Caged Pets: How Kids Can Take Care of Small Rodents
Just about every pet shop features a few of these little guys, happily sleeping or playing in their cages and all it takes is one cute sneeze, one peanut in the cheek, or one upside down spin on the wheel for your child to fall in love. Many parents will balk at the idea of rodents due to the cage cleaning requirements, however, smaller rodents are often an excellent choice if space is an issue, or if you are looking for a shorter-term commitment. As rodents can be fragile due to their size, I recommend waiting until the child is over the toddler stage, but otherwise, I find small rodents to be suitable pets for all ages, with proper supervision. Timid rodents like mice are much less physically interactive than their larger cousins the rats but are very entertaining to watch. The best rodent for your child will depend on the child's activity level, preferred method of interaction, and time and space constraints.
Why or why not small rodents?
Small rodents can be delightful little pets; they can be affectionate, interactive, and amusing. Cage pets are a good choice for a child who is busy, particularly if they are reliable about keeping a weekly schedule and have a gentle hand. They typically take up only a small amount of space and their living quarters can often be moved from place to place relatively quickly. Small rodents frequently prefer to live in groups, which means they may not need to rely only on their caregiver for social activity, but socializing your cage pet to humans at an early age will encourage interactive behavior and discourage biting behaviors.They do require something to chew on both for their entertainment and their physical health, but the costs for these items are typically minimal. Rodents without something appropriate to chew on may begin chewing on their cage instead, leading to escapes or digestive blockages. Nearly all of these rodents are escape artists as well so be cautious about what type of enclosure you choose and check it for damage daily.
Can live singly, amusing, interactive if socialized to humans at an early age
May bite without proper socialization, nocturnal, Escape artists
Simple to care for, friendly, entertaining to watch
Escape artists, prolific chewers, difficult to keep as singletons
Active, easy to care for, small living space required
May jump from hands, prone to biting, very gentle handling required.
Social, highly interactive, intellegent, and very trainable
Consumate escape artists, get bored easily
Hamsters are a popular choice for many households with children. Almost every pet store has several enclosures with pairs or groups of these little fuzzballs. They are cute and entertaining, and although it is not an easy task, they even can be taught some simple and amusing tricks. Hamsters are a little grouchy, so taming and socializing them to humans at a young age is imperative to a well-adjusted pet, and their nocturnal nature can be distressing to light sleepers. They are, however, the best suited of the smaller rodents to the solitary life, as a matter of fact, many breeds of hamster object rather strenuously to having roommates unless they are of the opposite gender. Having a male hamster and female hamster in the same enclosure will generally result in lots and lots of little hamsters.
Gerbils are another fun option for kids, like hamsters they are small, furry, and entertaining. They even look much like hamsters, although gerbils have larger back feet, and tails, but make no mistake, they are a very different animal. Gerbils are desert animals that are much happier in pairs or groups. It is generally recommended to get two or more at the same time as they can become very aggressive to outsiders when they are older, especially the females. Gerbils are less likely to bite than hamsters, but socialization is still needed. Again, if you get gerbils of opposite gender, you are likely to have a very large number of gerbils to find homes for in a short amount of time. If they are a single pet, it is imperative that they get enough interaction with their human, and they may have some difficulty with grooming as they cannot reach all the parts that need to be groomed without assistance.
Today’s pet mice are descended from either common house mice or deer mice. Mice are the least expensive of the small rodents, but not necessarily the best value. They are cute and can be entertaining to watch, but they aren’t as affectionate or easy to handle the other small rodents listed. Mice require the companionship of other mice, so it is best to keep them in groups, or at least pairs. They are energetic and entertaining, but their attention span is minimal. Any startling sound or sight will have them running for a place to hide, and a mouse can be a difficult thing to locate and catch once it's on the run. Speaking of running, they do love to run on wheels, even wild mice! Just make sure that the wheel you choose is lightweight or well-mounted, as heavier wheels can easily topple and break their tiny bones.
Rats are my personal favorite of the smaller rodents. I have shared my home with each of these rodents at one time or another, but I always come back to the rats. They are larger than the other three rodents listed and quite sturdy, but just as capable of sneaking out of their cages. On the other hand, of all of the smaller rodents, these are the most likely to seek you out instead of hiding from you if they do escape. If you don't have at least two to three hours a day to devote to socializing with your rodent, it's best to house them in pairs or groups to prevent depression and ill-health. Rats are highly intelligent as well as being social, and without some form of entertainment, rats get bored. A bored rat is either destructive or depressed. Toys for rats are easy to come by, either at a pet store or by using things you might otherwise throw away like paper towel rolls. Rats are also very trainable, easily learning to come to their name, to ride on your shoulder, and even to perform complex trick routines.
Did you have small rodents growing up?
Most children over the age of four are capable of handling small rodents without harming them, and feeding and watering chores are generally easy enough for a very young child to handle with minimal supervision. The only task that requires an older child or an adult would be the cleaning of the animal’s living area. Leaving appropriate duties to a child is fine, but keep in mind it is still your job to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to in order to keep their pet healthy and happy. It can take just a day or two of neglect to cause smaller animals like these to expire. Handling of most of these pets are best left to children four and over as they have the dexterity to deal with these fragile creatures, and handling should generally remain supervised until the child is at least in the seven to nine year old range, depending on the child. Small rodents may still make suitable pets for some children that are still too young to hold the pet. Many small children and toddlers will be delighted just to watch them run on their wheel or explore their home in the runaround balls.
Questions & Answers
Do you have any recommendations in regards to toys or housing for gerbils? We know about the escape problem, so I have her in an aquarium, but I’d like to provide her with ledges and more than just bedding and cardboard. She has some tunneling material, but I’m always looking to make her more comfortable and happy.
Gerbils tend to be burrowers rather than climbers, so they like lots and lots of bedding and burrowing, and don't use ledges as much as some of the other rodents. Any sort of tunnel under bedding tends to be frequently used, and if you set a clear tube or tunnel up near the front of the cage, you may see them more often when they don't feel as observed. Some people like using smaller glass jars that the gerbil can roll around, or larger ones they can play in. Small upside down terracotta pots are popular for them to climb on, but be sure to frequently check for edges and plug or enlarge any hole at the bottom as gerbils have been known to get stuck.