Which small pet is right for you?
From beautiful bunnies to delightful dwarf hamsters, small pets make good companions for animal lovers of all ages. However, there are lots of things to take into consideration before you take the plunge and become the proud owner of a small pet or two.
Small animals such as guinea pigs and gerbils, are classed as ‘exotic’ pets. As such, they take a lot of looking after in order to live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. It’s essential that you avoid impulse buying and do plenty of research so you provide your new furry friend with the right accommodation, nutrition, enrichment and, in most cases, company of their own kind.
Animal charity Blue Cross advises: “Most people think that all small pets are great for children, but it isn’t always the case. Some pets, including hamsters and chinchillas, are nocturnal, which means that when the kids want to play, their pets are snoozing happily and won’t appreciate being disturbed. Pets like gerbils and mice are quick and agile so it’s difficult for children to handle them without squeezing too hard. And rabbits are prey animals and don’t always enjoy being picked up and cuddled.”
So, while it’s great for children to be involved in caring for a pet, it’s essential that they are always supervised and shown how to behave around animals and that an adult is primarily responsible for the animal’s welfare.
Now, on to finding your perfect small pet...
When they’re awake, hamsters are extremely active pets who need lots of things to do to occupy their curious and intelligent minds such as wheels, toys, clean hay and shredded paper. However, their nocturnal habits can be disappointing for children as they’re ready to explore and play when it’s bedtime. If they are disturbed from sleep, hamsters may nip, and their poor eyesight means they’re easily startled by sudden movements. Contrary to popular belief, it’s only the larger Syrian hamster who prefers a solitary life – dwarf hamsters like company and prefer to be kept in same sex pairs or groups.
- Find out more about hamsters here
Burrowers by nature, gerbils are great fun to watch as they spend hours digging, simply for the sheer joy of it. They are best housed in a special gerbilarium with solid glass walls and a secure wire-mesh top. Because they’re quick and agile, young children can find it quite difficult to hold them without squeezing too hard so they may be better to watch than handle. In the wild, gerbils live in extended families of one breeding pair and their offspring of several generations. Pet gerbils need at least one companion and are happiest in same-sex pairs or small groups.
- Get the gen on gerbils here
Chinchillas are nocturnal animals who need a very large cage that features tunnels, ropes, platforms, nesting areas and a dust bath filled with chinchilla sand. These soft-coated fluffballs are enthusiastic dust bathers and enjoy making plenty of mess. These endearing rodents, who can live to around 15 years, need to share their life with a chinchilla companion – either a female with a neutered male, or litter-mates of the same sex. Chinchillas also need daily exercise time out of their cage – they can jump six feet in the air from a standing start – and may even enjoy being taught some basic tricks to earn a treat.
- Find out more intriguing facts about chinchillas here
Degus are diurnal which means, unlike many small pets, they’re active during the day. They love human interaction and enjoy living in busy, active homes. Degus, which can live between five to nine years, need plenty of space to exercise and it’s best to keep them in wire cages with lots of levels and ramps. Because degus love to dig, a digging box filled with organic soil and sand will go down well and a treat ball and selection of toys will help to keep them busy. Like chinchillas, degus also need a sand bath to keep their coat in top condition. These small rodents are very sociable creatures so they should never be kept alone.
- Do you want to add some degus to your day? Find out more here
Why not consider getting a rescue pet? Charities such as Blue Cross, RSPCA and Wood Green have all sorts of small animals looking for happy new homes. They’ll also match you with the most suitable pets for your situation and lifestyle and provide you with lots of helpful advice.
Pet mice are usually friendly, and they rarely bite but, because they’re so small and quick, it can be difficult for small children to hold them. These tiny explorers are fascinating to watch as they shimmy up ropes and speed through tunnels. These compact pets, who love to explore, gnaw and have a cosy space to nap in, have a surprisingly long list of requirements when it comes to helping them lead their best mouse life.
- Check out why mice are really rather nice here
Rats are extremely smart and absolutely love social interaction, which is why they can make great pets for both adults and children. In fact, they get very depressed if don’t get attention. Fastidiously clean, pet rats love to hang out with each other and their human family. Some devotees even refer to pet rats as ‘pocket dogs’, thanks to their ability to learn tricks and show loyalty and affection. They even laugh when you tickle them – although unless you have ultrasonic ears you won’t be able the hear them!
- Will you join the rat pack? Find out more here
Chatty cavies, who can live up to seven years, make super companions for adults and children. Once you get to know them it’s easy to tell when they’re happy, sad, excited or cross thanks to their varied vocabulary. These gentle creatures need shelter from all extremes of weather and a run where they can graze freely, safe from predators. Extremely social, it’s essential that they have the company of their own kind.
- Discover more facts about gorgeous guinea pigs here
Bunnies live between six and eight years and can make good companions for children as long as they are provided with very spacious accommodation, constant access to a safe, outdoor run and are handled correctly under adult supervision. As prey animals, rabbits need to be ready to run from danger at all times and can easily be distressed by a looming human reaching across to pick them up, even scratching, kicking or biting to get away from the perceived threat. In the wild, rabbits live in complex social groups so it’s essential that every rabbit has a companion of its own kind. A good combination is a neutered female and a neutered male that have been brought up together. If you want to introduce unfamiliar rabbits to each other, you’ll need to get some advice from your vet or local rabbit rescue centre, as introductions need to be made very carefully. Never, ever keep rabbits with guinea pigs as they have very different needs. Rabbits can also carry diseases which can be extremely harmful to guinea pigs.
- Find out exactly what your rabbits need to be contented cottontails here
Like a cat, most ferrets can be trained to use a litter tray. Like a dog, they’re playful and can even be taken for walks on a lead. Ferrets live for around eight to 10 years and are crepuscular, which means they are naturally active at dawn and dusk. They also like to sleep for up to 20 hours a day, but they certainly make up for their lengthy snoozes when they’re awake. Their clever minds and agile bodies need lots of toys and stimulation to keep them mentally and physically occupied. Friendly and sociable, they enjoy human companionship but love to play games with other ferrets, which is why you should always have at least two – ideally from the same litter.For a ferret, a hole of any size, is something that just has to be investigated and, thanks to their slender, elongated body, will manage to squeeze through places you never thought possible. Having ferrets as pets means that you need to ferret-proof both their home and yours.
- Find out more about the merits of ferrets here
DID YOU KNOW?
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales) and Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) 2006 make a pet owner legally responsible for making sure any domesticated animal under their care has their welfare needs met. All domestic animals have the legal right to:
- Live in a suitable environment
- Eat a suitable diet
- Exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- Be housed with, or apart from, other animals
- Be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
If you found this interesting, you may also like:
Should you have an only pet?
Some pets, such as dogs, can thrive happily with other doggy friends or as part of their human family. Cats and hamsters can also be content as only pets, but other animals have very specific needs when it comes to company...
Bonding with your small pets
Hand-feeding is a great way to build a closer bond with small animals. It takes time to build trust, but when your little friend finally feels confident enough to take a treat from your hand, it’s a special moment. Our in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes has some tips...
Want to give your child the best start in life? Get them a pet
New research shows that children get on with their pets better than their siblings and that having an animal companion has far-reaching benefits.
How to keep your kids interested in their pets
Did you son or daughter beg you for a hamster or some gerbils for Christmas, but now the excitement of having a new addition to the household has calmed down they’ve lost interest? How can you keep them involved and start them on a journey of a lifetime of pet love?