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Pocket Pets for Christmas

10 Things the Vet Wants You to Know

Can I have a pet that is just mine?  Is your child ready for a pet of his own – perhaps a small pet that he can care for all by himself? One that might live in his room?

Gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, mice, and rats are often called pocket pets, referring to their compact size. Their furry bodies, adorable antics, and low maintenance make them attractive choices for children’s pets.

But beyond the cuteness factor, what should you consider?

1. Supervision
You know how this goes! Children have the best intentions, but success will depend on your help and supervision. Missing a day or two of food, water, or cleaning could be devastating to such a small animal. Be prepared to check on the pet every day and to oversee handling.

2. Food and Water
The basics are fresh food and clean water daily. However, requirements differ from one species to the next. For example, guinea pigs require vitamin C and lots of hay every day. Specific, healthy, easy-to-feed diets are readily available in pet stores.

3. Habitat
These critters require modest spaces, and appropriate housing is easy to find. You may spend between $50 and $100 on caging and accessories. Paper-pulp bedding is safe, disposable, and inexpensive. Exercise wheels, exercise balls, houses for hiding, and items to chew round out the list of necessities.

4. Cleaning
Count on a thorough cleaning and bedding change about once or twice a week. The pet’s output varies depending on the species. For example, gerbils come from an arid climate and use water efficiently, resulting in a less messy and smelly cage. On the other hand, guinea pigs need to graze on ample hay, resulting in a steady production of fecal pellets and more frequent housecleaning.

5. Allergies
Beware! People can be allergic to these pets. Plus, hay and bedding can also be an allergen for some owners.

6. Nocturnal or Diurnal?
Many pocket pets are nocturnal; with any luck, your child is not. That means that the pet and your child may be busy at different times. Guinea pigs are the notable exception here. They are more diurnal (awake during the day). But even nocturnal pets can play and interact with their human friends. The key is to wake them gently and give them a moment to realize it’s time to play.

7. Lifespan
Good or bad, pocket pets have relatively short life spans ranging from about two (for mice) to eight (for guinea pigs) years. The smaller pets live the shortest time. It is likely that this pet could be your child’s first experience with death. It will be difficult, but worthwhile and important. Your child will care for a pet through its entire lifespan, experiencing responsibility, love, and compassion.

8. Interaction
Guinea pigs and rats are social and enjoy human contact. Guinea pigs will squeak for attention or treats. Gerbils and mice move quickly. They may be difficult to hold, but unlikely to bite, and lots of fun to watch. Hamsters can be nippy. They may take a little more effort to tame and acclimate to handling. The larger breeds of hamsters tend to be more docile.

9. Bites
Naturally, anything with a mouth can bite. If a bite occurs, it is unlikely to be serious or need more than cleaning and a bandage. Mice and hamsters are probably more prone to biting than gerbils, guinea pigs, or rats. Bites can be avoided by gentle, supportive handling. Your child should sit on the floor and hold her pet with two hands, avoiding quick movements or loud noises that may frighten the animal.

10. And Finally, Pets as Gifts?
It may be best to ask Santa or the elves to bring the pet supplies or a book on pet care only. Selecting a healthy animal and bringing it home without the chaos of holiday celebrations takes the pressure off of Santa and your new small friend. And it gives your child the chance to embrace the whole adoption experience.


Kelly Gottschalk, DVM, co-founder of Wellesley Animal in the far West End, has a passion for and background in zoo animal medicine. She serves as the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s (VVMA) legislative chair.
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