Jan 16 2009

Pocket pets — guinea pigs, rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils

This month we will continue our discussion of some of our smaller and sometimes misunderstood patients- rodents. This group includes guinea pigs, rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils. They all have several things in common. For one, all rodents have very long front teeth called incisors and broader, flatter teeth in the back called molars. All of these teeth continue growing for the life of the animal. Therefore, it is very important that they grind them down constantly. If their jaws do not meet perfectly, the teeth can overgrow to the point that they cannot eat. If this happens, we can clip and file the teeth down. This usually has to be continued for life. Rodents also are very sensitive to many antibiotics, including penicillins (like amoxicillin). They can develop a life-threatening diarrhea from them so we are very careful when prescribing antibiotics to these pets. There are antibiotics that are safe and effective, but it important to remember that you should never use another pet’s medication for them.
guineapigGuinea pigs are one of the more popular rodents and they can make excellent pets. They tend to be active during the day as opposed to most rodents which are more active at night. They are clean and usually quite friendly, especially if handled frequently. They can be fed guinea pig pellets, hay and fresh greens. It is important that they also have constant supply of Vitamin C. Unlike other animals, with the exception of primates, they do not make their own Vitamin C and need it in their diet. It can be added to the water, which needs to be changed daily because Vitamin C is inactivated by light, and you can offer citrus fruits. If you have more than one guinea pig, you need to be sure of the sex of them as you will get more guinea pigs than you intended. Female guinea pigs must be bred before a year of age for the first time. After that, the pelvic bones harden in a narrow position and will not allow enough room for the babies to pass through the birth canal. Unlike other rodents, guinea pig pups are quite large when they are born and are fully haired, with eyes open and are able to run within minutes.
ratRats get a bad rap, but they actually make wonderful pets. They are clean, affectionate and quite intelligent. They do very well on a diet of rat pellets and treats. The biggest medical problem they get is that the females are prone to getting mammary (breast) cancer. Rats and mice have a tremendous amount of mammary tissue that goes not just underneath their bellies but up along their sides to their back. These tumors can be removed surgically. They also can get pneumonia, so if you have a rat which seems to be having labored breathing, we should see it immediately.
gerbilGerbils, hamsters and mice are some of the smallest pets that we see. They all tend to be more skittish than guinea pigs and rats, but frequent, gentle handling reinforced with treats can help tame them down. The biggest thing to watch for in them is “wet tail” which basically just means diarrhea. However, diarrhea is much more serious in the pocket pets than in other animals and should be treated right away.

None of these pets require any routine vaccinations, but it is a good idea to have them examined once a year or if you notice anything unusual about them. The small pets hide illness well and they tend to be much sicker than they look when they are sick. If you have any further questions about these fun little furry creatures, please feel free to give us a call.

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