In this category one considers rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, mice and hamsters which parents often bestow upon children as a foundation and grooming in the pet-owning responsibilities department.
These creatures are mostly regarded in nature as prey and as vermin or laboratory animals in human society. However, these relatively inexpensive lagomorphs and rodents make the most rewarding companion animals cared for and observed properly.
Whether accommodated indoors or outdoors they may be prone to predation by dogs, cats and birds of prey so the housing of these small mammals should be designed to provide for their safety, “psychological” well-being and physical comfort. Cages should be structurally sound, made of inedible non-toxic materials, appropriate for the specific species, free of sharp or abrasive surfaces, easy to clean and constructed to prevent escape or intrusion.
These pets grow rapidly, reproduce very well and need sufficient space to prevent hierarchy fighting and over-population stress which can cause mutilation and cannibalism.
RABBITS are not rodents but rather Lagomorphs. The male is a buck and the female, a doe
Rabbits can be housetrained and make good pets but older bucks and pregnant does may bite people. If rabbits are not held correctly and firmly they can inflict serious scratches from the nails on their powerful hindlimbs.
Rabbits have 190’ field of vision for each eyeball and are 8 times more sensitive to light than humans. Apart from sound reception their ears have a well-endowed blood supply to regulate heat; the prominent blood vessels on the ears are suitable avenues for veterinarians to collect blood samples and give intravenous injections e.g. anaesthetics.
Their teeth have open roots and grow continuously at the rate of 10-12 cm per annum throughout the lagomorph’s life. If their diet is devoid of hard objects to keep the dentition manicured the teeth can overgrow to the extent of turning over in a full circle backwards into the mouth, eventually penetrating the hard palate through the sinuses until the tips of the incisors re-emerge through the cheekbones. Very often veterinarians are required to cut the teeth of mismanaged rabbits.
The rabbit has an intestine 10 times the length of its body. They have a single stomach and food ferments in the hindgut like antelope and cattle. Rabbits prefer low fibre, high protein and high carbohydrate portions of plants.
These lagomorph creatures naturally eat their own faeces, usually early in the morning, directly from the anus. By ingesting their “night stool” they recycle large quantities of protein-rich and vitamin-rich faeces. Dusk is their preferred time to eat. Hay, fruit and vegetables are necessary with a rabbit pellet diet.
Rabbits may live from 5 to 15 years during which time they may enjoy 7 to 25 litters averaging 7 kittens per litter. The doe is pregnant for 4-5 weeks. Kittens are born usually at night in an altricial state (blind, hairless and helpless).
Housing rabbits outdoors they require protection against the extremes of cold and hot weather. Even indoors they have to be protected from excessive draughts, accumulation of ammonia from their excretions (inhalation of urine ammonia predisposes them to pneumonia, sore eyes and can be fatal) where they have insufficient space to escape from.
Rabbits need a daily light cycle of at least 8-14 hours in order to breed and thrive.
Adult buck have a larger head and heavy dewlap (fold of skin on the throat) which differentiates them from the doe.
GUINEA PIGS are rodents originating from the Andes mountain range and are closely related to chinchillas and porcupines. The Andean Indians used them as a delicacy. Guinea pigs have been bred as pets and show animals since the 16th century in Europe. There is a wide variety of breeds varying in hair shape, coat length and colouration.
They are tailless yet excellent swimmers.
Guinea piglets born fully furred with open eyes and erupted teeth are walking, eating and drinking within a few hours. The female does not make a nest for her young and has a gestation period double that of the rabbit i.e. 8-10 weeks
Food preferences are established and imprinted within a few days of birth. They eat their own faeces about 150 to 200 times per day and the total transit time from ingestion to elimination can be up to 66 hours. Along with humans and apes, guinea pigs are totally dependent on Vitamin C in the diet due to the absence of a particular metabolic enzyme. They also require a more varied diet to include vitamins and minerals.
These rodents are not only fussy eaters they can get ill very quickly if strict hygienic measures are not obeyed with regard to food quality. Any changes in an established guinea pig’s lifestyle may have fatal consequences as they cannot adapt to changes in diet or environment very suddenly or very easily.
Guinea pigs have 11 known sound varieties for social interaction, threats, injuries or fear.
They have a male-dominated hierarchy society. One male can be kept with 10 females in a breeding programme.
In an ideal environment they may live up to 8 years but kept indoors as pets they rarely go beyond 5 years.
MICE are found world-wide. They are small yet prolific breeders, economically maintained in large populations and possess great genetic diversity.
A mouse’s heart beat is 500 to 600 per minute. It can consume 1.7ml of oxygen per gram body weight per hour.
A pair of mice can produce 1 million descendants after 425 days. A female mouse has 10 mammary glands and she is constantly receptive to males (in heat) even becoming fertile 14-28 hours after giving birth. The female is highly attentive towards her young and fostering between females is well tolerated. 10-12 young are born per litter and mice live for 2-3 years.
Mice have excellent hearing and a highly developed sense of smell. Ultrasonic sounds can induce seizures
The RAT makes for one of the most intelligent, clean and faithful pets!
Rats are far more sociable with their own kind than the other rodents.
Rats were raised in the 17th century for combat with terriers in a “sport” known as rat-baiting.
There are many varieties of rats today.
Rats live longer if they are fed less fat and more soya protein. They do not have a gall bladder
Albino rats have poor eyesight and hearing so they depend on their whiskers and smell for orientation in their environment.
Hamsters and guinea pigs can show fatal responses to certain antibiotics.
Rats are the only pocket money pets that may return to its cage if it escapes.
The activity periods of rodents must be understood and respected. As an example, it is cruel to play with hamsters during the day. This equated to waking people up at 3 in the morning to have a chat, every day!
All these creatures will chew plastic, wood and soft metals and can therefore escape easily from poorly constructed enclosures.
Every rodent and rabbit requires a certain amount of its own comfort space to avoid physiological, social and mental stress. High density, even with related pets, causes fighting, abscesses, septicaemia and death.
When conditions are not suitable during breeding these animals can abandon litters or even become cannibalistic and eat their young. Disturbances such as inadequate lighting, poor nutrition, immaturity, inadequate ventilation, poor hygiene, threats from the presence of a vigilant cat or dog, excessive handling by pet owners, particularly children etc. all play a role in affecting their well-being and breeding potential.
While rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters are herbivorous, mice and rats are omnivorous.
Rodents should never be carried around by children. If they are startled or inadvertently dropped from a height there will be fractures and life-threatening injuries. Children must play with them at ground level.
Rats and hamsters are nocturnal creatures.
Rats and mice must never be picked up by their tails if you do not know how to do it and rabbits must never be picked up by their ears.
The management principles of all these pocket money pets comprise the same levels of common sense with regards to handling, taming, housing, humidity, temperature, bedding material, food, watering, breeding programmes, sanitation, disease prevention and public health concerns. There are excellent detailed publications available on all these interesting creatures.