By Dr. Becker
There are thousands of cats and dogs, rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters and other small animals without a home or otherwise available for adoption on any given day. Some find a home relatively quickly, while others spend the rest of their lives in a shelter. That opens a golden opportunity for you, a consummate small animal lover if there ever was one, to examine the prospects to see if yours might be the home one of these little animals has been hoping for.
Once you've decided to add to your family circle by adopting an animal, and you already know a large dog wouldn't work so well, perhaps a small one would. The next thing to ask yourself is which type of pet would work best for your lifestyle? If you're ready to take that step, there are a few things to brush up on first so you'll be ready, willing and able to take the responsibility — and your new little charge — into your home with open arms and hearts.
Why Rescue a Small Animal?
When small mammals such as those listed above find themselves in a shelter, they may have a wide range of experiences there. It goes without saying that the entities that house these little critters should have nothing more on their agendas than helping facilitate adoptions of their animals into safe, loving places for mutually beneficial relationships.
Adoption coordinator Deana Matero at My Hopes in You animal rescue in Poughkeepsie, New York said if the adoptive organization is well run, the process will be focused on finding the match for what you're looking for and not trying to sell you anything else. As individuals find an animal they like, it's important for them to spend time interacting with their prospective pet. "We want the animal and the person to really bond," Matero explains.
Marcia Coburn, president of Red Door Shelter in Chicago, notes that a website called guidestar.com is available for prospective small animal owners to take a look at how a non-profit organization spends its money. Bad signs would be large payments to staff, as opposed to money spent on programs, she said, adding, "Every legitimate rescue should be able to give you their Federal Tax ID number, and you can check that it is real on the internet."
Do Your Homework Before You Get to the Shelter
"Pick the one that's cute, because they're all basically alike" is not something you're likely to hear someone at a small animal shelter say. Not all small, furry animals are the same. Hamsters are as different from guinea pigs as dogs are from cats, so knowing what needs each small animal comes with is important.
One veteran shelter administrator says getting on the internet to research animals is a great idea, but she advises people to also look at the types of shelters and other facilities that are available in their local area. Another idea might be to call local veterinarians to find out if he or she has any recommendations. It's possible they're aware of a situation where, through no fault of their own, an animal is in need of a new situation.
Before you get your heart set on one particular little buddy, do your homework on the type of animal he is and make sure it's something you can handle, because not all small animals are as low-maintenance as most cats, or as enthusiastic as your average puppy. Pet MD advises:
"Confirm your pre-conceived notions. This is especially important with small, furry animals. 'Many people think rabbits are good starter pets for children, but informed rescues will tell you that's not true,' said Coburn. Rabbits can scratch and bite, and some dislike handling, Matero said, particularly if they've had previously stress-inducing experiences.
Does this mean you should nix the idea of a rabbit? Not necessarily, but it's vital to decide ahead of time how much time you can devote to a new animal."1
Channel Your Inner Boy Scout: Prepare Before Bringing Your Small Pet Home
Some people seem to do fine flying by the seat of their pants in life, but when it comes to bringing a new little critter into your home, knowing what to do and what not to do before you cross the threshold is important for you as well as your new little guy or girl.
Not rushing into the process is important so that you don't end up making an emotionally based decision you may regret later. If anything bothers you about how the situation could work out, such as getting a pet known for being slightly high maintenance when you know you'll be gone several hours five days a week, and Princess Peach will be left alone, you might want to reconsider.
Your apartment may not allow small pets, or you may want low maintenance, while the cute ferret you've had your eye on needs to be bathed once a week and needs daily interaction and lots of exercise.
Then there are practical matters that only knowing details about your chosen animal will help you prepare for. The hamster your kids fall in love with may be cute and cuddly, but hamsters are nocturnal, and your kids aren't. Further, according to Matero, "Bringing home a hamster is a completely different experience from bringing home a rabbit, and the cage you would buy for a dwarf hamster is not the same one you'd purchase for a Syrian hamster."
