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Making a home for your pocket pet

Making A Home For Your Pocket Pet

Pocket Pet

There is no accurate term for a pocket pet, except we use this terminology for a small pet.  Each species of animal has their own specific dietary and environmental care.  The diet for a mouse is completely different than one for a hamster.  A rabbit and a sugar glider also have different needs. 

Most pocket pets are herbivores, which indicate they digest their food like a horse or cow.  Guinea pigs, rabbits, gerbils, birds and other species are herbivores.  Mice and rats are omnivores, which indicate they can eat grains, insects and meat type foods.  Omnivores will starve on a diet formulated for herbivores, while a herbivore will have problems and will literally die on a seed, meat, or similar diet that carnivores and omnivores will live on.  

Since herbivores ferment their food, some oral antibiotics can cause an overgrowth of toxic bad bacteria; this is called dysbiosis.  We can give amoxicillin, ampicillin or penicillin injections to a guinea pig, but if given orally the patient may die.  Besides the penicillin antibiotics, other oral antibiotics which can cause dysbiosis are bacitracin, cephalosporins, clindamycin, erythromycin, gentocin, lincomycin, streptomycin, tetracyclines, tylosin and vancomycin.  These antibiotics cause diarrhea and toxic bacteria to replicate.  It should be noted that the dysbiosis species especially affected are chinchillas, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, horses, rabbits & other hind-gut herbivores or pocket pets, yet some other rodent species are safe to give the above antibiotics (i.e. tetracyclines in rats, which are not hindgut fermenters.  Large animal ruminant species are also not affected).  There are other different classes of antibiotics are safe to give to these hindgut fermenting herbivores; fluoroquinolones and sulfa drugs are such safe antibiotics.  In humans the dysbiosis is part of an irritable bowel syndrome, Cronin’s disease, and other intestinal upsets; humans do not usually die from dysbiosis like the pocket pet species.  The term dysbiosis indicates that there has been an imbalance of the bacteria within the intestinal system; these upset stomachs and diarrhea can occur in all animals.  In veterinary medicine we use the term only when there is an upset due to the use of antibiotics and the result is a fatal; bloat, colic, diarrhea, flatulence and IBS are other terms we instead use when it is a “natural upset” in animals.  Rats can obtain dysbiosis if given kanomycin, which is an antibiotic in Amforal and other medications.  We have other handouts on probiotics, prebiotics and other factors related to these “good bacteria” needed to prevent dysbiosis due to “bad bacteria”.

All pocket pets should not have aromatic wood shavings as their litter, such as redwood or cedar.  Aspen wood shavings can be fine for some species, while just a fine wire floor and hard flat surface for others and for some sand may be adequate.  We prefer flat newspapers, to be removed daily, over sand.  Fresh pine shavings are not recommended. 

A seed diet is inadequate and even harmful for most species.  The complete diets are usually pellets.  As a general rule, herbivores and pocket pets should not have seeds or especially fruit as over 5% of their diet.  Animals like to have a variety of safe to eat treats, which can be hidden at times around their environment; this is part of a foraging for food exercise.  Guinea pigs, ferrets and other species may like a treat hidden in a Kong-type toy; as long as the pet does not chew on the toy.

The size of the habitat will vary with the species.  A hiding place is needed for all species of animals, fish or even insect pets.  Most species can be house with others of their own, except hamsters.  Mixing any two species is not recommended.  If possible a multi-level habitat is recommended, except for rabbits and turtles/tortoises.  To keep odor down with rats, gerbils, hamsters and similar rodents that urinate frequently in small amounts you need to have a habitat that you can easily catch up the pet and clean/wash the habitat with very dilute vinegar, etc.  Some such as a gerbil can just have a deep bed of digging material.  With some species, such as rabbits, they can be placed outdoors during warm days IF there is adequate protection from the sun, weather and predators, and they are housed in a wire type habitat.  Most of the other pockets pets are safer if they are kept only indoors.  Daily monitor the number of fecal pellets and the amount of water being drank; if you use a water bottle ensure it is going down daily and being consumed.  Avoid using the metal rings to hold food and water bowls as these cause a lot of leg fractures.  It is best to have the bowls flat on the ground as there are some bowls designed in a double rim/”M”shape to help reduce the bowl being flipped over.

