A parking lot is no place for a hamster, but that’s where a kind child found Dizzy. He was out there all alone, likely dumped when he was no longer wanted. Dizzy’s story has a happy ending: A PETA staffer adopted him and gave him a fulfilling life. But millions of other small animals who were purchased on a whim or as “starter pets” end up abandoned or severely neglected by people who are unaware of—or indifferent to—their needs.
If you already have a small animal, it’s never too late to start doing better for them. Jan. 24 is Change a Pet’s Life Day, and it’s the perfect time to make adjustments that will bring your animal companion more happiness and satisfaction.
No one wants to live in a filthy house, so cleaning the animal’s living space daily is a must, along with providing nourishing food and fresh water. Just like dogs and cats, small animals need plenty of exercise and playtime, so give them hiding spaces, toys and safe places to explore, and spend time with them daily.
All animal companions require veterinary care. Establish a relationship with a veterinarian who specializes in small animals and can guide you through specific requirements. All animals for whom sterilization is possible should receive this vital surgery to reduce their anxiety and stress and prevent breeding, which adds to the animal overpopulation crisis. Routine grooming, including brushing and nail trimming, is important, too.
Research your small animal companion’s unique needs and develop a specialized care routine.
Rabbits are social animals with gentle dispositions and distinct personalities, and they should spend the day interacting with you. They can be litter trained and have the hop of the house instead of being cooped up in a cage. Rabbits feel threatened when held, so the best way to interact with them is to get down on their level. Another way to help ensure your rabbit’s happiness is to introduce a compatible companion rabbit. Whether you have one or a pair, spend time with them every day and provide plenty of enrichment, including safe things to chew on, like a paper towel roll stuffed with timothy hay.
Hamsters are nocturnal, so give them a quiet space to sleep the day away. When the sun goes down, they need plenty of enrichment with room to dig, toys to chew on and places to hide. Large hamsters should have a minimum of 800 square inches of clear floor space, and dwarf hamsters should have at least 640. Avoid using hamster balls, as they are more frightening than fun, and provide a wheel large enough that your hamster’s back isn’t arched when they’re on it. Unlike many small animals, hamsters require a solitary lifestyle, so be sure to provide large, separate living spaces.
Guinea pigs are just the opposite: Social interaction is so important to their happiness that in Switzerland it’s illegal to own just one. So if your guinea pig has been flying solo, consider adopting another. Their habitat should be at least 5 feet by 2 feet for two guinea pigs, and you’ll need to line it with comfortable fleece cage liners. Be sure to provide timothy hay, a gnawing log and fruits and vegetables, too. Some guinea pigs enjoy having the tops of their heads brushed with a soft toothbrush so much that they practically melt.
Rats require lots of affection and prefer to live with a companion. They love boxes, which are double the fun—something to chew on and hide in. Their enclosure should be packed full of toys, hiding areas and structures to climb, which will help them feel secure and keep their bodies and bright minds active.
There’s no such thing as a “starter pet,” so if you’re thinking about introducing a small animal companion into your home, make sure you’re ready to provide a lifetime of excellent care. And never buy animals from pet stores: The pet trade is rife with cruelty, as PETA’s investigations have revealed. Adopt one (or a pair) from a shelter instead.
All animals should be treated with care and respect, and these tips can make a big difference to small ones.