need of adoption by your zip code and the kind of pet you seek, including small animals. Call for automated service or check the Web site:

– Petfinder, a nationwide database of pets in need of adoption, including small animals:

– Pets911, another nationwide database of pets in need of adoption, including small animals:

– The American Ferret Association Web site includes links to shelters with ferrets all across the United States:

– The House Rabbit Society has many local chapters across the United States. Find these, plus links to independent rabbit rescue organizations in areas without local chapters, at the House Rabbit Society’s Web site: Some chapters also rescue other small animals.

– Guinea Pig Adoption is an international rescue group resource list:

– Rat Rescue Association offers rat information and rat adoption:

– Southern California Rabbit and Small Animal Rescue Association has a page devoted to hamsters in need of rescue, in southern California and elsewhere in the United States:

– This Chinchilla Rescue group is based in the San Francisco Bay area, but its Web site also includes a list of Chinchilla rescue groups across the United States, Canada, and England:

– Flash and Thelma Memorial Hedgehog Rescue is based in Colorado:

by Eve Adamson

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