Before bringing your small animal home, you need to prepare. If you plan to give your small animal free time outside the cage — most small animals benefit from this treatment, and some require it for good physical and mental health — you have to pet-proof the areas in which your pet will play. You need to consider what kind of enclosure best suits your pet but still fits in with your lifestyle. You also need food, treats, toys, and grooming supplies all ready to go before you introduce your new pet to your home.
Preparing Your Home for Critter Conditions
Making your home critterproof
– Patching, filling, or blocking all holes into the walls and floors or that lead outside. Small animals are just that — small. They can squeeze through anything that can accommodate the size of their skull.
– Taping, covering, or otherwise hiding all exposed electrical cords.
– Relocating (if possible) furniture with moving parts that your small animal can get inside or under — recliners, sleeper sofas, and rocking chairs for example.
– Moving chewable objects off the floor as much as possible.
– Choosing a room that is easy to clean for your critter’s free-roaming activities.
– Keeping your critter well out of reach and preferably in a room and a location where your other pets won’t ever see or at least cannot get to him. Most cats and dogs see small animals more as dinner than as a buddy, unless you have a ferret or rabbit that’s about the same size as the cat or dog.
– Keeping your critter’s cage out of direct sunlight and chilly drafts when necessary. Many critters can become overheated and get heatstroke quickly, so be sure your critter stays cool, preferably (for most critters) at a temperature of between 65 and 75°F (18 to 24°C).
Considering the free-roaming route
– Easily get lost or stuck in small spaces, especially critters like ferrets, rats, and mice.
– Demolish a carpet, a molding, or a sizeable chunk of drywall in a short period of time, if they’re left unsupervised and not redirected. Rats and rabbits, in particular, can be incredibly destructive chewers.
– Leave waste spread far and wide. Believe me, cleaning it up is no picnic. Note: Ferrets and rabbits sometimes can be litter-box trained.
– Sustain injuries. Critters at large risk being stepped on, sat on, or hurt in myriad other ways.
In almost every case, critters are safest in a roomy, clean enclosure with plenty of space to move around, coupled with daily free time outside of the cage, carefully supervised by you, the vigilant pet owner.
Never allow a pet in a rolling hamster ball access to stairs, open doors, or to a dog or cat. The dog or cat may be able to open the ball and get to your little critter. Similarly, don’t forget and leave your tiny animal inside the ball for extended periods of time. He needs to eat and drink frequently, and if you forget about him for too long, he can become ill, or worse, stuck in that hamster ball without any nourishment. Limit your small animal’s stay in one of these balls to no more than an hour.
Stocking Crucial Critter Supplies
Settling into a new enclosure
In most cases, your critter benefits from the largest enclosure you can afford, even if it’s larger than the minimum sizes I recommend in the following list.
– Ferret enclosures: Ferrets need clean, spacious, and safe wire cages that are at least 24 x 24 x 18 inches in size and full of interesting things to do. The larger the enclosure, the better. Glass tanks are out for ferrets, because they don’t have sufficient ventilation. Ferrets need their cages stocked with furniture, including:
- Hammocks for sleeping
- Rags or hats for nesting
- Toys to play with
- Tubes for tunneling (PVC tubes work fine — choose those sized to fit your ferret, usually 3 or 4 inches in diameter)
- Paper litter for burrowing
- A litter box
Ferrets like to relieve themselves in corners, so put the litter box in the corner of the cage, filled with recycled paper litter or wood pellets. Clay litter is bad for your ferret’s respiratory system, so avoid clay cat box fillers. Place several litter boxes in corners of rooms in which your ferret is allowed to roam, so he can relieve himself neatly wherever he is. Ferrets don’t like to hold it until they get back into their cages, so be ready. For more about litter training your ferret, see Chapter Critter Behavior and Training.
– Rabbit hutches and cages: Rabbits need plenty of space, so a wire cage of at least 24 x 24 x 48 inches is best. If possible, choose a cage with a solid floor; otherwise, cover the wire floor of your rabbit’s cage with a solid mat. Rabbits can develop foot infections from spending too much time on wire. Place a litter box in the corner of your rabbit’s cage and in the rooms where your rabbit is allowed to roam. Fill the litter boxes with recycled paper or pelleted grass litter to attract your rabbit. Clay cat box fillers aren’t good for your rabbit. For more on litter training your rabbit, see Chapter Critter Behavior and Training.
– Rat pads: Rats need plenty of space, because they’re active, athletic, and want to climb and move around. One rat needs a minimum enclosure of 24 x 24 x 24 inches, with plenty of time outside of the cage to explore and get exercise. Rats like things to climb on, swing from, and crawl through. For each additional rat, you need to add at least one square foot of space, but the bigger the enclosure for rats, the better.
– Guinea pig digs: Guinea pigs need space to move around, but they don’t do a lot of climbing. If they have ramps, they’ll move around on more than one level, but they’re also fine in a spacious one-level enclosure with plenty of things to do and places to burrow. Guinea pigs need a solid floor at dimensions of at least 24 x 24 x 24 inches per pig, but the bigger the guinea pig enclosure, the better.
