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

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Apartment Dwellers Can Have Pets Too

Pet Column for the week of January 2, 2006

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Do you want a dog but live in a small apartment? Consider other pet options. Rabbits and guinea pigs make excellent apartment pets, and many landlords who are anti-dog or cat will allow caged pets. Caged pets generally require less maintenance, making them great companions for people on the go.

Rabbits and guinea pigs are small mammals and do not take up much room. Rabbits prefer to live in bigger cages or enclosures, as they do require some exercise. "Rabbits like to play. They are very acrobatic when they run and jump around. This activity is important for their gastrointestinal health," says Dr. Julia Whittington, an exotic animal veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Noise is not a problem with these critters. Your neighbors won't complain about barking. Unlike ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs do not have extensive scent glands. Most people keep rabbits on wood bedding, which also helps keep them scent-free.

"Rabbits can be housebroken. Most will urinate in one place in the cage. That is where the litter box should be placed. Some rabbits can be trained to urinate and defecate in their litter boxes. The litter box needs to be cleaned regularly, or the urine can start to smell. Litter training makes keeping the cage clean an easier task," says Dr. Whittington.

These animals do not require any vaccinations. If you take rabbits or guinea pigs outside, however, be aware that they can get fleas. "Rabbits and guinea pigs can be taken outside as long as they are supervised. Make sure the grass you have them on has not been treated and do not leave them unattended. They will try to flee when they're scared," advises Dr. Whittington.

Rabbits and guinea pigs are very interactive pets. Chewing is one of their favorite hobbies. "Place things you do not want them to chew out of their reach. Disciplining these animals is not usually effective. Instead, give them things you want them to chew. Wood blocks and toilet paper rolls make great chew toys. They love paper too! I would steer clear of plastic, because swallowed pieces can lead to obstructions in their intestines," says Dr. Whittington.

Most rabbits and guinea pigs will shed in the spring and to a lesser extent in the fall. The only type of rabbit that does not shed is the Rex. While they are shedding, you can give them hairball medications. Rabbits cannot vomit hairballs and may need help passing them through the gastrointestinal tract. Cat laxatives, sold at pet stores or veterinary clinics, work well.

These animals do not require a fancy diet. "For rabbits and guinea pigs, variety is not the spice of life; they do not get bored with their diets. The best diet is a good quality pellet formulated for these species. Another important part of their diet is timothy or alfalfa hay. Treats should not be a major portion of the diet," says Dr. Whittington.

Greens, carrots, and fruit make good treats. Seeds and grains should be avoided. "When seeds and grains are fermented, it's like making beer: a lot of bubbles and gas are produced. This can lead to bacterial overgrowth and can lead to very sick animals," says Dr. Whittington.

The life span of a guinea pig is four to seven years. Rabbits usually live seven to eight years, although reports have been made of 12-year-old rabbits. Because they age more in a year than people or even dogs do, you should have your rabbit or guinea pig examined by a veterinarian annually.

Make sure you have rabbits and guinea pigs sexed correctly. These animals will reproduce if housed together with a mate, and you'll have lots of babies. Spaying and neutering is advised. Female rabbits are prone to uterine cancer, and some males will spray urine to mark their territory and can be a bit aggressive.

If you are considering a rabbit or guinea pig as a pet, consult with your veterinarian for further advice.