Taking Charge of Your Critter’s Care

Love Dog
In This Chapter
  • Understanding your critter’s health-care needs
  • Feeding your critter
  • Discovering how to groom your critter

Awell-housed critter in a clean environment receiving healthy food has a good chance of staying healthy and living out its expected life span, whether that’s 2 years or 20. Every critter is a little bit different, and different pets have different requirements for sound health, social interaction, and nutrition. In this chapter, you find out how to keep your critter healthy by discovering how to choose a good critter vet, what health issues you need to look out for, and how to recognize signs your critter needs a vet’s help. Plus, you can find out what kind of diet, nutritional supplements, and grooming your critter needs to be at his bright-eyed, bushy-tailed best.

Keeping Your Critter Healthy

Even if the critter you adopt looks healthy, you’ll want to take him to the vet before agreeing to adopt him or at least make sure your adoption agreement has a provision that says the shelter will take the critter back if a vet finds that your new pet has a health problem. You may opt to treat the problem instead, but knowing you have the option is best. Because critters are prey animals, they tend to hide illness until it is advanced, and a vet may be able to spot signs you didn’t notice.
An initial vet visit is particularly important for ferrets and rabbits, but it’s also a good idea for smaller critters like guinea pigs and hamsters, because your vet can get to know your critter and form a good idea of what your critter looks and acts like when healthy. After the first vet visit, even healthy critters need to visit the vet once every year for a checkup.
Sometimes, even under the best conditions, critters get sick and need additional veterinary care. Adopted critters, in particular, need at least one or two initial vet visits to resolve problems related to past neglect. All small animals deserve and occasionally require veterinary care, so please consider the vet bill part of your commitment to caring for your critter, even if it costs a lot more than the critter itself.

Finding a good critter vet

Veterinarians have many different specialties, personal favorite pets, and skill levels. Some are great with cats or dogs, some prefer birds and reptiles, and some specialize in critters. Many general vets have considerable experience with small animals, but others have had little. Experience can make a big difference when your critter has a critical health issue.
Most towns and cities have many vets to choose from, so check around and don’t assume the first vet you visit is necessarily the best one for you and your critter. Many highly qualified veterinarians have plenty of experience with small animals, and it pays to seek them out.


You can find good vets simply by asking other critter hobbyists about who they like and dislike among vets and about what kind of experiences they’ve had. You can also check out the House Rabbit Society’s Web page (www.rabbit.org) to find veterinarians who treat rabbits (listed by state). Many vets who treat rabbits are likely to treat other small animals, but ask first, just to be sure.

After you’ve found a potential vet, call the clinic and ask:

– How many small animal patients the vet or vet clinic sees each year, particularly your type of small animal.

– How much the vet is willing to talk about small-animal care, training, and maintenance.

– What kind of equipment the vet or vet clinic has for treating small animals.

– What emergency services the vet has if you need to schedule an afterhours issue.

– What kind of diseases and other health problems the vet has treated in small animals.

– What prices the vet charges for office visits and what tests or other services that vet typically performs on small animals.

Be sure to mention what kind of small animal you have, because tests for a ferret may not apply to a hamster. Veterinary costs can vary widely, but higher costs aren’t always associated with better care.
If the vet’s location and prices seem reasonable to you, schedule an appointment and observe how the vet checks out your little critter. You want to be sure that the vet:

Seems familiar with the animal. The vet should be able to answer your questions about typical problems common to your small animal and give you a sense that he or she keeps up on the current literature about smallanimal care. If you aren’t sure, ask the vet how many small-animal patients he or she currently has. If the vet has at least a few critter clients, that is better than none. Having many critter clients is, of course, an even better sign.

Handles your critter confidently yet gently, with the kind of care that makes you comfortable. If the vet seems uncomfortable handling a ferret or a hedgehog, for example, then you may want to look for a different vet.

Acts like critters are just as important as you think they are. Does the vet dismiss your pet’s problem, or does he or she seem just as committed to helping your critter as any other kind of pet?

These are essential considerations — if you don’t like the way the vet handles your critter, keep looking.

