My Pet Mouse is Afraid of me! How to Make Friends with Your New Pet
Mice make great pets. They're easy to care for, intelligent, friendly, and amusing to watch. However, many new mouse owners take their pets home and quickly get disappointed or frustrated because they can't get the mouse to come out of their cage. In the wild, mice act as food for many predators. Contrary to what "The Tale of Desperaux" lets you believe, all the brave and courageous mice ended up as owl food long before they could pass on their genes.
But while you have to deal with a timid, skittish creature, you can make him feel safe and friendly, or else no one would keep mice as pets. Over the years, I've found the following techniques, and employing them on a regular basis will help get your pet accustomed to viewing you as a friendly, but gigantic, provider.
Give them something nice that smells like you
This method takes advantage of two instincts your mouse possesses: a fondness for warm, dark places and sensing the world through smell instead of sight. Mice don't have great eyesight, so they rely on their nose to orient them. While you (hopefully) can't detect your odor or that of the people around you, mice find it a distinguishing feature and identify who you are.
So when you first bring him home, don't put anything in the cage they can hide in (except a toilet paper tube...I'll get to that later). Cut the toes off an old sock and wear it around your wrist for a day or two, then give it to the mouse. Without boxes, nooks, or tunnels, the sock will be the best material for a nest. He'll either crawl inside it or under it to feel safe, and he'll use it as a nest when he sleeps.
And it should smell like you. Therefore, he associates you with warmth, comfort, and safety, simply because you smell like the sock.
I've used this technique often, but honestly I wonder how effective it is. After two or three days, the mouse's smell will overpower your own. If you want to try this, remember to change the sock frequently--at the very least, throw it out every time you clean the cage. It gets gross.
Food. Mice like food. Yummm...
You can manipulate hunger to your advantage in two ways. The simplest one requires a bag of treats. Every time my mice come out to see me, I offer them a treat. They rarely eat it outside of the cage, so as soon as I put them back I offer it to them. Make sure they see it immediately and take it from your hand. If you drop it in the cage and they find it an hour later, they won't associate treats with coming out to play.
I also read about a technique that requires nothing more than the bag of food you bought at the pet store. Pick out a bunch of the smallest seeds you can find. Then go a day without feeding your mouse. After 24 hours, put the seeds in your palm and hold your hand out in the cage. Don't move.
The mouse has to take the food from your hand. He'll probably swipe the seeds near the edge of your palm first, but seeds are small and he'll have to come back for more. Place the bulk of the pile in the center. This will force the mouse to step on you with at least his front paws. Usually he'll leave at least one paw on the bedding and do a sort of safety paw dance. Let him dance if he wants to. Let him leave one paw behind. (I'm sorry...I couldn't resist) Give him the feeling that stepping onto his hand is safe and that he'll always have the option of going back to his nest.
Use the hand, sans food
Reach into the cage and try to grab the mouse, and he'll bounce off the walls to escape you. This sends him into a panic, and you probably won't have much luck. But stick your hand in their, palm up, and just wait, and you become an object of curiosity. Again, you rarely find a mouse who climbs completely into your hand and lets you pick him up, but if he sniffs around, your scent becomes familiar and non-threatening.
**There comes a point when you simply have to pick up the mouse**
Nothing says "coming out to play won't kill you" better than coming out to play and not getting killed. So you'll have to pick him up at some point. Don't pick up the mouse by the tail, no matter who you've seen do it. Tails break easily. My girlfriend works with research animals and received training to know the proper place to lift from the tail. If you grab too far out you could cause damage. I don't even risk it unless saving another mouse from a bully. (Pick up the bully, not the victim.)
That being said, the absolute best way to get a frightened mouse from the cage involves scaring him into a toilet paper tube. He should feel safe in a small, dark space, and you can just lift him, tube and all, out of the cage. Don't shake him out into your hand. Place the tube as a bridge from one hand to the other. The mouse will inspect both ends. If he doesn't come out, start tilting the tube into one hand until the mouse either falls out of the bottom or backs his way up into your other hand.
Short sleeves are the way to go
At first, you don't want to let the mouse run free on a table or bed or wherever (when you do, however, make sure you put him on an elevated surface that doesn't come close to anything he can jump across, climb to, or climb down). Let him use your arms (and your shirt, if you have a climber). Hold your arms across your chest making a two-armed platform for him to run around on. It may not seem exciting, but it'll overwhelm the mouse at this point.
Push your inside hand (between the other arm and your chest) slightly underneath the other arm and cup your fingers. This gives the mouse a dark hidey-hole, and lets him know it's safe to play on you.
Do all this without sleeves. He can smell you if he contacts your skin directly. Plus it's easier to clean up.
Thirty Minutes a Day
Mice have a natural intelligence that makes them perfect research animals. However, they learn the same way as humans--through repetition. Play with them at least thirty minutes a day. Take them out multiple times a day. Make sure they remember you. They'll learn, and eventually you'll have trained a small, furry friend, and the fun will begin. Enjoy.