Pocket Pets 101


Everyone knows that I live with Brian T. Dog, an adorable golden retriever with a bevy of themed bandanas. There are many of us with cats too. But what if you are more space-limited or enjoy having smaller companions in your house?

Pocket pets! While we know that they are smaller than the aforementioned creatures, they frequently require an outsized amount of care. Small furry creatures can be wonderful companions, so please do all you can to assure that they receive the best husbandry possible. Let’s explore a few care tips about these friends.  

Guinea Pigs
These precocious creatures originated in South America and have been pets (and food) for thousands of years. Guinea pigs are born looking like miniature adults and nurse from their mothers for only two to three weeks. Their lifespan can range from five to eight years, but some have reached their teens. They make really cute grunting noises.

Special needs of guinea pigs include plenty of exercise, an ability to explore and be stimulated, regular brushing, and Vitamin C. Here are some specifics.

Diet: Timothy hay, commercial guinea pig pellets, fresh veggies and fruits (slice of orange, apple, romaine lettuce, carrots, collard greens). Be sure to routinely offer fruit with Vitamin C as it is an essential nutrient for them. Many guinea pigs have died from a poor diet and lack of Vitamin C. Always have access to fresh water.

Housing: A large cage with ramps, platform, and hiding places is required. Bedding should consist of shredded paper and be cleaned daily.

Special considerations: Brush your little pigs daily with a soft brush. Be sure they get exercise outside of their cage frequently. They do better in pairs, but if you have different sexes be sure to have them spayed and neutered.

House rabbits have become very popular and can live in excess of 10 years. They can be very social and frequently get along well with other pets, supervised, of course. Like guinea pigs, rabbits are social animals and require quite a bit of playtime daily. They make great indoor pets and can readily be litterbox-trained.

Feeding: Grass hay (timothy, rye, barley), rabbit pellets, and plenty of fresh leafy greens (romaine lettuce, collard greens, carrot tops), occasional carrots. Rabbits will drink from a large water bottle with a nozzle. They require chew sticks (available at pet stores) to help keep their teeth from growing too long.

Housing: As large a cage as possible with a solid bottom. Provide paper-based bedding, never cedar shavings.

Special considerations: Spayed or neutered rabbits tend to live longer, healthier lives. Learn how to properly hold a rabbit. Improper handling can result in the rabbit breaking its back – really! Rabbits also eat a small amount of their own feces daily, which is why you don’t house them in a cage with a wire mesh bottom. Annual veterinary exams are important.  

These creatures are really mostly fluff. When handled from a very young age, they can be quite tame and make great companions. Like rabbits, they are social and require attention. They are from Chile and Peru – cooler environments – and do not tolerate temperatures above 75 or below 50 F, or high humidity. A chinchilla is a long-term pet and can live up to 20 years.

Feeding: Chinchillas eat mostly grasses, timothy hay being the best. Chinchilla pellets (without treats) may also be used in addition to the hay. Give treats rarely as they may cause digestive issues. Safe treats include a Cheerio (only one), a few unsalted sunflower seeds, a small amount of fig. Always have fresh water; a stoppered water bottle is great.

Housing: As large a chew-proof cage as possible. Have ramps and a sleeping box too. Shredded paper is best as bedding; avoid pine and cedar. If you are busy, it is better to have two chinchillas than one. They will play with each other. A solid exercise wheel (avoid wire ones) will help with exercise. Let them play, while being supervised, outside the cage in an enclosed room whenever possible.

Special considerations: Dust baths! Yes, you read correctly. They need to bathe daily in dust to reduce oils in their fur. Be sure the dust is very fine and not coarse like sand. Like rabbits (and most small furry creatures of their ilk), they need chew items, wood or pumice. Special chinchilla dust and chews are available.

There are now several varieties of hamsters available as pets, from larger, teddy bear hamsters to tiny Russian dwarves. Care is bit more forgiving than for rabbits or chinchillas, but they also have much shorter lifespans: approximately two years, sometimes a bit longer.

Diet: Hamsters will readily eat commercial hamster mixes and love small amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit added to their diet. They are trainable, and you can use small pieces of apple as the reward. A stoppered water bottle is essential. Hamsters also tend to hide their food. Allow them to do so in their cage, but do clean this area at least every few weeks.

Housing: Personal experience has revealed that hamsters have teeth that can chew through almost anything. Use a large glass aquarium for their environment or a really high-quality wire cage. Provide a nest box area and offer empty cardboard tubes for them to chew and play with. Bedding can be wood shavings (not pine or cedar), paper-based, or even sand. Give them wood wool to use in making a nest area. A bit of toilet paper works well too.

Special considerations: In the wild, hamsters are nocturnal, so they may be most active at night. The Syrian (teddy bear) hamster usually lives alone, and if two are placed in the same enclosure they may fight to the death. Russian dwarf hamsters prefer to live peacefully in groups. Be careful though. If you have members of both sexes living together, as Dr. Teich did when he was a kid, you could wind up with a whole host of them.

The above information is only an introduction to pocket pets. Before you bring a new furry creature into your house, do your research and preparation.

Do you like creepy-crawly, scaly, or slimy creatures? Stay tuned for a later edition exploring facets of their care. Dr. Teich has an affinity for frogs, salamanders, and fish!


Dan Teich, DVM, is at District Veterinary Hospital, 3748 10th St. NE, Washington, DC 20017; 202-827-1230 and desk@districtvet.com.