We all need exercise to be healthy.  An exercise wheel intended for the size of the species can help many rodents.  Tubing and boxes are also indicated for most pocket pets.  Ensure that the materials of the items used in your pet’s habitat are not harmful if ingested.  Anytime an animal starts to chew on a non-digestible item that item should be immediately removed from their habitat.  Some types of plastic and rubber are almost indestructible, while there are some softer materials which are easily torn up.  Ropes can be fine, as long as they are not frayed and chewed upon.  Metal, glass, mirrors and soft plastic or rubber toys are usually discouraged.  Even toys with squeakers inside can be fatal; the squeaker becomes lodged in the animal’s intestines and causes a blockage.  If you purchase a hammock for a ferret, chinchilla or guinea pig ensure it is a solid cloth and not a mesh.  Small staples, buttons and other similar objects are discouraged as items to be placed in a pocket pet’s habitat.  Most species will allow their owners to groom them periodically.  

Species Toys and Habitat Enrichment Ideas

Chinchillas ***Exercise wheel
Guinea Pig***
Mouse or Rat**

** = a place to hide, such as a cardboard box.  Tubing of cardboard or a paper towel roll is also to be considered if larger than the species.  Terracotta clay or PVC pipe or a maze of non-glued fittings may be adequate for some species, unless they start chewing on it and then we do not recommend the plastic items.  There are guinea pig and other fabric type funnels sold on the internet (Ebay); one can also use the metal drain spouts (non-painted).  If you have an outdoor habitat the large sprinkler boxes can make a good “nest home” with an inspection lid.

* = chewing branches of a non-toxic plant are ok for herbivores, as well as soft wood chewing blocks.  Please ask for our safe bird plant foliage handout if you are providing live plants to be available in the play area; we do not recommend live plants for a pocket pet’s habitat.

There are many species specific handouts; agouti, ant eaters, armadillos, capybara, chupacabra, coatimundi, coypu, echidnas, flying squirrels, Gambian rats, hermit crabs, kangaroos, kinkajou, lemurs, marsupials, meerkats, African millipedes, miniature opossums, nutria, porcupines, spiders/tarantulas, tegu, wallaby, water dragons, dysbiosis, etc.  We have over 3,000 animal care and sickness treatment handouts.

Sick Pocket Pets
When we have very small patients, the luxury of blood samples is not always possible.  A patient weighing less than 30 grams (1 oz) may go into shock when we collect 8 drops of blood; this is approximately 0.5 ml of blood.  The blood volume in such a patient is 2.5 grams (or less than 2.5 ml).  When a gerbil or a finch weighs 4-8 grams, you can understand why sometimes we prefer to collect a urine and fecal sample before attempting to collect a blood sample. 

We would like about 10x stools for a fecal test, if possible.  It usually takes a day or so to collect this 1/4+ teaspoon amount of feces.  If you use a plastic spoon or a wooden tongue depressor you can collect and scrape these into a zip lock bag as they are found.  Try to keep out most of the bedding, if possible and instead consider using newspaper on the floor of the habitat to collect and scrape the feces then into a zip-lock bag.  With any urine or fecal sample do not place a paper towel in with the sample inside the plastic bag or container, as this will dry out the sample.  The final 1-2 stools should be fresh and moist before dropping by the clinic; you can always leave a sample near the east door if we are closed.  This is the door which faces town, and the wind does not blow things around in this entry.  If you are collecting a stool sample and also a urine sample, as described below, a small amount of urine will not contaminate a fecal sample.

If a pet is drinking excess water this is not normal.  Refilling the water bottle more often or noticing letter that is wetter than usual indicates a possible urinary problem.  To collect a urine sample this is easy with an animal on a wire cage floor.  Place Saran-like wrap under the cage, and when you notice some urine take the provided syringe and suck it up; it may take 2-4x urinations to obtain 1/2cc or more of urine.  1/2cc is the same as 1/2 ml.  If there are feces in the urine, we do not want any fecal contamination; just wait until there is another sample of urine only.  If the wire floor is dirty, you may want to clean this first, before collecting any urine.  For those pets which are housed on a sold floor with bedding, some pocket pets may eat the plastic wrap if you place it inside their habitat; rabbits are such a species.  If possible find a very clean container or habitat, clean it out with warm water and then either towel or air dry.  Do not use soap or other disinfectants which may alter the urinalysis tests; if you need to use a soap then double rinse before drying.  One can also obtain a Tupperware type of container, drill some holes in the lid and place the animal in this enclosure and then suck up urine as he/she goes; all we need is 1ml (1/5 teaspoon) or less.  One can also try placing wax paper in the bottom of the habitat inside to collect urine or feces, after removing all of the bedding and cleaning out the habitat.  You can place the urine in the refrigerator if it will take a couple days to collect this amount, and if not bring in what you have.  For other pocket pets one can take some plastic wrap and cover and tape it to a piece of cardboard, then place this cardboard inside the habitat; remove any bedding.  Collect the urine by using the syringe as described above.  The urine does not have to be refrigerated if you are able to bring it into the clinic within a day.  If we are looking for an infection in the urine, we prefer that you do not leave it outside the door in freezing weather.  In warm weather you can leave a urine sample outside the east entry. 
There are times when a pocket pet is drinking excess water; if this is so there may be an underlying medical problem and/or infection.  A urine sample is recommended, and if the test is normal then we recommend that you first switch to a water bowl and measure the amount of water consumed daily.  Some nipple bottles leak and/or the pet may “play with the water bottle”, etc.

More than 85+% of the sick exotics patients we see usually have an underlying nutritional problem.  Most of the diets sold for pocket pets and birds are not as nutritious as their product literature may state; there are no laws regulating pocket pet nutrition.  If the pet food contains whole seeds, or even a mixture of many different things, it usually is not a complete food.  Many of our pocket pets are herbivores and dried fruit should be limited. What we may visually prefer as humans is not the diet that is preferred or healthy for your pet.  Have you ever wondered why the poultry industry goes through the cost to pelletize a diet?  To provide a diet of the ingredients by themselves will not allow the animal to eat all of the nutritious items, instead they eat only what they want.  A seed diet is not nutritious; a pelletize diet should be at least 60-80% of the food fed to any exotic or pocket pet.  There are only a few species where such a commercial diet is not available.  Please ask for our herbivore feeding handout if you are unsure about the digestive system of your pocket pet.  Anytime that a herbivore pocket pet is not eating (i.e. guinea pig, rabbit) it is very important to get some vegetable baby type food and give orally with a syringe to keep the intestinal tract going until you can bring the patient in for an exam. For intestinal problems in herbivore pocket pets we have another handout on intestinal problems/dysbiosis.  Do not give honey to pocket pet herbivores such as rabbits and guinea pigs.  Mice, rats, reptiles are not herbivores, yet most all of the others are, including almost all of the bird species.  Reptiles are not usually called “pocket pets”, although some reptiles (lizards) are herbivores and/or omnivores.

If you are using cedar, redwood or any aromatic type bedding, please ask for our handout on problems with such materials.  (It is illegal to use this bedding for rodents and pocket pets in Colorado, yet many stores will sell such materials).  

When treating exotic pets with antibiotics in their drinking water, you do not need to change/discard the water each day. Once every 5-7 days you should consider changing medicated water, or sooner if it does not look right.  Always check to ensure they are drinking water daily.  If you feel you have to give water orally always do this as a gruel; it is much safer for the patient and a gruel of soaked food, baby food, etc contains 2/3 water plus nutrition.  

For arthritis is pocket pets we first recommend a urinalysis sample, plus a fecal if such as test has not be performed within the last year; a urine culture may then be considered.  Blood tests and radiographs can also be performed if indicated.  Pocket pets can have internal cancer, yet it is the topical cancers that we commonly seen in 2+ year old animals.  For guinea pigs we first will recommend adding the injectable Vitamin C to their drinking water; our scurvy handout discusses the degradation problems of ascorbic acid.  Each species is different as in reptiles vitamin D can be a possibility.  Other species may have chlamydia or a mycoplasma type of infections causing arthritis.  Some species also can obtain some of the tick type of diseases.  Sometimes it is not arthritis but a referral type pain (such as dental problems in rodent species).  We have a separate handout for pets, horses, livestock, birds and poultry with arthritis like signs.  For arthritis we may recommend the glucosamine injections once a month, except for birds.  Obesity contributes to arthritis.  Arthrosis is a term for a type of arthritis that is due to aging.  The calcified tissue and tendons of pocket pets can be seen with a low magnesium high phosphorus and vitamin D imbalance/deficiency in the diet.    

When looking at weight loss in exotic pets first we need to ensure they are on a complete diet.  Unfortunately many diets sold are not complete.  Nutritional malnourishment is the main cause of sickness in exotic pets.  We will initially recommend a fecal test, a urine test and maybe cultures initially.  With the exam we will look for dental problems, which may require radiographs (under anesthesia).   Blood tests, radiographs and other tests can also be performed on the first visit, if indicated.  With liver and kidney problems in exotic pet species, if they been on a complete diet, the successful treatments are less successful in pocket pets and livestock since these species do not have the special diets that we have for cats and dogs.  Early treatment of underlying problems is the key to helping exotic pets live longer.

To prevent dental problems in pocket pets that re on a hay diet (chinchillas, guinea pigs, rabbits, etc) feed 3/4+ of the diet as a grass hay, very little fruits or sweet treats (less than 5%) and limit other vegetables and pellets to less than 20% of their diet

The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic