The Complete Guide to Adopting a Small Animal

By PetMD Editorial on Oct. 31, 2016

By Vanessa Voltolina

Like cats and dogs, rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters and other small animals are given up for adoption daily. While some are adopted quickly, others may spend the rest of their lives in shelters looking for a new home. Interested in rescuing your next, or first, small mammal? Here, find everything you need to know about the adoption process and what to do once they are yours.

Why Rescue a Small Animal?

For starters, the benefits of rescuing a small animal are similar to those for dogs and cats. “There is no hidden agenda; these pets are looking for good homes,” said Deana Matero, adoption coordinator at My Hopes in You, a small animal rescue based in Poughkeepsie, NY. Well-run rescue organizations, she said, should not be making a profit off of pet food or cages; the process is more centered on the relationship between the prospective owner and small animal.

“When we talk to a prospective adopter, we want the animal and the person to really bond,” she said, adding that the organization allows people to interact with their prospective pets before adopting them to make sure that the animal they’re interested in will fit into their lifestyle.

Where to Adopt a Small Animal

Although you may want to adopt a small animal from a rescue, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Marcia Coburn, president of Red Door Shelter (which rescues cats, dogs and rabbits) in Chicago, recommends using the internet and calling local veterinarians, particularly those who are exotic medicine vets, to ask for recommendations. “Often, animal hospitals will know of excellent small animals who, through no fault of their own, might need re-homing,” she said.

Emi Knafo, DVM, assistant professor at Tuft University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, recommends enlisting vets who are board-certified by the American College of Zoological Medicine or the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, as they are highly-trained specialists in these species.

Coburn also recommends researching a prospective shelter using, a website that  shows you how a non-profit organization spends its money (bad signs would be large payments to staff, as opposed to on programs, she said). “Every legitimate rescue should be able to give you their Federal Tax ID number, and you can check that it is real on the internet,” she said.

Research to Do Ahead of Time

Once you’ve identified a rescue that fits the bill, consider taking these steps before falling in love with a small animal:

  • Learn all you can before the adoption. Often, rescues will have information sheets or booklets on the specific type of animal you’re looking to adopt (be it rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla or something else) and will gladly share them with you before an adoption takes place, Knafo and Coburn say.
  • Confirm your pre-conceived notions. This is especially important with small, furry animals. “Many people think rabbits are good starter pets for children, but informed rescues will tell you that's not true,” said Coburn. Rabbits can scratch and bite, and some dislike handling, Matero said, particularly if they’ve had previously stress-inducing experiences. Does this mean you should nix the idea of a rabbit? Not necessarily, but it’s vital to decide ahead of time how much time you can devote to a new animal, she added.
  • Don’t rush into the process. “Once you start meeting animals, your emotions will be running at high-gear,” Coburn says, which is why it’s important to do your research in advance. Try to answer some key questions, such as: do you want an animal that can live full-time or part-time in a cage? What kind of a personality are you looking for? Are you willing to pet-proof an area for the animal, if needed?

Once you’ve done your due diligence and have selected the species of your new family member, be sure to read the adoption contract completely before you sign, Coburn says. Some questions to have answered:

  • Is the rescue responsible for any immediate health issues? Some rescues offer two-week coverage on adoptions if health issues pop up; others have the adopter assume responsibility from the moment of adoption.
  • Will the rescue provide breeding information? Knafo recommends confirming that the shelter has a veterinarian available or on staff to examine and treat any sick animals and that they are willing to provide you with information about the breeding facility from which the pet came. “You want to make sure your money is supporting ethical businesses,” she said.
  • Is your pet spayed or neutered? It’s important to spay and neuter these species to reduce cancer risk and also for behavioral reasons, said Knafo.
  • What’s the return policy? Most contracts also outline a return policy if the adoption doesn't work out, said Matero. Many rescues require that adopters return the animal to them, even if the return is years later.
  • Can I get copies? Ask for copies of all the medical records and other background information about your new pet, advised Coburn.


