By Dr. Becker
From rats and mice to guinea pigs, rabbits, gerbils, chinchillas and ferrets, small pets can be a wonderful addition to your home. They're relatively quiet, don't require as much space as a dog or cat and are generally easy to handle and care for.
That being said, each of these animals is unique in its dietary and environmental needs, and it's important to thoroughly research the small mammal you're considering for a pet before brining one home.
Gerbils, hamsters, mice and rats eat mostly plant material, for instance, but the latter three may also eat meat on occasion.
Guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas eat similar (though not identical) herbivorous diets, but ferrets are carnivores. It's important to understand also that small animals can be harmed by items around your home that you might not expect.
While some small pet hazards are similar to those faced by dogs and cats, others are unique to small animals. Small "pocket" pets can fit into small spaces, sometimes becoming trapped. Meanwhile, they have an instinct to forage and hoard food, including non-food items that appear food-like.
Their small size and fast metabolism also increase their risk of harm if they do ingest something they shouldn't. Small pets are also notorious chewers, which means even seemingly innocuous items can turn into a poison risk or choking hazard.
Before you add a small pet to your family, or even if you already have one, be sure to read through this list of top household dangers, compiled by PetMD, and remove any potential threats before it's too late.1
Nine Top Household Dangers to Small Pets
1. Loose Wires
Loose electrical wires near your pet's cage or accessible when your pet is roaming about can be deadly. Small animals love to chew, and doing so on a live wire may cause electrocution or burns. If the wire is ingested, it could also lead to heavy metal poisoning.
When your pet is exercising out of his cage, he may chew on baseboards, furniture or other painted objects, posing a risk of exposure to lead-based paint. A simple solution to prevent this is set up a gated area in a room so your pet can have some space without accessing painted moldings.
3. Small Objects Used as Chew Toys
Small pets can create havoc with their teeth, so keeping electrical cords, pens, pencils and children's toys out of reach is important.
Rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and rodents have teeth that keep growing, so it's natural for them to chew objects to help grind down their teeth. The key is to provide safe objects for this purpose, including wooden chew toys.
While ferrets' teeth don't grow continuously, they're well known for their love of chewing everything and anything. My record for foreign objects removed from the bellies of ferrets was three in one week: all three ferrets bit the erasers off the tops of pencils and swallowed them.
To prevent ferrets and other small pets from ingesting something that could cause an intestinal blockage, be sure to supervise them closely when they're out of their cage and provide suitable chewing options to satisfy this natural urge.
Hard dog toys may work well for ferrets, my favorite being very hard Yak Milk chews or non-toxic dental bone chews.
If a small pet ingests a human medication, it can be deadly, and if you drop a pill on the floor, there's a good chance your inquisitive ferret or rat is going to find it. For this reason, store all medications safely out of all pets' reach, and avoid taking your medications in any room where your small pet may frequent.
5. Other Pets
Even a sweet-natured dog or cat may find the lure of a free-roaming rabbit or rodent too hard to pass up. Remember that cats, dogs and even ferrets are naturally predatory and may chase or kill small pets like guinea pigs, gerbils, mice and hamsters.
Even if your cat or dog's intention is to simply pick up or play with your small pet, the damage inflicted could be deadly. For this reason, do not allow small pets to roam freely when other predatory pets are present, and be sure their cage is unable to be broken into or tipped over by larger pets.
6. Small Children
Young children can be overly rough and may squeeze or drop small pets, leading to serious injury. They may also accidentally step on small pets that are out of their cage. If you let your young children handle your small pets, be sure it's only under close supervision.
Train your kids to sit quietly when holding small animals. Kids should not walk around while holding very small animals, as it dramatically increases stress in these tiny creatures.
Have your child sit quietly and then place the animal in your child's towel covered lap or calm hands; this is a win-win strategy for both parties.
7. Toxic Houseplants
If your small pet is an herbivore, he will be naturally drawn to nibble on houseplants. Many, however, including Calla lilies, philodendron and English ivy, can be toxic.
If you're not sure your houseplants are safe for your pet, keep them safely out of his reach. If you suspect your small pet has ingested a toxic plant, see a veterinarian experienced with small mammals right away.
Cigarettes and cigars are dangerous to small pets, even if it's just a leftover butt. According to the Pet Poison Helpline:2
"Common exposure for pocket pets … occur when curious … paws find cigars or cigarettes left within their reach or dropped on the floor. Even the butts of cigarettes can still contain tobacco and result in poisoning when ingested … Ingestion of just a tiny amount of tobacco for … pocket pets can result in significant poisoning."
9. Extreme Temperatures
Small pets should be protected from extreme heat or cold. Rabbits, in particular, easily overheat if temperatures get much above 80 degrees F. Be sure to keep your pet rabbit indoors on hot days for this reason. Chinchillas are also at risk of overheating and do best at temperatures around 70 degrees F. Similarly, ferrets are unable to tolerate temperatures exceeding 85 degrees F.
Small "pocket pets" can make adorable and loving pets, but be prepared to do some major pet-proofing before bringing one home. These pets need to be free of their cages, but in a secure and safe exercise environment, daily for fitness and mental stimulation.
In addition, be aware that even small pets require regular veterinary care, but not every vet is familiar with them. An integrative exotic vet will be able to provide wellness care for your pet while giving you additional insights into how to safely care for these small creatures in your home.