March is Adopt a Guinea Pig Month – learn why exotics and “pocket” animals make great pets!
Did you know that March is Adopt a Guinea Pig Month? Guinea pigs, hamsters, and other exotic animals can be wonderful companions and family pets; however they do require special care to keep them healthy and happy. LVH’s Dr. Lauren Kloer gives a little insight into owning and caring for these unique animals.
Exotic pets are very stoic compared to the average dog or cat, having the ability to hide their illnesses up until the point of death. Because of this, routine examinations are vital to ensure these pets are healthy and to catch diseases before they become life-threatening. Unlike dogs and cats, many illnesses cannot be detected through physical examinations; veterinarians often employ diagnostic testing such as blood work or radiographs (x-rays) to evaluate the animal’s health.
Exotic animals also have specific nutritional and environmental needs that differ from the more basic living requirements of dogs and cats. It is important for owners to learn about the natural history of their exotic pet and keep their pet’s diet and habitat as close to these living conditions as possible. When owners become more educated about their pet’s specific needs, these animals are less likely to suffer from improper care or illness. Below is a list of some common exotic pets and their unique needs, and what can be expected during an examination.
Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas
Guinea pigs are social creatures with a lifespan of about 4-8 years. Guinea pigs live in large groups in the wild and easily adapt to other guinea pig cage mates. Guinea pigs can become easily stressed by changes in water, food, or environment. It is best to set up routines and be diligent in the type of food and feeding times, and handling/play schedules.
Chinchillas are similar to guinea pigs but with a longer life span of about 15- 20 years, making them ideal for someone who would like to make a long-term commitment with a small pocket pet. They are intelligent, active, and loving animals and will bond with their owners if they are regularly handled and cuddled with at a young age. They are nocturnal animals that do most of their eating and play at night. Chinchillas can be very acrobatic and need a large cage or pen for living. They can be shy at times, too, and need a nesting box within their pen when they would prefer to hide.
Both chinchillas and guinea pigs should be seen by a veterinarian annually. They can suffer from similar medical issues including problems with their teeth, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, and skin. Females are susceptible to reproductive tract disorders.
Rabbits are high-maintenance pets that need proper living conditions for optimal health. Rabbits may be housed in indoor cages or hutches with enough room for food/ water, activity, sleep, and elimination areas. Indoor housing of at least 4’x4’x2’ is usually an adequate size space. Poor or unsanitary living spaces can lead to arthritis, boredom, and depression. Dr. Kloer also suggests having an outdoor playpen for supervised outdoor exercise and playtime. House Rabbit Society has a wealth of information on rabbit care and husbandry. This information can be found at www.rabbit.org.
Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits do not have foot pads, rather a thick layer of hair on the bottom of their feet. Due to the sensitive nature of their feet, wire bottom cages should be avoided. It is important for owners to routinely check the soles of their rabbit’s feet for sores or wounds. Rabbits also have toenails that need regular trims. Your veterinarian can show you how to clip the nails or you may schedule an appointment with Dr. Kloer or one of our technicians to have them trimmed.
Rabbits are prone to problems with their teeth, heart, spine, gastrointestinal and urinary tracts. A thorough dental exam should be performed at their annual veterinary visit. Beyond four years of age, a complete blood count (CBC), serum chemistry panel, and radiographs may also be recommended. Intact female rabbits are prone to uterine cancer; spaying and neutering is always recommended for both female and male rabbits.
Due to their small size and friendly, playful personality, ferrets have become popular pets, now in an estimated 395,000 American households. Ferrets can be great companions, but they are unique and demanding creatures that require a strong commitment from their owners. Like cats, ferrets are carnivores, requiring a high protein (meat-based), low fiber diet; a high-quality, dry pellet cat food or specialty ferret food is recommended. Ferrets are very active animals that require lots of daily exercise. Unlike cats, which can generally be left to freely roam their space and stay out of trouble, ferrets are extra curious and require supervised play. When owners are away, ferrets should be enclosed in a wire cage or crate to avoid mischief.
The average lifespan of ferrets is 6-10 years of age and annual examinations are recommended for the first five years of life, then bi-annually at five years and beyond. All healthy ferrets should be vaccinated against rabies and canine distemper each year. Ferrets are susceptible to tumor development in the adrenal glands, pancreas, lymphoid tissue and skin. They also frequently suffer from heart disease, dental disease, and hairballs. Midlife and senior ferrets should have a CBC, serum chemistry panel, and blood glucose evaluation at each exam to rule out these diseases.
Hamsters/ Gerbils/ Mice/Rats
Hamster, gerbils, mice, and rats can also make wonderful pets. They are all low-maintenance pocket pets that stay clean and fairly quiet. Most hamsters live 2-2.5 years, while gerbils have a slightly longer lifespan of 3-4 years. Rats and mice have similar lifespans of 2-3 years and 1-2 years, respectively.
Veterinary examinations are recommended every 6-12 months for these pets because of their shorter lifespans. They typically have problems with their teeth and GI tract, and are prone to develop a variety of cancers.
It is thought that today’s pet birds have retained a survival mechanism from their wild ancestors of feigning good health when they may be very sick. If a bird is healthy, it is less likely to be preyed upon by predators. As a result, veterinarians have tailored their examinations to accommodate these antics. A yearly exam should include a CBC and blood biochemistry profile. These tests help detect nutritional deficiencies, kidney, liver, and respiratory diseases, and feather disorders.
Like birds, reptiles are also good at faking good health and naturally hiding their ailments. Intestinal parasites are common in reptiles and a fecal screening is recommended at their annual exam. Reptiles over three years of age should also have a CBC and blood biochemistry profile to test for nutritional, kidney, and reproductive diseases.
Dr. Kloer has a special interest in exotic pet medicine and is trained in the care and treatment of many exotic animals including rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, sugar gliders, and most birds and reptiles- she even sees hedgehogs and pet chickens! (Unfortunately she does not see fish or amphibians, and snakes are seen on a case by case basis).
To learn more keeping pocket pets and exotic animals happy and healthy, check out these great resources:
Pet Health: Snakes, Spiders, or Ferrets? Choose the Right Exotic. Colorado State University
Basic Rabbit Housing and Care Companion Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine and Surgery Service. Veterinary Medical Training Hospital, University of California, Davis.
American Animal Hospital Association. Ferret Care.
Doctors Foster & Smith. Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas.