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Making a home for your pocket pet

Making A Home For Your Pocket Pet


There is no accurate term for a pocket pet, except we use this terminology for a small pet. Each species of animals 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 wire for others and yet maybe sand for another species.

            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. 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.

            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

Ferret                           **, boxes

Guinea Pig                  **,*,

Hamster                       **,*,

Mouse or Rat              **,

Rabbit                         **,*,

Reptiles                       **,


** = 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.


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic


     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.






Considerations for the various bedding materials sold for birds, reptiles, livestock and pocket pets


            There are many types of bedding sold for animals. What is adequate for one species may be hazardous to another. Livestock and horses can utilize straw, shredded paper or aspen wood shavings for bedding. Straw can be dusty and we do not recommend this for pets. Pine shavings can have some volatile oil problems, and also are not recommended especially if it is fresh pine shavings or chips. All aromatic oil shavings, especially walnut in horses, are not recommended for any species routinely. It is sad to say but it is illegal to house laboratory and pet store animals in Colorado with these aromatic wood products (redwood, oak, walnut, etc), yet many of these stores sell the products to the consumer. The use of these aromatic woods can cause pneumonia in many species of animals, including fresh pine. Cedar and similar wood chips can even cause swollen testicles in rodents as part of a reaction to the aromatic wood. Cattle may also be bedded adequately with dried manure or straw. In cats the clumping litters can be utilized, yet we do not recommend these at all with other animals. With poultry, too deep of a bedding (litter) can cause leg problems. Although litter is intended to manage feces and discarded food, it is very similar in considerations to bedding; litter is more of a pet store and laboratory rodent terminology. Bedding is intended for resting and insulation from the cold or wet ground. For all practical purposes we will use the term bedding, which includes litter.

            Wood kiln, dried pine is free of the aromatic oils, yet the shredded pine fresh from a tree is not. There is also reclaimed wood pulp, which has been processed to eliminate the aromatic oils and cellulose. Some livestock animals will eat pine. Aspen shavings are safe. Contrary to belief most of the reptile and bird mites do not originate from bedding that you purchased in a store.

            Paper can be recycled into pellets, shredded or left as is form the newspaper. Your own newspaper is one of the best sources and you can use a paper shredder to recycle the newspapers. Pneumonia and molds from wet bedding is a common problem with paper pellet shavings or shreds.

            Grass and forage type by-products may be adequate bedding materials. Wheat grass can be made into pellets. Also available are corncobs, walnut shavings and walnut granules. Walnut shavings can cause laminitis in horses, and they should not be used in this species. Besides being dusty corncobs can allow mold and thus cause pneumonia. Coconut fiber, peat moss and moss bedding, cypress bark, alfalfa pellets, millet bedding and orchard bark are also sold. We do not recommend peat moss, as the pH of this substrate can be 3-4 (too acidic) and it can cause related skin problems. As FYI coconut mulch is toxic to dogs and other pets that eat this type of product.

            Gravel and sand are traditionally used bedding. The large gravel can cause problems if it is ingested; we prefer the 3/8″ or less pea gravel. As with any product a dust-free bedding is recommended.

            The clumping clay litters can easily cause impactions in any animal that ingests it. Only cats should have these bentonite clay litter products. The typical cat litter is clay.


For the various species:


Birds – We recommend using the daily newspaper. Aspen shavings can be used for wing flapping birds. If other products are used do not allow contact with the litter to avoid impactions (screen at bottom of the cage)


Livestock normally can use dried manure, sand, sawdust, chopped straw, shredded paper, ground particle board or even ground sunflower hulls as bedding. After 1-2 days the organic bedding should be changed. In a dairy stanchion/stall situation, one can remove the back bedding near the isle, and rake the cleaner front half of the bedding into the back. New bedding can be placed daily into the front half. If you rake up the organic bedding to aerate it, go no deeper than 2″. Sand can be replaced every 5-7 days. A soft wood shavings or sawdust is typically used in most of the horse barn facilities. For cattle the use of soybean waste has a low absorption capability, and chopped corn stalks usually has too high of a moisture content to adequately absorb urine. Some products, such as hay and corn stalks, may be eaten by the adult cows if you are trying to only bed down the calves. When traveling with livestock 1″ if bedding is recommended; anything more can contribute to problems. It should be noted that the rubber mats are easy to clean, but when they are wet and/or icy in a trailer or a stall animals tend to slip more. In the winter we do not recommend rubber mats in the average horse stall. To prevent frostbite the use of shelter, a sand substrate below straw, wood chips etc this helps in very cold weather, and especially should be considered in bulls used for fall calving operations.

          For pigs straw works the best for bedding.


For pocket pets that burrow, coconut fiber can be used. It is recommended to have enough bedding so that these small size pets can hide and/or dig a tunnel.


Rabbits should not be on clumping litter. Any animal that eats clumping litter can develop intestinal blockage issues. As with any rodent species the aromatic oil beddings are to be avoided; no cedar, redwood, oak, etc wood shavings. The fresh pine shavings are not recommended. Aspen bark, hay, peat moss, straw and any similar hay or pelleted product can be used for the litter box; consider the issue of “what will occur if my rabbit ate the litter”. Regular clay litters with no deodorants or additives is also very adequate and recommended.


Reptiles and amphibians – varies with the species. You can use paper, peat, sphagnum, carpet or aspen shavings for paper towels for snakes. For lizards you will want to feed them in a different area, and in a bowl, to prevent impaction. If ingested sand can impact and irritate the intestinal tract. The calcium carbonate still can cause impactions

            For uromastyx we recommend millet bedding (or crushed walnut shells)

            For lizards we recommend sand, unless they ingest it. A flat newspaper is adequate for many species;

similar to birds you just place many layers in the habitat and remove the top layer every day or so.

If you use carpet have 3-4 pieces to change out every 1-2 days, wash and let dry in the sunlight.

            For amphibians we recommend moss, which holds moisture.


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic