Which Pet Rodent?
Please contact me if you would like to add anything to the information on this page, or if you can recommend a source of more info to be listed – Websites, books, newsgroups etc. Thanks. However, I’m afraid that because of the time involved in looking after my own animals and family, I cannot answer email pet care queries. Many thanks for your understanding.
Mice- domesticated house mouse (Mus musculus)
- Very cute and entertaining – if kept well, mice are extremely happy animals, active, agile, and great fun to watch. When properly socialized they will enjoy running all over you without leaving droppings everywhere (they will defecate on you when nervous).
- Available in an amazing range of colours and coats if you look hard enough, eg satin coat (metallic sheen), siamese, Dutch marked, spotted, longhaired, curly, red, blue, fawn, lilac…..
- Mice are highly sociable animals and should not be kept alone (except for aggressive adult males where there is no alternative) – it makes them thoroughly miserable. However, males may fight (they can generally only be kept together if put together as babies), and they smell strong – they produce a sort of musk. Females smell much less, and get along much better. A colony of mice is great fun to watch.
- Mice can become very tame, but you need to win their trust. They are supposed to be among the more intelligent small rodents, but are still not as bright as rats.
- They need cleaning out more often than hamsters, but then they are more active and hence often more entertaining.
- A good pet for small children, but don’t let them handle the mice except under close supervision – like any small animal, they’re fragile. It is very rare for a mouse to bite – normally this would only happen if it is scared and unused to being handled.
For more info on pet domesticated mice.
Reite’s Rodent Roadshow has wonderful photos and details of numerous species of wild and domesticated mice, including Spiny Mice and Deer Mice.
Rats – domesticated Brown (Norway) rats (Rattus norvegicus)
- High-maintenance, high-reward rodents. Rats need a lot of space and a lot of attention. They are extremely intelligent, and can become very affectionate and attached to their owners. Some of my male rats are like small dogs more than anything else (males are generally more cuddly and laid-back than girls. Girl rats are great fun, but mischievous and hyperactive).
- Rats should be taken out to play every day. They get bored easily and need stimulation. They are sensitive animals which need to be handled with care, but when they trust you they are great fun and will actually play with you – hide and seek, wrestling, tug – of-war, etc. So they are very rewarding pets to keep, but they need more care than the others mentioned.
- Rats are also very sociable animals and they should not be kept alone unless they are very aggressive – see ‘Why Rats Need Company’.. They can get very bored and lonely living alone. Both males and females live happily in groups, although it is easiest to introduce them as babies under 12 weeks. You can introduce them after that, but it may take a couple of weeks for them to accept each other.
For more information about rats, read the Pet Rat Information Sheet. It is the draft of a book on rat care, with the aim of helping people to keep their rats happy as well as healthy. I am biased about this, being one of the co-authors. The other co-author is Antonia Swierzy of Blackstaff Rats, who has lovely photos on her site, and information about some very interesting creatures – including Nile Rats.
There are some wonderful ratty websites. Start with the UK’s National Fancy Rat Society at www.nfrs.org, or the Rat & Mouse Club of America at www.rmca.org and you’ll find links to many others. For a selection of ratty mailing lists (email chat), go to www.egroups.com and search for ‘rat’.
The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association at www.afrma.org/afrma is also worth a look.
Gerbils – Mongolian Gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus)
Find out more about them from the UK National Gerbil Society homepage.
Shaw’s Jirds(Meriones shawii)
If you want something more exotic, Shaw’s Jirds are like giant gerbils with similar habits and requirements.
Shaw’s Jirds are very friendly and easy to tame – but they can be hard to find because they are very difficult to breed. They may also be confused with other species, eg Libyan Jirds, which look similar but are harder to socialise.
There is an interesting article about Jirds on the UK National Gerbil Society homepage, with photo. The lady who wrote the article keeps some of her female jirds alone, but they are sociable animals and so personally I believe that they should always be kept in pairs or larger groups where possible. Every other breeder and zoologist I know who has kept Jirds, has successfully kept them in permanent mixed-sex pairs. They seem happiest this way (the father takes over the care of a litter when a younger litter is born).
Males live together happily, and females can also live together but are more aggressive than males and so occasional fighting should be expected.
The Syrian or Golden Hamster: Mesocricetus auratus
- Low-maintenance, easy-to-keep pets which can enjoy interacting with humans and can get to know and trust their owners. As with most pets, the more effort you put into making your hamster’s life enjoyable, the more rewarding you will find him as a pet.
- Available in a variety of colours and in different coat types – can be incredibly cute.
- One to watch & feed sunflower seeds to, rather than to maul about and play with (though they can run all over you, and use you as a playground). Will not normally play with you, but will play on you.