Understanding potential health problems

Small animals tend to have specific health issues the same as other pets. Adopted small animals may be even more likely to suffer from some of these issues, particularly the ones related to trauma, malnutrition, and unhealthy environment, because an inability or unwillingness to care for the animal properly may have been what led its owners to give it up. Any small animal may have several of these common health issues, which you need to discuss with your vet on your pet’s first visit. If you notice any of the following at any time during your small animal’s life, please give your vet a call:

– Injuries related to broken bones or other structural injuries related to fights or accidents such as mishandling, dropping, or being stepped on. Signs include any limb or tail or any other part of the animal that looks misshapen.

– Wounds from fighting or infection caused by unsanitary living conditions.

– Lumps, bumps, and other skin cysts and tumors.

– Overgrown teeth.

– Heatstroke, which is common when the animal is left in direct sunlight or too near a heater. Most small animals are extremely sensitive to heat and must be kept at moderate temperatures, never higher than 80°F (27°C), and always need to have fresh water and shade. Signs include panting, refusing to eat, or refusing to move. Never keep a small animal in direct sunlight.

Beyond these conditions, each small animal is a different species and likely has its own unique problems. When you first visit the veterinarian, ask specifically about species-specific conditions (bring this book with you if necessary) so the vet can check for them. Some conditions may not show up until your animal is older, but that first visit helps your vet track your animal’s progress and note any initial symptoms that may signal a problem later on. Here are some of the most common health problems to ask your vet about, organized according to your type of critter:

– Ferrets can be born deaf in one or both ears, which can make them a little more difficult — but certainly not impossible — to train. Some ferrets also suffer from a gastrointestinal condition called epizootic catarrhal enteritis (or green slime disease), adrenal disease, insulin gland tumors, a potentially fatal and contagious virus called Aleutian disease that’s similar to parvovirus in dogs, lymphoma, and influenza, which your ferret actually can catch from you (and you from him).

– Rabbits have sensitive respiratory systems and can suffer toxic reactions to cedar and pine shavings and liver damage if the rabbit ingests these wood shavings. A common bacterial infection is pasteurella, which infects a rabbit’s lungs. Rabbits may suffer from hairballs; however, because they can’t vomit them up the way cats do, hairballs can be fatal for bunnies. So rabbits need regular brushing when they’re shedding and plenty of fresh hay to help them pass hairballs, and some may need regular hairball medication. Ask your vet about it.

Rabbits also can have misaligned teeth and gastrointestinal infections. Some rabbits are extremely sensitive to penicillin and similar antibiotics like amoxicillin. If your rabbit needs antibiotics, make sure your vet has experience with rabbits and prescribes an antibiotic that is bunny-safe. Normal rabbit urine often is orange or even almost red, and sometimes cloudy, but if you see a thick white sediment in your rabbit’s urine, be sure that you’re not feeding alfalfa hay, which isn’t good for bunnies and be sure you’re not feeding too many pellets, because excess calcium can cause sand or even stones in the urine.

– Guinea pigs can suffer from respiratory problems like lung infections that turn into pneumonia. The Bordatella bacterium that also infects humans, dogs, cats, and rabbits also infects cavies, but this infection — mild in some animals — can be very serious for guinea pigs. For that reason, never house them with rabbits. Some guinea pigs suffer from cervical lymphadenitis (bacterial-infected lumps), misaligned teeth that can cause starvation when your guinea pig can’t chew his food, gastrointestinal problems, skin fungus, foot infections, heatstroke, and eye infections.

– Rats are extremely sensitive to respiratory problems, and the most common ones are highly contagious: coronavirus and the Mycoplasma pulmonis bacteria. These viruses can develop into fatal infections and are easily aggravated by unsanitary conditions and other irritants like pine and cedar litter. Rats also may suffer from skin tumors and infections, mites or fungal infections causing hair loss, eye infections and tear stains, misaligned teeth, ear infections, pituitary gland tumors, swollen salivary glands, and chronic kidney disease.

– Hamsters, gerbils, and mice can develop many of the same problems: skin infections and cysts, tumors, diabetes, hair loss, respiratory problems, ear infections, teeth problems, dehydration, and heatstroke. Gerbils can lose their delicate tails, a protective mechanism to help them escape predators. These tiny mammals often won’t show they’re sick until it’s too late, so don’t delay in taking them to the vet.

