By Dr. Laurie Hess, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
Small mammals, such as rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, gerbils, rats, and mice, are tremendously popular pets because they don’t take up a great deal of space and are fairly easy to care for. In addition, some of these species can live several years when cared for properly. However, even when cared for in the best homes, many of these small pets are injured or even killed when they are unintentionally exposed to dangers in these homes. To prevent such tragedies from occurring, small animal owners should be aware of the following household dangers for small animals and how to prevent them:
Like little children, small animals are very oral and will gnaw at anything in front of them, including loose electrical wires and cable. Chewing on live wires can lead to oral burns, electrocution and even death. Many of these wires contain metals such as zinc and copper, so ingestion of them can lead to heavy metal intoxication. Since these small animals need time out of their cages to run around, it is critical that loose wires be secured safely out of the reach of small pets and that pets out of their cages are supervised at all times.
All small animals need daily out-of-cage time to exercise, so many owners let them run around in rooms where they often hide in corners or against walls. In these hiding places, it’s very tempting for them to chew baseboards, door frames and wooden furniture, all of which may be coated with lead-containing paint. Lead toxicity can lead to digestive problems, neurologic issues and death. Small animals only should be allowed to run around outside their cages in penned off (with baby gates or pet fences) areas where they have no access to painted moldings, walls and furniture that might be tempting to chew.
Since many small mammals, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and smaller rodents, have continuously growing teeth, they must be provided with wooden blocks, sticks and other toys that are safe for them to gnaw on and that will help keep their teeth worn down. When given access, these animals will chew cushions, draperies, rugs, doormats and other inappropriate home furnishings.
While ferrets’ teeth don’t grow continuously, they notoriously chew on everything on the floor within their sight, including shoes, socks, pencils, pens and other loose items. Ingestion of foreign objects can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) upset, GI obstruction and even death. To prevent destruction of household objects and potential foreign object ingestion, small animals should be provided with appropriate chew toys (wooden items for rabbits and rodents and hard dog toys, such as Kong™ toys, for ferrets) and should not be allowed access to unsuitable, dangerous items.
When dropped on the floor, in sight of small pets, human medications look like tempting treats just too easy to pass up. Given their small size and quick metabolisms, small mammals commonly suffer toxicity from relatively large doses of human drugs left out inadvertently. If your small animal ingests a human medication accidentally, call pet poison control ASAP and get your animal to the veterinarian immediately. Delaying treatment of a potential toxin ingestion by even minutes can be the difference between life and death for a small pet.
All different species of pets can live harmoniously in the same household. However, cats and dogs are predators, and many small animals, including rabbits and rodents, are prey. As predators, cats and dogs naturally chase after and try to catch many of these small animals. Therefore, even if your cat or dog is the sweetest, gentlest pet ever, it should never be trusted unsupervised around small mammals.
Cats and dogs may just want to pick up small pets to play with them; yet they can inflict serious harm with their sharp teeth and long claws. Plus, much of the bacteria that is normal in a cat’s or dog’s mouth is foreign to a small animal’s system and can lead to potentially life-threatening infection if introduced into the small animal’s body. Like cats and dogs, ferrets can be predatory and should be kept away from small prey species. When dogs, cats and ferrets are running around, small animals should be locked safely away in cages that are swipe-proof and untippable by potentially aggressive, predatory pets.
Like well-intentioned dogs and cats who just want to play, young children often want to pick up and hold small animals. However, when unsupervised, kids may squeeze, drop, or rough-house with small pets, inadvertently injuring or even killing them. Children also may dash quickly through the house, accidentally running over small animals and injuring them. Kids should be encouraged to interact with small mammals, but little children should be shown how to handle these pets safely and should always be supervised when doing so.
Many small mammals are herbivores, naturally drawn to chew on leaves and stems of plants around them. While several house plants, such as succulents, orchids and ferns, are safe for pets to chew on, others, such as Calla lilies, philodendron and English ivy, can be toxic. Toxic house plants can cause signs ranging from mild irritation of the mouth to GI upset to organ damage to death. If you are going to have a small animal as a pet, you must keep all houseplants out of reach and ideally remove all potentially toxic greenery from your house, altogether.
In general, most small animals live comfortably at temperatures at which we are comfortable. However, certain species don’t adapt well to rapid temperature shifts and temperature extremes. Rabbits, for example, cannot sweat when they get warm, so they are very prone to overheating at temperatures about 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If they are housed outside in summer in warm climates, they must be provided with shade and cool drinking water. When temperatures get very high (into the 90-degree Fahrenheit range), rabbits should be brought inside.
Chinchillas, too, with their thick fur coats, also overheat easily and are best housed inside at temperatures in the 70-degree Fahrenheit range. Conversely, small animals should not be left outside in cold weather, or they may suffer frost bite on their feet, ears, and other areas of exposed skin. Hedgehogs actually go into a near-hibernation state called torpor when they get too cold in which their metabolism declines and they stop moving. To keep small mammals healthy, be sure their environmental temperatures stay relatively constant, and protect them from exposure to extreme cold or heat.
Small animals make great pets in the right circumstances, but as with any other pet, if you are taking one of these unique little creatures into your home, you need to be prepared. By small mammal-proofing your house by securing wires, penning off safe exercise areas with baby gates, eliminating toxic plants and being aware of other potential hazards to these small pets, you can be sure that you are providing your special animal with a safe environment in which he or she can thrive and be happy.