A reader asks Dr Platzhund about getting rodents; be it rats, hamsters or guinea pigs, as pets.
Q: I’ve been thinking about getting a pair of rodents as pets, either rats or guinea pigs for my 3-year-old child and I. What size cage would I need? Do either of them bite? And, do they stink? I always remember my friends’ hamsters smelling rather bad as a child.
A: At three years old, your child is too young to handle pet rodents, but there’s no harm in keeping them in suitable habitats, and have her with you while you handle them. These small creatures need gentle handling at ground level. Too often they catch fright or feel insecure in inexperienced hands, and drop to the ground, only to suffer life threatening injuries. Rats are highly trainable and clean creatures. They need spatial stimulation and to be checked by a veterinarian at the time of purchase. A cage must never be less than 260cm² for a single rat; at least 18cm high and fenced on all sides. If you can create more space, the better they will be for it. Rats gnaw and burrow, so make sure they can’t escape or damage their habitat. They must have access to water and a variety of food at all times. They must have sections in which to hide and another area for soiling. Odour is only an issue if the husbandry is lacking, so clean their cage often. Bedding should be dust free, absorptive, non-toxic material, such as paper, untreated wood shavings, ground corn cob or sawdust. Guinea pigs can be housed in outdoor enclosures or large indoor pens. Flooring of indoor pens needs to be easy to clean and absorptive. If they inhale urine regularly they can die of upper respiratory problems through ammonia toxicity. They must have places to hide indoors to avoid stress and light, or outdoors to avoid weather and predators. Guinea pigs are highly vocal rodents with about 11 different clearly identifiable calls. All these confined highly managed habitats for small pets must have consideration for environmental temperatures including draughts. Most can tolerate temperatures from 4-29°C quite comfortably. At seven years old your child will be responsible to handle and help take care of your rodent pets.