Preparing for Your Small Animal

It’s important to prepare for your small animal before you bring it home. “Bringing home a hamster is a completely different experience from bringing home a rabbit, and the cage you would buy for a Dwarf hamster is not the same one you’d purchase for a Syrian hamster,” Matero. She advises prospective owners to visit rescues after they have done their research, meet the small animals, see which species and specific animals they connect with,  purchase the appropriate supplies, and finally, return to the rescue.

Additionally, small mammals have certain husbandry requirements, such as the fact that guinea pigs require extra vitamin C in their diet to stay healthy, that someone who has only ever owned dogs or cats might not be prepared for, said Marcy J. Souza, DVM, director of veterinary public health at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Diet is the number one most important aspect of keeping small mammals healthy,” said Knafo. “They are excessively prone to dental and gastrointestinal diseases that are almost always due to poor husbandry, and diet as an underlying cause.”

For example, certain pellet mixes for rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas often have seeds, cracked corn, dried peas and other tasty—but nutrient deficient—food items, she said. When preparing for your small animal to come home, “it’s important that your rabbit, chinchilla, or guinea pig eat free-choice, high-quality grass hay, a limited amount of extruded hay pellet (not a mix with seeds or dried fruit), and fresh greens or grass,” she said.  

In addition to the right food for your small and furry, Coburn suggests providing hammocks or fleece blankets for ferrets, large plastic balls or wheels to roll around or run in for hamsters or mice, and small cardboard boxes chinchillas can hide in or jump on.

Bringing Your Small Animal Home

Bringing home a new pet is a big step and takes adjustment on both ends. Remember that every pet comes with some kind of a past, said Coburn.

“The change from a rescue to a new home may be scary to them at first. After all, they don't know right away what is happening,” she said. “Give your new animal time to settle into a safe environment before flooding him or her with lots of attention.”

If you have other pets or lots of family members, Coburn suggests minimizing the noise that surrounds them when they first come home. “A calm, quiet home—particularly at first—is the best way to help them feel comfortable. Restrict excessive petting or passing around in the beginning.”

Due to the fact that small, furry mammals can become stressed more easily, they may not always be the best choice for young children, said Knafo.

Health and Behavioral Issues to Keep in Mind

Of course, there are some pets who may come along with health or behavioral issues. If these issues are known to a rescue, it is the rescue’s ethical responsibility to provide full disclosure.

Adopted small animals, Matero says, can often be unsocialized and might be more prone to biting. For example, she says, some rats might be  cage aggressive, so her staff advises owners not to touch their new pet inside the cage or feed them through the cage bars. Similarly, rabbits may let out a grunt-growl if they are angry, which is important for a first-time adopter to know.

As far as health issues, Souza says that because small mammals are prey species, they can be very good at hiding signs of illness. A few key signs to look out for include lack of appetite, lethargy, abnormalities in stool (such as diarrhea or blood in feces, or lack of feces), and changes in respiratory effort (faster or more labored).

Gastrointestinal (GI) stasis—a slowdown of normal intestinal movement, which can ultimately result in build-up of GI gas, a change in the normal GI bacterial flora, the absorption of harmful bacterial toxins, and in extreme cases, death—is a common issue seen in rabbits and some rodents and can be secondary to another underlying  illness such as dental disease, respiratory disease, or even stress.  Dental disease in rabbits and resultant GI stasis may be prevented by providing your small animal with an appropriate diet that contains large amounts of high-fiber hay that when chewed promotes teeth wear and helps establish normal GI bacteria. “Treats marketed are often oversized portions and full of sugar that can cause dental disease and gastrointestinal imbalance,” said Knafo.

Because many small animals, including rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, have continuously growing teeth, rabbits and most rodents are particularly prone to developing dental disease, said Souza. If the teeth continue to grow but do not wear normally, animals may have pain and difficulty eating, she said.

Knafo additionally stresses the importance of a wellness exam after adoption to go over husbandry, establish a relationship with a veterinarian in case of emergency later on, and learn what signs of disease to look for. 

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