Critter Behavior and Training

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Understanding why adopted small animals act the way they do
  • Correcting and managing behaviors and recognizing inherent small-animal qualities
  • Dealing with physical and behavioral problems requiring training or management
  • Training your critter to use the litter box, to be held, and to come
  • Figuring out what those funny critter noises and movements probably mean

Your sweet little critter may look like a fuzzy angel, bashful and sweet and even a little cuddly in a trembling sort of way. But what happens when you get home, your little darling gets comfortable, and suddenly, you have a big problem on your hands? Your critter may be trying to bite or attack you, shredding your carpet, eating your walls, or refusing to come out of hiding.

These scenarios are quite common for small animal owners, and they’re a big reason so many small animals are abandoned to animal shelters. What you call a problem, however, in many cases is just normal small-animal behavior. It doesn’t require fixing, but it does require management. In other cases, small animals may truly have behavior problems that are caused by past neglect or abuse. You can also address them with some targeted strategies. This chapter shows you how to tell the difference between normal small animal behaviors and true behavior problems, and it gives you helpful tips for dealing with both. I also explain how to train your small animals in ways that make them much easier to keep as pets. The key to bringing out the best in your small animal is frequent, positive, nonthreatening, rewarding interaction. Here’s how to go about it.

Adopted Small Animal Issues

Adopting an adult critter gives you a big advantage over adopting a younger one. Many critters, such as ferrets and rabbits, are calm and cuddly as babies  but after they hit adolescence, they develop some undesirable behaviors. That’s when people throw in the towel and abandon the critter to the wild or an animal shelter. But adolescence passes, and the critter becomes a much more docile adult, especially after it’s spayed or neutered. What you see when adopting an adult critter is much more likely to be what you get. Someone else went through the difficult part. Now you get to reap the benefits of maturity.

Even so, many adopted small animals (adults included) need to learn a few lessons about living with humans. Previous owners who purchased an adorable ferret kit or baby Easter bunny may not have researched nor realized these pets need to be trained from the get-go. Worse yet, many of these animals were abused. You may not want to think about someone slapping your ferret or kicking your bunny, but unfortunately, it happens all too often when a pet owner gets angry about being bitten or scratched.
Animals remember fearful experiences, and they remember them for a long time. Your small animal may be suspicious and afraid of a human hand, a foot, or the mere presence of people. As a new critter owner, your big job is teaching your new pet slowly but surely that her life now is different and that humans mean good things: petting, stroking, playing, and treats. She must be taught that nipping, scratching, and biting won’t be tolerated but never slapped, flicked, kicked, or otherwise hurt for doing these things.
To find out how you’re supposed to train a small animal not to do the things you can’t tolerate without making her even more afraid of humans consider which behaviors are fixable, manageable, or simply incorrigible.

Remember

Many behaviors that seem abnormal actually are sexual behaviors related to the onset of adolescence. These behaviors can occur at a young age in  small animals, as young as 4 or 5 months. Sexual behaviors include biting,mounting, spraying urine on other pets or you, circling you, and general wild destructive behavior. Spaying or neutering your pet usually resolves these behaviors, which really aren’t abnormal at all but can seem startling to pet owners.

Fixing what you can

Small animals do things that they think are perfectly normal. In this list, I explain some of these behaviors that you can fix:

Biting: Ferrets nip while playing because the skin of other ferrets is pretty tough. It hurts sensitive human skin, however, and ferrets can (and need to) learn not to nip people. Whenever your ferret nips you (playfully or otherwise to engage your attention), immediately put him in his cage and ignore him for five minutes. Then try to play again. If he nips you again, back in he goes. If he doesn’t nip, reward him with a treat and play with him in the way he enjoys. He soon gets the message that nipping doesn’t benefit him.

If your ferret refuses to calm down, you can safely scruff him by lifting him gently by the loose skin on the back of his neck. This isn’t painful nor does it psychologically threaten the ferret. Adult ferrets are okay with scruffing, if you hold them up with one hand and support their lower bodies with the other hand, just long enough for the ferret to calm down.

 Never give in to a nipping or biting ferret. If he nips you to make you put him down, don’t do it; don’t send him a signal that the nipping works and  that he can control you. Instead, keep petting and offering treats. You mayneed to try handling a nipper with thick gloves until he’s trained. Although he can nip your glove, it won’t have any effect on you, and he soon discovers nipping won’t have the desired effect. The trick is to make sure you always show him that your hands are helpful, a source of good things, and not hurtful.

 Rabbits, rats, and hamsters that nip, bite, or scratch probably are doing so out of fear. They may have been abused in the past by human hands. Go slowly with these critters and touch them in a soft, gentle, nonpredatory way, just a little at a time, until they learn to trust you. Be patient. Your little critter may vividly remember bad experiences from the past.

Remember

Many small animals bite out of fear at an approaching hand or after being startled, moved while sleeping, or cornered. Ferrets, rabbits, rats, and hamsters are quite likely to react that way, but any small animal can bite if it’s afraid. If you figure out what causes your small-animal’s fear, stop doing it. Approaching your pet from a different angle or in a different way may keep you from frightening him.

Hiding: If your small animal hides all the time, you can almost always (with time) gently coax her out of hiding with companionship, gentle words, a calm environment, a regular routine, and tempting treats.

Tip

Coaxing out critters like chinchillas sometimes can take many weeks, but with patience, you can prevail. Hiding is normal for small animals; however, if your usually friendly pet suddenly starts hiding, contact your vet to rule out any physical issues. If nothing is wrong physically, fear of some event, noise, interaction, or infraction may have traumatized your pet. If so, you may have to start back at the beginning to regain your pet’s trust, even if you never find out what caused the fear.

Aggressive behavior: In some cases, aggression is really just play, as with ferrets (see earlier section about biting). What you see as aggressive, your small animal may see as interaction or communication. True aggression is never normal but in most cases, it is a sign of fear, not a sign that something is inherently wrong with your pet. You can fix fearful aggression by eliminating the sources of fear. Although doing so takes a lot of time and patience, it’s necessary for your animal to thrive and be healthy. If your pet is afraid of you, slow down, back off, and continue interacting in a less threatening way. If the animal is afraid of children or pets, keep these enthusiastic family members away until the pet is better adjusted.

One of the most effective ways to manage aggressive and destructive behavior in ferrets and rabbits is to have them neutered. Many ferrets  are neutered at a young age, but people are less likely to neuter their rabbits, especially when they have only a single rabbit and no risk of pregnancy. Neutering does much more than prevent pregnancy; it makes rabbits calmer, more docile pets, because they no longer are driven to distraction by raging hormones. Other small animals can also be neutered, so talk to your vet about whether spaying or neutering is a possibility for your pet.

Litter-box–training problems: If your ferret or rabbit stops using the litter box or just can’t seem to get the concept of litter-box training in the first place, you can almost always train or retrain your pet using the methods I describe later in this chapter.

Managing what you can

Managing an undesirable behavior that your pet can’t realistically give up is just a matter of rechanneling it in an acceptable way. Many undesirable behaviors can be managed successfully with a little patience, such as the following:

Excess energy: Channel excess energy with plenty of play activities and training. Take your active ferret or bunny for a walk on a leash with a harness and train him to do some tricks.

Frequent elimination: You can manage behaviors such as frequent elimination by placing more litter boxes around the house in spots your pet thinks of as critter restrooms.

Chewing and digging: Small animals chew and dig. It’s simply part of what they are. Chewing and digging can be easily managed by providing plenty of opportunities for appropriate kinds of chewing and digging. Chew sticks, crunchy carrots, and cardboard to shred can tempt your gnawing bunny or rat away from the baseboards. Carpet squares for digging can satisfy energetic rabbits. If you can’t supervise your small animal, you need to put him safely in his cage so he can’t destroy things — and don’t forget to put his chewable objects inside with him.

Accepting what you can’t change

As a successful small-animal owner, you recognize your pet simply has some traits that you can’t change. Don’t forget that you’re dealing with a drastically different critter, so why would you want to change your little pet? After all some of your critter’s qualities, especially the ones in the list that follows, are what make small animals so interesting. Accepting your little pal for what he is, rather than expecting him to behave like a tiny version of a dog or cat, makes all the difference. Vive la difference!

– Your adult small animal is not a dog or a cat, may never be cuddly, and may never want to sit on your lap or be carried around like a baby. This trait actually is similar in humans. You once were cuddly as a baby, but as an adult, you probably don’t make a habit of snuggling up in your mommy’s lap. (And if you do, well, that’s really none of my business.)

– Your small animal has plenty of energy and is likely to be more energetic at night when you’d prefer to be sleeping. Nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) behavior is innate; you can’t change it, so you have to be prepared to deal with it. Move that hamster cage into another room if the sound of your pet incessantly running on her wheel drives you batty. Even if she’s awake during the day — the way ferrets and mice often are — your pet sleeps and plays on her own internal clock. You and your pet get along best when you respect her schedule, which she really can’t control anyway.

