- 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.
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.
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
– 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.
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.
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
– 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
– 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.
– 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
– 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
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.
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
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
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.
– 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
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.
– 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
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.
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.
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
Interpreting Your Small Animal’s Sounds and Movements
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.
Ferrets need several hours every day to play outside of their cages so they can exercise and vent their high energy.
Hearing what your rabbit is saying
If your rabbit leaps into the air or screams, you know he’s truly terrified. Remedy the unsettling situation immediately!
– Purring and clicking sounds that usually signal contentment
– Teeth chattering and growling that can mean fear, anger, or pain
– Screams that signal terror
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
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.
Listening to your guinea pig
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.
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
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.