You may decide the cage you buy for your ferret is just the right size to keep him in, not realizing (yet) that ferrets aren't fond of being kept in cages (although of course he'll need one), and love nothing better than having the whole house to roam around in. The way to prevent such problems is experience, and beyond that, it's research.
You can visit your chosen rescue shelter to learn specifics about the animal you're looking to adopt, but only then is it a good idea to go out and purchase the supplies you'll need. Then go back and collect your pet.
When There's More to Consider Than Food and a Water Bowl
When it comes to keeping your new little friend healthy and happy, the food you give them is the most important consideration. Dr. Marcy J. Souza, director of veterinary public health at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, asserts:
"Diet is the number one most important aspect of keeping small mammals healthy. They are excessively prone to dental and gastrointestinal diseases that are almost always due to poor husbandry, and diet as an underlying cause."2
Other small animals, like guinea pigs, have special needs — in this case extra vitamin C — that you'd never know and be unprepared for if all you've ever had for a pet were cats and dogs. It's common to see tasty-looking and complex food mixtures designed for guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits, but many of those highly processed foods can be deficient in the nutrients each specific pet needs.
Dr. Emi Knafo, assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, says these three animals in particular thrive on having access to food that's completely different than a dog or cat would need, adding, "It's important that your rabbit, chinchilla, or guinea pig eat free-choice, high-quality grass hay, a limited amount of extruded hay pellet (not a mix with seeds or dried fruit), and fresh greens or grass." Pet MD notes:
"In addition to the right food for your small and furry, Coburn suggests providing hammocks or fleece blankets for ferrets, large plastic balls or wheels to roll around or run in for hamsters or mice, and small cardboard boxes chinchillas can hide in or jump on."3
'Every Rescue Pet Comes With a Past'
Adjustments are a given when you finally bring your small animal into your home, but remember that the learning curve isn't just yours — it's a new environment for your new family member, too, and he has things to get used to for the first time, too. Coburn stresses that she may be scared and unsure of what's happening, and that it might be best to give them a little time to adjust to their new digs, new sights, sounds and smells, before you begin showering her with attention. This might be hard to do!
Keeping the noise down, especially at first, is only sensible to help your new animal get over first-day jitters. You want them to relax and feel comfortable, which is hard to do when people, often children, are squealing with delight and passing the little furry creature around. In fact, many of these more exotic animals have a higher stress level, so they may not be the best choice for young children, Knafo says.
Then there's the possibility that small animals have behavioral issues. When the animal comes from a shelter, it's the shelter's responsibility to let you know the details they are aware of, which may involve scratching, nipping or biting, excess wetting or growling (which is what angry rabbits might do, which surprises some people).
Also, if their pet is ill, it might be hard to detect. Keep your veterinarian in the loop so they'll be aware of any odd behavior or signs, such as lethargy, disinterest in food and faster-than-normal breathing.
Many foods and treats contain excess sugar, which can make animals sick, as a more natural diet is far superior. Many of these small animals' teeth perpetually grow and without an appropriate means of wearing them down can lead to dental disease. Rodents in particular often have dental issues, such as malocclusion and overgrown teeth, which makes it difficult for them to eat. So assuming small animals are maintenance free is also a myth perspective owners should recognize.
Just Before Signing on the Dotted Line
Find out from the shelter your pet is coming from about any health issues, and find out if there's coverage should she need attention from a veterinarian within a few weeks of her adoption. Any copies of medical records should be made available to you.
Additionally, breeding information is also extremely helpful, as the animal's background may come in handy. Find out if they're spayed or neutered, and if not, doing so may be appropriate in some cases. For instance, female rabbits can have reproductive problems if left intact and intact male sugar gliders can have urethral issues over time.
Some rescue organizations have programs that allow you to have a test run weekend before you officially adopt the animal making sure it's a perfect fit. If the agency you are working with does not have this trial run as an option then ask what the steps are if you discover you aren't a match before adoption occurs.