Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
Rodents are one of the most diverse groups of mammals on Earth, and they are also popular as pets for many reasons. Most rodents are smaller, although there are exceptions like the capybara, and many readily adapt to life in captivity. Some rodents take on characteristics of species they are not related to, like springhares which are designed like kangaroos, and Patagonian maras which resemble small deer. This is thanks to convergent evolution, and subsequently, there are many species in the animal kingdom that are not related to each other despite being similar in appearance. Here are 8 animals that are sometimes kept as pets that look like rodents but aren’t.
African Pygmy Hedgehog
Hedgehogs are very popular in the exotic pet industry because they are relatively easy to care for, not very large, and make for interesting pets. Hedgehogs are domesticated animals that even come in different color morphs. They are said to be a hybridized species that recently entered the pet trade in the 1980s and quickly rose to popularity. These unique animals are obviously distinctive because of their short quills that they use as a defense mechanism. Porcupines are rodents that people are highly familiar with, and several species can be kept as pets. Hedgehogs however are completely unrelated to porcupines and other rodents.
Many people have trouble classifying what taxon skunks belong to despite their relative popularity as exotic pets, with many erroneously suggesting that they in the rodent family because they don’t seem to fit in with the well-known animal groups people tend to be familiar with. A glance at their dentition however should make it clear they aren’t rodents. In reality, these iconic animals are classified as being in the family Mephitidae along with stink badgers, and in the superfamily Musteloidea. A polecat species, the zorrila, strongly resembles skunks but are distantly related to them.
Strangely enough, in addition to not being rodents, while these animals look almost exactly like hedgehogs, they are a completely unrelated and separate species. Tenrecs are the only other quilled mammal in the pet trade besides porcupines and hedgehogs. While hedgehogs are classified as insectivores, tenrecs are in their own group, Tenrecidae.
This strange species actually has one of the lowest body temperatures for a mammal. Tenrecs are less common than hedgehogs in the pet trade, and while the latter can cost around $100-350, tenrecs run around $1000 in the United States.
How Are Rodents Classified?
The most obvious and defining characteristic of all rodents is the presence of two upper ever-growing incisors that require them to constantly chew in order to keep their teeth filed down.
Sometimes considered to be exotic pets, rabbits, despite sharing the characteristic of incisors that grow for the duration of their lives, are actually not rodents. They are called lagomorphs along with pikas, although they used to be classified as rodents until 1912. The reason for this is that they have four upper incisors instead of two. They are however the closest living relatives of rodents.
Marsupials are a group of animals that range dramatically in their morphology. Kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, bandicoots, and the extinct Tasmanian tiger are all related despite how different they look. Short-tailed opossums are relatively popular small pets that really resemble mice and other rodents, but they are marsupials. There are other small species of opossum that are less common as pets.
Unlike kangaroos and wallabies, they do not have a pouch, but they still give birth to small young that are attached to them for a long developmental period. It’s easy to tell that opossums are not rodents when you see their teeth; instead of the buck teeth-type molars that are characteristic of all rodents, they are equipped with rows of sharp teeth that are suitable for their carnivorous diet. Short-tailed opossums are capable hunters.
Another Medium-Sized Opossum Species
This animal is definitely the rarest on the list and the least likely to be encountered as a pet, but they are sometimes kept by adventurous exotic pet owners. Rock hyraxes are not cheap animals and for good reason. Rock hyraxes are the closest living relative to the elephant, and similarly to those pachyderms, they have an extremely long gestation period.
Compared to the very short gestation of most rodents, this is astounding. They also only give birth to one young at a time, compared to the litters most rodents tend to have. Hyraxes have many unique characteristics, including tiny ‘tusks’ (like elephants) that protrude from their mouth, cube-shaped feces, and very strange-looking paw pads. Rock hyraxes are expensive and more challenging pets, in addition to being hard to find.
Sugar gliders are very popular for exotic pets and have been bred so extensively that they also come in different color morphs. These small pocket pets have an unfortunate (but well-deserved) reputation for being smelly, and they are often purchased on a whim despite needing more care than many other traditional pets that are around their size.
Like opossums, sugar gliders are marsupials, despite the fact that they look like flying squirrels. This is just another shining example of convergent evolution at work. Like flying squirrels, they should have a spacious cage so they can maneuver and leap from branch to branch.
This is a highly uncommon species to see as a pet, and most of them exist in animal educator circles as "animal ambassadors," but they are pets one way or the other. Bettongs have one critical attribute that will keep them in relative obscurity; they are critically endangered in the wild, and due to the Endangered Species Act, they cannot be sold or brought over state lines. If you want to own a bettong as a pet, you will need to purchase it in the state that you live in. While bettongs are shaped like wallabies (or springhares) and hop bipedally for movement, they resemble rats and other rodents.
These North American natives look a lot like large rats with white heads which can be unnerving to some people, but they are actually the only naturally-occurring marsupials in North America and are beneficial for the environment. They consume "pest" species such as ticks and are one of the few mammals that are resistant to rabies. Their teeth can look frightening, but they are easy to handle, and many people enjoy keeping these surprisingly affectionate animals as pets.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Melissa A Smith
Penny Leigh Sebring from Fort Collins on May 28, 2018:
Very interesting information!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 23, 2018:
Barry Oswold Skunks are relatively popular for exotic mammals. They have their scent glands removed.
Barry Oswold from London on May 20, 2018:
Well, I'll be...you can keep a skunk as a pet? Wouldn't that become really smelly? To each their own, I guess!
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 20, 2018:
Thanks Larry yes they aren't for most people.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 19, 2018:
We quite regularly see wild opossums in our yard. I would not want to keep any of these animals as pets. Most of them are probably far happier if allowed to roam in the wild. Our pets have only consisted of dogs and cats.
Larry W Fish from Raleigh on May 19, 2018:
Melissa, I can honestly say that the only one of those pets that I like is the rabbit. I had rabbits when I was a child and still to this day I think they are the cutest animals. As far as the others, they are not for me.