– Your small animal needs attention and interaction, either from you, a cage mate, or both. Small animals get bored! You can’t just adopt small animals and then ignore them. They become antisocial or can even die without attention. Small animal owners must accept responsibility for this interaction. Rabbits do get bored more easily than folks think — get them some toys like balls they can chew up or roll around. They also like toys that make noise. Bird toys sometimes work well, with chewy wood and jingly bells. Ferrets tend to get bored, too, and that can cause behavior problems. Let ferrets go crazy attacking their toys, chasing and wrestling stuffed animals and bouncy balls instead of your hand. Sometimes ferrets interact wonderfully with small dogs or cats, which can make great playmates for ferrets.

Remember

– Prey animals breed like, well . . . rabbits, to continually replenish their populations. Have your small animals neutered or don’t house males and females together. You can’t keep an unneutered opposite-sex pair from breeding when you put them in the same enclosure. You just can’t.

Knowing when it’s a physical problem

In some cases, behavior problems really are warning signs that your pet is in pain or ill. Talk to your vet if your small animal

– Tries to bite every time you touch a certain part of his body, snarls or nips when you try to move him, or acts uncharacteristically vicious. These reactions can be signs of pain.

– Pulls out his fur or chews on his skin. Doing so can be a sign of a skin irritation or other discomfort that is causing generalized anxiety.

– Stops eating or starts drinking much more than normal, which can point to any number of diseases, including diabetes, a thyroid problem, or cancer.

– Urinates much more than normal or suddenly has lapses in litter-box training when he was well trained before, which may signal a urinary tract, bladder, or kidney problem. More frequent urination can also be a temporary reaction to a spay/neuter surgery and will resolve on its own.

– Refuses to play, shivers, or whines and cries, which can mean pain or discomfort.

Understanding What Small Animals Can and Should Learn

Sure, you can train a dog. You can even train a cat. But a rabbit? A rat? A guinea pig? A tiny little mouse? Actually, most critters can be trained at least to some degree. Ferrets and rabbits can learn to use a litter box; rats and guinea pigs can learn to come when you call; and even the tiniest of the pocket pets can learn a few useful skills, like when dinner is coming and how to feel comfortable in the palm of your hand.

Some adopted small animals don’t need to know too much. They just need healthy living conditions and proper care. However, others can learn quite a bit. Ferrets, rabbits, and rats, in particular, are interactive creatures that  can be trained with good results. Training these pets can make them mucheasier to live with. With the right direction, even the smallest of the small animals can make a great pet. It just takes a little know-how. In the sections that follow, I tell you what you can and should teach your small animal . . . and what, conversely, may be expecting a little too much of your pet.

Tip

The easiest and best way to train a small animal is to work with their natural instincts. Understanding the way your small animal thinks explains plenty about how to communicate with him, and really, that’s all training is: intraspecies communication.

Litter-box training your ferret

Young ferrets are the easiest to train to use the litter box, but if you have adopted an older ferret that never was litter-box trained, with a little patience and persistence, you probably can train him to use the box. Adopted ferrets that absolutely will not use the litter box may have a medical problem and need to be checked by a vet.

Remember

For a healthy ferret, successful litter-box training is a snap, as long as you remember that ferrets:

– Like to eliminate in corners

– Won’t eliminate where they eat or sleep

– Won’t hold it or wait long to find a good spot to do their business

Understanding these three principles makes litter-box training relatively easy if you put a litter box, a food bowl, or a bed in opposite corners of areas to which your ferret has access and have several litter boxes at convenient locations so your ferret never has to go far to get to one.

Tip

Litter boxes with high sides are best for ferrets, to avoid overspraying, or tinkling in a spray that overreaches the sides of the litter box. Some boxes are made just for ferrets. They fit nicely in corners and have extrahigh sides. The front part needs to have a low side so the ferret can climb in easily.

Follow these tips, and you can have your ferret litter-box trained in about a week (younger ferrets may learn more quickly, older adopted ferrets may take longer):

– Put a litter box filled with recycled paper filler or wood pellet filler in a corner of your ferret’s cage, and place food bowls or bedding in the other corners. Ferrets don’t like to use their eating or sleeping quarters as a bathroom.

– Leave a little bit of waste in the litter boxes at first, so your ferret smells where the proper spot is.