– Securing your hamsters, gerbils, and mice: Hamsters, gerbils, and mice need well-ventilated cages that are safe from other pets and won’t allow them to squeeze out and escape. These little critters can squeeze through some pretty small spaces, so keep that in mind when choosing an enclosure. Mesh or wire cages work if the wires are close enough together. A glass tank also works for a few of these little guys — particularly gerbils and mice — but put too many in one, and you’ll have ventilation problems. A 10-gallon tank is the absolute smallest tank you can use for two gerbils or two mice. Bigger is better. Cover tanks with secure, closely fitting wire tops that you can buy at the pet store.
Hamsters need a minimum of about 18 x 18 inches of space; dwarf hamsters need about one square foot each. More space is better. Golden hamsters should never be housed together. Solitary creatures, they fight when put together. On the other hand, dwarf hamsters, gerbils, and mice prefer company . . . same-sex only please!
– Exotic critter enclosures: Enclosures for exotic critters need to be tailored to their specific needs. Because hedgehogs are such efficient climbers, for example, they’re likely to escape from a wire cage. Provide them with a minimum 20-gallon glass tank with a securely fitting wire mesh top, plenty of fresh bedding, and a big bowl of water for drinking and swimming. Chinchillas, on the other hand, need plenty of vertical climbing space, so wire mesh cages with solid floors, branches for climbing, and boxes off the ground for nesting are best. For one chinchilla, provide an absolute minimum of 2 x 2 x 3 feet, with the largest dimension being height.
If you choose a wire cage, make sure the bars are close enough together that your pet can’t squeeze out. If you choose a glass aquarium, buy a matching wire top that fits securely and tightly.
Getting the supplies your pet needs
– Bedding: Get the kind made from recycled paper, aspen wood shavings (not pine or cedar) or pellets, or grass pellets (see previous section about enclosures). Avoid wood shavings made from pine or cedar, because they contain phenols, natural compounds found in woods that smell good but can damage a small animal’s respiratory system. Recycled paper litter is an excellent substrate for all small animals. Carefresh is one that vets frequently recommend.
– High-quality food: Get the kind made for the kind of animal you have. Different animals have different nutritional needs, so don’t feed one pocket pet the food designed for another. Some foods state that they are appropriate for more than one kind of pet. Supplementing your critter’s diet with healthy produce is a good idea. For more about feeding your small animal, see Chapter Taking Charge of Your Critter’s Care.
– A heavy ceramic food bowl: This kind of bowl is less likely to tip, and your critter can even stand on the rim and enjoy his food. Purchase one that is small enough for your critter to eat from without climbing completely into it.
– A water bottle: Get the kind of water bottle that attaches to the side of your critter’s enclosure with the little metal ball in the tip so the water doesn’t leak out when your pet isn’t drinking. Some critters like to chew plastic bottles, so look for the kind that installs on the outside of the wire cage with the nozzle poking through. For aquariums, look for glass water bottles, but handle them with care to prevent breakage. A water bottle keeps your critter from messing up his water with litter or using it for a toilet. However, you still need to give your critter fresh water every day, and clean out the water bottle every few days.
– Food supplements: Supplement your critter’s diet as recommended for your particular animal. For instance, guinea pigs need extra vitamin C. For more about supplements, see Chapter Taking Charge of Your Critter’s Care.
– Exercise equipment: Your critter’s gym can include ladders and ramps for cage climbing, ropes and hanging toys for swinging, and of course, the ubiquitous small animal wheel for running — appropriate for hamsters, gerbils, mice, and some rats. Some of the newer wheels don’t make as much noise as the old-fashioned metal kind.
– Shelters and tunnels: Your pet’s cage needs plenty of places in which to hide and burrow. You can buy shelters and tunnels, or make them yourself out of cardboard boxes and tubes, rags, and PVC pipes. Most small animals also need nesting material — clean paper towels or toilet paper for shredding, pieces of soft cloth, or nesting boxes.
Ferrets and rabbits need litter boxes (if you plan to box-train them) with high sides and a low front so they can easily climb in and out and do their business without spraying outside of the box. Triangular-shaped litter boxes are available for ferrets, because they prefer going in the corner, but square litter boxes work just fine. You may also want to pick up a leash and harness to be able to walk your ferrets or rabbits, and a bell is a necessity for your ferret’s or rat’s harness. The sound helps you keep track of your pet when he’s roaming.
Helping Your New Critter Settle In
Understand the limits of handling
Give him space
Some critters act scared when you first bring them home, and others don’t. If your critter seems frightened by too many people, small children, or other pets, put him in an area where he won’t be exposed to so many stimuli right away. Give him time and introduce these loud noisy creatures one at a time over the course of a week. Give your critter time outside his cage to explore, too, but do so in a quiet critter-proofed room and supervise vigilantly so your critter doesn’t get lost or injured.
Supervise your children
An adult always is ultimately responsible for a small animal’s care, even if the animal ostensibly belongs to the child.
Know when to get help and when to back off
– Not eating or drinking
– Panting constantly or acting severely stressed
– Refusing to let you touch him
– Behaving aggressively or constantly trying to bite you