- Hamsters appreciate lots of toys, a decent-sized cage (many hamster cages sold in pet stores are far too small for them; the animal will spend most of its life in its cage, so do get the biggest you can) and regular trips out of the cage to play, and to run around the room or on a bed or sofa.
- Nocturnal, so often the hamster will be asleep when you want to watch it.
- Not sociable, so usually to be kept alone.
- Short-sighted like most rodents, so may mistake your fingers for a sunflower seed if not careful. Some people think hamsters are more likely to bite than other pet rodents. A well-bred, properly handled hamster should not bite at all.
- As with most animals, it is better to buy your hamster from a breeder who has handled it as a baby than from a pet store. The problem is that hamsters sold in pet stores may be the product of years of careless and close inbreeding, which increases the risk of temperament and health problems.
Species include Campbell’s Dwarf Russian (or Siberian) Hamster – Phodopus sungoris campbelli, Winter White Dwarf Russian – Phodopus sungoris sungoris, Roborowski’s Dwarf Hamster – Phodopus roborovskii or raborowski. These species are all closely related. Another species of Dwarf Hamster, which is not closely related to these, is the Chinese Hamster, Cricetulus griseus.
- Cute and fun, but temperamental.
- Unlike Syrian hamsters, the Russian hamsters (Phodopus species) are sociable animals, so they don’t really like living alone. However, in groups they fall out with each other occasionally, and can be violent (eg some females castrate males they don’t fancy). Chinese hamsters can also be kept in groups, although some sources maintain that they are less sociable than the Russian hamsters.
- All dwarf hamsters are fun to watch, and easy to get hand-tame (put your hand in the cage with some sunflower seeds on it, and six hamsters will squash on there. Until they start fighting, that is). Until they get properly socialized may they bite a lot, but their teeth are so small it doesn’t hurt much. Once they realise that sunflower seeds taste nicer than your hands, they will stop biting.
GUINEA PIGS – a note from James & Fievel:
‘Guinea Pigs! That other rodent! Not as smart as the rats, but definitely the sweetest rodent! Also high maintanence critter. Also not best for young child, since they can’t survive a drop. Here is where they are optimum: A guinea pig will sit patiently for interminable periods of time in your lap. Even better, my guinea pig Fievel can be “parked” on my computer table, right to the left of the keyboard. She sits on a folded blanket (recommended) for hours while I web surf or brouse news, mail, etc. An older pig like Fievel (seven years) my be most patient for long spells of petting or lap sitting.’
NB – There appears to be an ongoing debate about the taxonomy of GPs – some argue that they are not rodents at all. AH.
An excellent source on these animals: Seagull’s Guinea Pig Compendium.
PETS FOR SMALL CHILDREN
For a young child (under 8, say, but obviously it depends upon the individual), it is easiest to have either:
- A pet which is too big for the child to hurt by accident, but can be handled and fussed, – like a dog
- Pets which can look after themselves – cats can usually make a speedy exit if necessary, although some (my Burmese, for instance) do not have much common sense, and will hang around to be mauled.
- Small pets that the child will not need to handle at all, or except under supervision – eg fish, insects, budgies, mice or gerbils.
Even the most responsible small child can accidentally do a lot of damage to a small pet when handling it; for rats, hamsters and jirds which need to come out of their cages for exercise, there is a serious risk that the animal will be scared or harmed during playtime or being caught afterwards.
Parents have to take ultimate responsiblity for children’s pets – no matter how easy a pet is to keep, no 8-year-old can be expected to know what to do in every circumstance which might arise. Small pets need veterinary care when they are in pain just as much as large ones do – children can’t always tell when a vet is needed.
Personally I do not usually let my rats go as pets for small children, unless a parent intends to look after the rats, and to supervise the children closely. Although rats are gentle creatures, they are easily frightened by rough handling. Frightened animals do not make good pets. It is rare for a pet rat to bite, but it can happen if they are not handled properly – and rat bites can hurt a lot. I have met small children who have been bitten after handling rats badly, and it leaves both rat and child traumatized.
On the other hand, I also know a number of younger children (one only three years old) who have wonderful relationships with pet rats – rats really appreciate the devoted attention of a small child who will carry a pet around all day and involve it in everything the child does. In these cases, a parent undertakes most of the pet care chores, and supervises playtime at first.
Rats need a lot of maintenance compared to other small pets, which can be a burden if the child loses interest and the parents end up having to look after them – although this situation is far more tragic for the rats, who really flourish on lots of human attention and playtime.
Gerbils, mice and dwarf hamsters do not seem to mind whether they come out of the cage to play or not. Rats, Jirds and Syrian hamsters need to come out of their cages to play regularly, to help stop them getting bored.