– Praise your ferret with great exuberance for going in his litter box — even offer him a treat, even if he doesn’t do anything in there. When he eliminates in the litter box, praise him even more. Ferrets like your attention and try to repeat the things that make you focus on them, so be sure to give them your attention when they eliminate in the right spot; punishing a ferret for making a mistake may make him repeat the wrong behavior because to a ferret, attention may be desirable, even if it is negative. Ignore mistakes completely, except to clean them up.

– Move your ferret to the litter box immediately whenever you see him backing into a corner, a sure sign that he’s preparing to do his business.

Try schedule-training your ferret by putting him in his litter box every time he wakes up from a nap, comes out to play, or finishes eating or drinking.

– Try putting a couple of drops of vanilla extract in all your ferret’s litter boxes. Some ferrets are attracted to the smell of vanilla.

Litter-box training your rabbit

Rabbits don’t have to leave those little pills, or round pellets of poop, everywhere they go. They can easily be litter-box trained, even as adults. In fact, adult rabbits actually are easier to train to the litter box than young rabbits.
Unlike ferrets, dogs, and cats, rabbits sleep and use the bathroom in the same spot. And if your rabbit urinates or defecates in her food or water bowl, that just means she’s marking her territory — don’t expect her never to mark her territory elsewhere in her cage — once in awhile — especially if you have other pets

Tip

A large cat-sized litter box works great for a rabbit, but you need to fill it with recycled paper filler or grass pellets rather than cat-box filler, which can be dangerous to a rabbit if she accidentally eats some of it.

You can enjoy success with litter-box training your adult rabbit in just a few days and your younger rabbit in a few weeks (some rabbits learn more quickly or take much longer, depending on the rabbit), if you follow these tips:

– Rabbits like a clean environment, so you need to clean out the litter box at least twice a day to encourage them to go in the box.

– Put some timothy or oat hay in the box to attract your rabbit.

– Keep a litter box in the corner of your rabbit’s cage and in every room or area where your rabbit spends free time, is allowed to roam, or tends to use for a bathroom.

– Put newspapers in your rabbit’s cage while you’re training, instead of letting your rabbit walk on the wire bottom and excrete through the mesh. Besides, wire is bad for your rabbit’s feet, and the newspaper gives you a chance to clean up any messes immediately.

Try putting just a little piece of the soiled newspaper into the litter box to direct your rabbit to the right location. The rabbit will smell her own scent from the soiled newspaper in the litter box and be more likely to choose that spot as her future personal toilet.

– Put your rabbit in her litter box often to encourage her to recognize the pleasant experience the litter box provides.

– Keep the food bowls scrupulously clean and keep just a little scent of waste in the litter box. As long as you do, your rabbit soon catches on.

– Avoid punishing your rabbit for mistakes. Instead, shower him with gentle cheerful praise when he does what you want.

– Having your rabbit spayed or neutered makes litter-box training even easier.

Hand-taming pocket pets

Smaller animals — being prey animals — are shy and aren’t likely to leap into your hand the first time they meet you. When you weigh only a few ounces, you have to protect yourself. However, small animals can quickly learn that you indeed are trustworthy. You just need to be patient, calm, and gentle.
Some small animals are easier to hand-tame than others. Ferrets, rats, hamsters, gerbils, and mice may be happy to let you pick them up upon first meeting. These social critters want to play! Guinea pigs probably won’t take long to trust you, but they aren’t much for being carried around. They’d probably prefer exploring you on the floor to having you pick them up. Guinea pigs also can learn to purr happily in your lap while you pet them. Rabbits and chinchillas tend to be a little more skittish, and so are pets that have been neglected, not socialized with humans into adulthood, or even abused. The latter may be particularly shy about letting you hold them. To hand-tame a shy critter, use these steps to build trust and confidence:
1. Let your critter adjust to his new home.
Allow a day or two to pass before you attempt to handle him.
2. Interact with your critter in the evening to get him used to your presence.

Most critters are nocturnal, so visiting your critter at the same time every evening is best. Try sitting next to the cage and quietly talking to your critter every day for a few days before ever trying to touch him. Approach the cage slowly and quietly, but head-on so you don’t look like you’re a predator sneaking up on its prey.

3. Start to touch your new critter slowly.
Open the cage, put your hand in, and put a treat on your palm. Let your critter do all the work to start out, sniffing and exploring your hand. A shy critter may not even approach your hand for a few days, but keep trying once or twice a day when your critter is awake.
4. Let your critter crawl into your palm to get the treat several times without trying to lift him out right away.
As he gains confidence crawling into your palm, you then can begin moving your hand a little at a time. If he runs away at first, that’s fine. Just do it again the next day. Baby steps!
5. Allow your critter a few weeks to warm up to being held and petted.
Most critters are happy  to let you hold and pet them after a few weeks; however, remember that any sudden movement, a scare, a loud noise, or grabbing at your critter can truly terrify him, and like some critters, he may not soon forget the experience. You may have to start all over again, and it can take even longer the second time.