– Hedgehogs are not sociable, and unlike many other small animals, need to be housed alone. Pine and cedar wood shavings can irritate their respiratory systems and feet. Temperatures below 75°F (24°C) can send a hedgehog into hibernation, but domesticated hedgehogs are not really meant to hibernate and can actually die if they try it. On the other hand, temperatures higher than 85°F (30°C) can cause your hedgehog to suffer a form of heatstroke, so keep your hedgehog in a tank with a constant temperature. Hedgehogs also are prone to obesity and liver disease, mites, several forms of cancer, and a neurological condition called Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome that can lead to wobbling and paralysis.

– Chinchillas are prone to diarrhea or constipation, and they need a constant source of hay so they can digest the hair they’re constantly licking when they groom themselves. Chinchillas also are prone to seizures, liver disease, skin problems, and hair loss — when frightened, chinchillas can drop big patches of hair. Temperatures of 75°F (24°C) and above (even lower when the humidity is high) can be fatal to chinchilla, so they absolutely must be kept in a cool dry environment. Chinchillas also need to take regular dust baths, so provide them with chinchilla dust (a dry bath product you can buy in the pet store). They roll and shake in it and have a jolly old time — a necessary aspect of chinchilla self-grooming. For more about the chinchilla dust bath, see the section on grooming, later in this chapter.

Keeping your critters from breeding!

One of the most important preventive health practices you can do for your critter is to make sure you don’t allow your small animal to produce any more unwanted critters. For ferrets and rabbits, spaying or neutering has the added benefit of improving behavior and helping the animals calm down and not be so driven by their, um . . . urges. Spaying or neutering can help these pets be less destructive and aggressive when they hit adolescence.

As for small animals, it doesn’t take much to wind up with an accidental litter of gerbils, mice, or hamsters, but most critters can be spayed or neutered to prevent breeding — even mice can be spayed or castrated, although most vets won’t spay a female because of the risks to such a small animal. If you’ve discovered you have both sexes and want to house them together, finding a vet willing to castrate a male small animal shouldn’t be too hard, because it’s a simpler and less invasive surgery than spaying the female. The procedure requires gas anesthesia and is quick.
If you can’t or don’t want to spay or neuter your critter, never keep same-sex critters together and be certain about the sex of your critters before putting them in the same enclosure. Too many people thought they knew they had two females, only to be surprised with a litter of tiny hamsters or mice and no resources to take care of so many pets. Remember that critter overpopulation is one of the reasons so many critters are homeless, waiting in shelters, or abandoned to the wild. Do your part by refusing to make the problem worse. Talk to your vet about what is appropriate for your critter.
Chinchillas are particularly sensitive to anesthesia, and a spay/neuter can be too risky for your adopted pet. Instead, don’t house too opposite-sex chinchillas together. If you aren’t sure whether an adopted female may be pregnant, and you have a choice, consider adopting a male.

Knowing when to see a vet

Critters are sensitive to things that may not make as much of a health impact on larger animals, and many critters — being prey animals that can’t afford to appear weak — hide signs of illness until they are extremely sick. If you notice any of the following signs of illness in your critter, see a vet right away:

– Wheezing, panting, difficulty breathing, a runny nose, watery eyes, lack of energy, loss of weight, looking shriveled or dehydrated, or nonresponsiveness. These symptoms can all signal a respiratory infection, a common but potentially fatal problem in many small animals.

– Swelling in any body part or a large lump that can signal a lymph node infected by bacteria or a tumor. Even if the lump bursts and seems to heal, see a vet. If the lump is caused by a bacterial infection, it is contagious to other small animals. If the lump is a tumor, your vet can advise you about the best course of action for your pet. Some people mistake the heavily-filled cheek pouches of hamsters as tumors, but hamsters just like to fill up their cheeks — it’s perfectly normal.

– Noticeable weight loss or weight gain, which can signal many things, from misaligned teeth to chronic disease.

– Diarrhea, constipation, or any change in your pet’s feces. Bunnies sometimes make softer droppings at night.

– Sores or ulcers on feet, often caused by wire-bottomed cages.

– Hair loss or skin changes.

– Listless behavior, nonresponsiveness, or any obvious change in behavior with no apparent cause.

– Changes in eating or drinking patterns, such as suddenly eating less or drinking more. A poor appetite and drooling can signal tooth overgrowth and an inability to eat correctly. Excessive drinking can signal diabetes.

