Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pocket Pets Provide Companionship in a Smaller Package

Pet Column for the week of December 3, 2001

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
From the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

So you'd like a pet, but a dog or cat would be too much responsibility? Or maybe you don't have enough space for a dog or cat? A "pocket" pet might be just the alternative you're looking for.

The name refers to the pet's size, not its habitat. Pocket pets include rats, mice, gerbils, and hamsters, according to Dr. Julie Whittington, a veterinarian who specializes in caring for exotic animals at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Naturally, as with any pet, it's important to study the care and habits of a pocket pet before you bring one home. For example, gerbils and hamsters are burrowing animals and like to have tunnels to explore. Rats enjoy being handled.

"Just be sure to provide an environment appropriate for that pet," Dr. Whittington warns. "Caging should be secure and the diet should meet the pet's nutritional needs."

When selecting a pocket pet, Dr. Whittington recommends choosing an animal that is active and healthy. A "well pet" examination by a qualified veterinarian shortly after purchase is beneficial. It insures that a healthy animal has been acquired, and it provides owners with the information they need in order to offer their pet optimal care. Pocket pets age fairly rapidly, with the average life span being 2 to 3 years. Therefore, a bi-annual exam is also recommended to assess health problems early on before they get severe.

She says all pocket pets, especially hamsters, get along very well as solitary pets. If you prefer to have a pair, however, she suggests that you obtain two animals of the same sex to avoid overpopulation issues. All of these pets will benefit from frequent attention by their owners.

To prevent illness in your pet, Dr. Whittington says you should keep the animal's cage free of drafts and extreme temperature changes and feed it a commercial diet intended specifically for the animal. Also keep a fresh supply of drinking water available (preferably in a bottle, because bowls tend to get contaminated) as well as plenty of clean bedding.

Each type of pocket pet has its own dietary requirements. "Commercial diets have been formulated to meet these requirements," she says. "It's OK to supplement this diet with treats, such as fresh vegetables, fruits, or seeds, as long as the treats don't make up a significant portion of the animal's diet."

All pocket pets are rodents and their front teeth grow continually. To keep their teeth from growing too long and causing in health problems and to provide behavioral stimulation, Dr. Whittington recommends that owners provide items, such as soft wood blocks and cardboard, for pets to chew on. Some items are available at pet stores but, with imagination, many household items, such as the paper towel roll tube, can be used.

Just like other animals, pocket pets can get sick. According to Dr. Whittington, common signs of illness include loose or unformed feces, a discharge from the eyes or nose, reduced activity or appetite, hair loss, itchiness, and other skin problems. If you notice these or any other abnormalities, it's best to contact your veterinarian.

With the proper environment, diet, and lots of TLC, these pets can provide companionship and enjoyment without the time and space constraints of more traditional pets.