Tip

Children (and maybe even adults) need to wear long pants when holding a rabbit on their laps because a startled bunny can leap off and accidentally scratch the child with his claws.

Remember

Keep these ideas in mind while hand-taming your critter:

Don’t act like a predator. Tell your children about this necessity, too. Predators move suddenly, lashing out and grabbing their prey. Chinchillas can even drop pieces of their tails or chunks of fur as a defense mechanism to escape a predator, and these can take months to grow back. Move slowly, talk softly, be gentle and reassuring. That’s critter talk.

Spend more time next to the cage, talking and offering treats. If your critter is aggressive and tries to bite you, he may be responding to past traumatic events, or simple basic fear, and you may need to slow down. Don’t touch your critter. When he starts coming out often to see you and score those yummy treats, you can gradually try to touch him again. Be patient!

Understand that some adopted critters may never trust humans. If they’ve had traumatic experiences in the past, you may never get to hold your critter, but you can still spend plenty of time watching and talking to him, feeding him, and learning about him. If that’s enough for you, you can feel good about having rescued a critter, even if you can’t cuddle with him.

Teaching small animals to come

Some small animals quickly learn to come on cue, because for critters, life is all about finding good things to eat. If a sound from you always means a treat, your critter learns to come a’runnin’. For any critter this kind of training is simple. Decide on the sound you want to mean “Come.” Sounds that are clearly different than other sounds are best. For instance, a whistle, a click, or shaking the treat box are better sounds than just a word, which may sound to your critter like every other word you say. Critters also respond well to clicker training (see Chapter Doggy Boot Camp: Basic Training and Behavior Management), so try this method to precisely reinforce behaviors you want your critter to repeat, like coming when called.
All you have to do is make the sound — whistle, treat-box shake, click from the clicker — and immediately give your critter a treat, and do so often, many times a day. The treat can be a piece of your critter’s regular food, maybe his favorite kind of seed or piece of fruit, or whatever is healthy for your critter but motivating enough to get his attention. It won’t take long for your critter to associate that sound with a reward, and when you make the sound, your critter probably comes to you quickly. This training is handy for when you want to round up free-roaming critters to go back in their cages or to coax hiding critters out of their nests or dens to play. Repeat, repeat, repeat: sound and treat. Simple!

Interpreting Your Small Animal’s Sounds and Movements

Small animals are fascinating to watch, and each individual species has its own unique sounds, movements, and behaviors. Although humans don’t always know everything a critter is thinking or conveying by its actions and sounds, behavioral scientists have figured out some basic truths about critter communication. Here’s what to look for — and what it probably means — when your critter sends you those curious critter communiqués.

Understanding ferret sounds and behavior

Ferrets make many interesting sounds. The ones that sound like laughing, hissing, or squeaking generally are signs of happy play behavior. Crying and whining usually are signs that your ferret is uncomfortable or needs something. Ferrets are acrobatic and active, particularly when they’re young, and they love to explore, hunching about like little weasels and snaking into small spaces just to see what may be in there.

Remember

Ferrets need several hours every day to play outside of their cages so they can exercise and vent their high energy.

Ferrets tend to play actively for short periods and then take long naps. However, if your ferret shows no energy at all, is shy, hiding, crying, or refuses to play, he may be sick. Talk to your vet.

Hearing what your rabbit is saying

Rabbits may be the ultimate prey animal; even domesticated rabbits often behave as if they’re constantly afraid of being gobbled up. Rabbits have long ears to hear any sign of impending danger, ever-twitching noses to catch a wiff of any scents of predators, and an ever-alert behavior. Rabbits often look nervous . . . and they are! They don’t like to be held off the ground, and most rabbits don’t enjoy being carried around, perhaps because they feel they can’t make a quick escape. Rabbits hate to be chased, and fast-moving people and other pets make them extremely nervous — never let anybody chase your bunny. Children need to be taught to slow down and approach rabbits calmly, quietly, and as unlike a predator as possible. Some rabbits do like to sit in laps for petting, but preferably while you sit on the floor.

Remember

If your rabbit leaps into the air or screams, you know he’s truly terrified. Remedy the unsettling situation immediately!