– Wobbling, dragging rear legs, disorientation, falling over.

– Signs of heatstroke, a common problem in many small animals: shallow rapid breathing, panting, drooling, stretched out on the ground refusing to move, weakness, shriveled body from dehydration, pale gums, nonresponsiveness/coma.

Feeding Your Critter

Every critter has different dietary needs. Some eat meat (like ferrets), some prefer seeds, nuts, and grains (like hamsters), some prefer leafy greens and fruit (like rabbits), and some critters like a little bit of everything. Without the right nutrients, your critter can quickly develop nutritional deficiencies, diseases, and improper growth. One rule of thumb: Always feed your critter a commercial food made specifically for that kind of critter. Most critters also benefit from fresh foods added to their commercial diet, but beware that the wrong foods can be dangerous for your critter, so be sure you know which foods are healthy for your critter and which are not.
Many critters, particularly bunnies, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats, are prone to overgrown teeth, but providing wood for gnawing can help keep this problem in check. You can buy wooden chew sticks in pet stores, or use fruit tree branches you collect on your own, a great choice for small animals. Preventing tooth overgrowth is much easier than fixing it, so keep it in check.
All critters need to have a constant supply of fresh water in a clean container. Other than that, here is what you need to know about your critter’s nutritional needs:

– Ferrets need to eat a premium food made for them, or if you can’t find it, a few premium brands of kitten food (such as Iams) can be used as substitute. Ferret diets are much easier to find than they used to be, so choose one if possible. Ferrets are carnivorous. They need lots of protein and no vegetables. They can’t digest fiber very well so they shouldn’t eat starchy foods like bread or grains. They can eat very small amounts of fruit if it’s mashed well or pureed. A nice treat for ferrets is the occasional tiny bit of cooked meat. Fatty acid supplements contribute to a soft shiny coat, and laxative supplements made for ferrets during shedding season help hairballs pass easily.

– Rabbits need lots of fiber and vegetables. Limit bunny pellet food to about 1⁄4 cup per day after your rabbit is full-grown, because too much can cause urinary sand and stones. Even more important is a constant supply of fresh timothy hay (not alfalfa) and a little bit of fresh pineapple or papaya, which (along with the hay) helps rabbits process and pass hairballs. Give your rabbit fresh vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens like Romaine lettuce, collard greens, and beet greens, carrots and their tops, radish leaves, clover, dandelion greens, parsley, watercress, and crisp green peppers. Avoid iceberg lettuce and fruit, with the exception of small amounts of high-fiber berries like raspberries and blueberries. Rabbits fed a proper diet don’t need supplements, but they do eat their own droppings, which actually is healthy for them because the droppings are high in nutrients. Consider those rabbit droppings to be multi-vitamins for your bunny!

– Guinea pigs are vegetarians and can’t digest meat or fat. Feed them fresh guinea pig pellets, plenty of timothy hay, and vegetables and fruits high in vitamin C, an important vitamin guinea pigs (like humans) can’t manufacture on their own. Without it, they can develop scurvy. Every day, give your piggy vitamin-C-rich produce, even if his guinea pig food has added vitamin C. Choose foods such as citrus peel, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsley, collard greens, kale, and red bell peppers. Pigs also like lettuce mixes (not iceberg lettuce), carrots, and other fresh veggies. Some pigs nibble on vitamin C chewable tablets as a treat.

– Rats thrive on a high-carb diet. They need plenty of healthy grains. Feed them a premium rat kibble or lab blocks supplemented with leafy greens, corn, oats, and the occasional cooked bone with meat on it for chewing and protein. Even though rats eat just about anything, avoid giving your rat high-fat junk food and sweets. Rats also need chew sticks to keep their ever-growing teeth worn down.

– Hamsters need a premium hamster mix with grains and corn and a little seed. Hamsters love sunflower seeds, but reserve these as a special treat. Supplement your hamster’s diet with plenty of dark leafy greens and fruit like chunks of apples, carrots, berries, and orange wedges.

– Gerbils are omnivorous and need a gerbil mix but also a little animal protein. Gerbils need to have some fresh vegetables and the occasional feeder cricket or dog bone for animal protein. Reserve fattening sunflower seeds for a special treat.

