Friday, February 10, 2012

A primer on pet rodents: rats and gerbils

I know a do a lot of talking about cats and dogs on this blog, but did you know that rodents make great pets too? Usually when we think of rats and mice, we don't see them in a positive light. They chew holes in our walls, they carry disease - why would anyone willingly bring one into their home? But pet rodents are not the disease-carrying pests we wage war on every spring and fall. I myself have kept rats and gerbils, and so these are the two types of rodent I want to dicuss today.

Rats are often portrayed in cartoons as dirty, scruffy, vicious animals - often playing the role of the villain (exceptions, of course, being Master Splinter and the rats of NIMH). Pet rats, however, are quite the opposite. They are very fastidious creatures, and can in fact be very loving. The rats you find in the pet store are descendants of the wild Norway Rat, domesticated and bred with many coat patterns, including the plain brown you would expect in a wild rat. The sex of your rat can affect its personality to some degree - for example I tend to prefer females as they remain more active over their life span. All of the male rats I have known get a bit fatter and lazier as they age.

Rats are fairly easy to keep, but there are a few things you should know. First is that while they can be kept alone, most rats are social and prefer to be kept in groups. If you buy only one, you MUST be certain to spend plenty of time with your rat, as much like any other pet they are happiest when they have someone to play with. If you decide to get your rat a friend later rather than buy them all from the same place, you may wish to look up some articles to help make sure the transition goes smoothly. Here is a brief article with the basics on introducing new rats: http://ratguide.com/care/behavior/introducing_rats.php

Gerbils are another popular rodent in pet stores, and they, too, should never be kept alone. Gerbils are VERY social animals, and they tend to become vey unhappy very quickly when isolated. I recommend buying at least two from the same place - preferrably related. I had been told in the past that males get along easier than females, so I have had only male gerbils thus far. Remember that gerbils are nocturnal, so if a lot of noise at night will drive you crazy, I would recommend keeping them someplace other than the bedroom.

I always had two cages for my gerbils - the living cage and the play cage - but you may wish to instead have a larger home where they can always play. You don't want to just let them out on the floor like you can with most rats, as the gerbil is more likely to get loose by the sheer fact that it is smaller and quicker. Make sure to change up their play equipment often, as not only will they chew it up no matter what it's made of, but the change keeps them interested and active. They will readily use hamster balls and tubes, however if you use an exercise wheel make sure you buy one that does NOT have an open design, as the tail can get caught in the spaces and snap off. For this reason it is also very important that you not pick up your gerbil by the tail - if you have no other way to catch it, catch it by the base of the tail ONLY, never at the end, as much like a gecko a gerbil will sometimes allow its tail to break off as a defensive mechanism. Unlike a gecko, however, the gerbil's tail WILL NOT grow back.

Remember that all rodents are chewers, so keep anything you don't want chewed on out of reach, and make sure loose play is well supervised. Always have something in the cage for your rodents to chew on. Not only is it a natural instinct to chew, but much like rabbits, their teeth can get too long and start to cause problems if they do not have sufficient chew toys. Chewy treats are also a good idea - check with your breeder or veterinarian, or look online for lists of safe foods, but anything you see in their regular food mixes can also be fed as treats. My gerbils always loved banana chips and sunflower seeds, and would take them from my hand when offered.

The cage is another important thing to consider for both species. While a smaller cage or aquarium may be fine for gerbils, or rats if you plan to spend lots of time letting them out to play, if you are going to be gone for long stretches you may wish to invest in a larger ferret cage for your rats. This will allow them to have room to move around and explore without worrying that they might get out and get hurt, or chew on anything that they shouldn't. If using an aquarium or cage with a bedding pan, DO NOT use a sawdust bedding for any of your rodents. Common types of sawdust such as cedar and pine can cause severe respiratory problems in small mammals. I would recommend either corncob bedding, or aspen bedding which do not put off a lot of dust. Shredded cardboard or paper-based cat litters may also be used. I also recommend giving them either a tissue or a bit of cloth to chew up for nesting material, so they have something soft to curl up in and sleep.

Has anyone else out there had rodents for pets? What care tips can you offer for new rodent owners? What are your favorite pet rodents, and what stories can you tell about your pets?