Rabbits generally are quiet, but sometimes they make:

– Purring and clicking sounds that usually signal contentment

– Teeth chattering and growling that can mean fear, anger, or pain

– Screams that signal terror

If you can’t find any reason for your rabbit’s unhappy noises, talk to your vet.
A rabbit that is relaxed and happy in his home environment relaxes fully onto the floor with legs lazily outstretched, ears relaxed, and belly exposed. Now that’s trust. If your rabbit rubs his chin on you, feel justifiably flattered. Your rabbit is rubbing his scent glands on his territory, marking you as inexorably his. Congratulations! Your bunny loves you.

Remember

Rabbits need plenty of time outside of their cages to hop around the house, interact with you, or just explore their surroundings. Never let a day pass without free-bunny time.

Figuring out your rat’s behavior

Rats are truly sociable little creatures that can develop fairly complex relationships with humans. You can teach rats tricks, basic commands, and they’re happy to hang around with you, riding on your shoulder, sitting on your lap, or even playing a game of fetch. Really! Rats are smart little critters, and the more you interact with them, the more you give them an opportunity to exercise their formidable intelligence.

Remember

Just because your rat has a buddy doesn’t mean he doesn’t need time with you. Rats do best with at least a few hours of cage-free interactive time every day.

When rats grind their teeth, they’re usually contented, but teeth chattering with hackles raised usually means they’re upset. Rats are more outgoing and naturally less cautious than mice and other small animals, because they’re larger and better at defending themselves against predators. Rats nevertheless can be startled or frightened by a careless child or a too-curious dog or cat, so protect your rattie from harm and fear. Rats are social creatures that prefer the company of other rats (same-sex-only please). Wrestling is a normal interactive behavior for two rats, but if two male rats actually start fighting — and wounding each other — try housing three together to break up the tension.

Listening to your guinea pig

Guinea pigs generally are not fond of being carried around, and picking them up incorrectly can damage their spines. However, guinea pigs need and crave interaction with their fellow pigs and with you. Just keep them on the floor, lifting them out of their cages carefully with one hand over their backs and one hand under their bellies and keeping them level.
Guinea pigs make a wide range of interesting noises. Chuts and chutters, wheeks and whistles, squeals and purrs and drrs and chirrups . . . you may feel like you need a translation guide! In general, however, soft grunting, purring, or muttering sounds mean your guinea pig is happily going about his business, but loud teeth chattering, squealing, or screaming are signs your guinea pig isn’t having a good time. Guinea pigs are pretty mellow and sociable, so if a guinea pig screams, bites, or scratches, you can be assured he’s extremely frightened. Back off and let him calm down.

Guinea pigs are so food motivated that they can be pretty vocal, wheeking for all they’re worth, when they see you heading toward the refrigerator or the box of yogurt drops. This kind of noise is all about anticipation. Hand-feeding your guinea — healthy treats only, please — is the quickest way to the heart of your little pig.

Remember

Don’t keep your pigs in the pen all the time. Guinea pigs need to spend some time outside of their cages each day to wander around and check out the wide world beyond their cage walls.

Checking out hamster, gerbil, and mouse behaviors

Hamsters, gerbils, and mice are tiny pets that can be shy but generally are easy to hand-tame and enjoy socializing with humans and each other (with the notable exceptions of Golden hamsters and male mice, which need to be housed alone or they fight). These little critters all like to have plenty of bedding for digging and burrowing, and they enjoy shredding paper towels and cardboard. They are good escape artists but enjoy romping around the room inside a hamster ball or running on a wheel inside their cages to expend energy and get exercise. Hamsters tend to hide their food away, storing it up for the winter — just in case. Hamsters and gerbils tend to be more active at night, while mice are active about any time. All these animals may occasionally make tiny little noises, but the only time they will really squeak is if they are in pain or frightened. When your tiny guy speaks up, you’d best pay attention!
How smart is your critter?
Assuming a rat is smarter than a mouse or a ferret is smarter than a hamster is easy, but how intelligence in small animals is determined can be tricky. If a small animal is good at reproducing and avoiding predators, well, that’s pretty smart in small-animal terms. If a small animal is good at interacting with humans on a more
sophisticated level, like rats and ferrets, that seems to us to be pretty smart, in human terms. It’s all a matter of perspective, but most animal behaviorists agree that the more you interact with and stimulate your small animal — physically and mentally — the more you give that animal’s natural intelligence a chance to develop fully.

by Eve Adamson

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