– Feed mice a premium mouse kibble such as mouse lab blocks, some grains like corn, rice, and oatmeal, and small amounts of leafy greens and fresh fruit.

– Hedgehogs do well on a premium hedgehog diet (L’Avian makes a good one), or if you can’t find commercial hedgehog food, try a premium ferret or kitten food with some meal worms, crickets, or earthworms mixed in. Yum! Add a small amount of leafy greens and fruits, but no high-fat foods. Hedgehogs quickly become obese, which is a serious health threat to them.

– Chinchillas require a constant supply of grassy hay like timothy (not alfalfa) and a premium chinchilla commercial diet plus small amounts of fresh leafy greens. Like rabbits, chinchillas eat their own droppings, which are an important source of vitamins for them.

Critter Grooming

Little critters generally groom themselves — or each other — but a few critters need some special help from you, particularly long-haired guinea pigs, ferrets, rabbits, and chinchillas. Unless they get into something yucky, most critters don’t need to be bathed. Regular brushing with a soft brush and combing with a fine-toothed comb can remove dead hair and prevent tangles and mats in long coats. Trim your critter’s nails if they get too long, give them chewy wood to keep their teeth short, and that’s about it.


If your critter gets fleas or mites, you need to get rid of these pests before they do serious damage to your critter’s skin or transmit diseases. However, never use a pest control product on your critter that is designed or intended for a dog! Some products for cats are safe for ferrets and rabbits, but always consult your vet before putting any pest control product on your critter. Your vet can advise you about toxicity issues and the safest way to eliminate pests from your beloved little pal.

A few critters need some extra help in the grooming department. Here’s what to know about critter-specific grooming:

– Ferrets don’t need to be bathed very often — only every few months — unless they get extremely dirty. In fact, too-frequent bathing dries out ferret skin and makes the ferret produce even more musky oil, making it smell worse. Bathe your ferret the same way you’d bathe a cat (see Chapter Kitty Care). Ferrets like to be brushed, and they tend to accumulate a dark waxy debris in their ears that you can clean with a simple ear wash available at the pet store. Brush your ferret’s teeth about once a week and get ferrets accustomed to nail trimming right from the start, so they tolerate it. Be sure to wash cage bedding at least weekly to help keep your ferret clean.

– Long-haired guinea pigs need their hair trimmed about every other month; otherwise, it keeps growing and gets in your pig’s way. Comb daily to prevent tangles and mats, which can attract dirt and bacteria, leading to skin infections. Guinea pigs don’t need baths, but they may need their nails trimmed. Keep an eye on those piggy paws.

– Rabbits need daily brushing to prevent hairballs, which can be very dangerous for them, causing intestinal obstruction. Never bathe your rabbit! Bathing can actually be fatal for your rabbit because it lowers his body temperature too much and causes so much stress that he can collapse. Bunnies groom themselves fastidiously, so with a little help from you and a hairbrush, your bunny should stay perfectly clean. Prepare for seasonal heavy sheds requiring extravigorous brushing to remove large amounts of shedding fur. Trim your bunny’s nails with a nail trimmer made for pets and, if necessary, trim his teeth. Ask your vet to show you how. If your rabbit’s ears get dirty, you may also want to clean out visible wax — don’t go into the ear canal, just clean up the wax that you can see in the exposed part of your bunny’s ear — with a moist cotton swab.

– Rats, hamsters, gerbils, and mice don’t need grooming, with the possible exception of trimming off just the tips of their nails if they’re getting too long and scratching you. These smallest of the pocket pets are good at keeping themselves well groomed, as long as they have a clean environment. If your critter begins to look ungroomed, he may be sick. Visit the vet.

– Hedgehogs love to swim, so provide them with a swimming hole they can easily get in and out of, and they will keep themselves clean. Change the water every day. Anything that looks like bad grooming — broken quills, weepy eyes, ragged claws — may be a sign of a health problem. See your vet.

– Chinchillas need daily brushing to help prevent dangerous hairballs. They also need to take dust baths, rather than water baths. Purchase chinchilla dust at your local pet store and put it in a large shallow dish. Put this in your chinchilla’s cage every day for 30 to 60 minutes, so your chinchilla can roll around and get clean in his chinchilla way. Then remove the dust so your chinchilla doesn’t use it as a litter box or get too much dust in her sensitive eyes.

by Eve Adamson

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