Monthly Archives June 2013

Behavior enrichment for rodents: how to have a happier, healthier pet

Enrichment is a big buzz word in the field of animal behavior. According to the Encarta Dictionary,” enrichment” is defined as “to enhance or improve the quality of something usually by adding something else to it.” Whether this term is applied to the behavior of a dog, cat, bird, fish, or other animal, the notion is the same: enrichment is the provision of items or activities that improve the quality of that animal’s life.

When people hear the word “rodent,” they generally think of pesky vermin scurrying around. But actually, many rodents are commonly kept pets such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, gerbils, mice, domesticated rats, and degus (in the rat family). All of these animals can make great pets when they are cared for properly with the right diet and proper housing. Unfortunately, many people get these animals as pets and don’t realize that in addition to good food, a safe cage, and clean bedding, these pets – just like cats and dogs – need environmental stimulation to be happy and to thrive. Many wild rodents are very social animals living with numerous others of their own kind in their normal habitat. In the wild, they have “jobs” – searching for food, finding mates, building nests. Most rodents nest in communities and share parental responsibilities. They spend 30-50% of the time they are awake grooming each other. When young rodents are separated from their mothers, they often show an increase in disease, are more anxious and aggressive, and are less likely to play.

Captive rodents that are kept caged and not given anything to play with or to chew on commonly develop behavior problems including barbering (chewing hair off themselves), repetitive behaviors (such as cage bar chewing, jumping, digging, and running in patterns), fighting, cannibalism (of their mates and babies), and repetitive teeth chattering. Studies have shown that rodents provided with different forms of environmental enrichment do not develop these undesirable behaviors.

If you have a pet rodent, there are many ways to provide enrichment. Here are just a few:

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Could your pet have parasites? Indoor pets get worms, too!

So often, at the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics, we hear owners say that their pets could never have parasites because they don’t go outside. Not true. Many pets – mammals, birds, and reptiles – are never outside their families’ homes, yet they carry parasites in their intestinal tracts and can shed these microscopic parasites in their stool. Once the stool dries up in their cages, small bits of dry stool can blow around the environment to be inhaled by other pets or people or get on the hands of caretakers who clean the cage. Many of these parasites are harmful to people, as well as pets. Furthermore, many of these microscopic parasites resist common disinfectants used to clean cages, so they persist in the animals’ environments and continuously re-infect these pets as they eat in their cages; the infected pets continue to shed these infectious parasites in their stool, and the vicious cycle of re-infection is established. Thus, even if your pet shows none of the common signs of gastrointestinal parasite infection, such as diarrhea, weight loss, or an unkempt appearance, he or she may be infected anyway and could spread these parasites to you and your family. This is particularly an issue if young children who forget to wash their hands are handling these animals. Thus, it is essential that all pets are checked for parasites once you first bring them into your home and at least annually after that. Unfortunately, if an animal has intestinal parasites, they are not always continuously shed into its stool. So, a check of a single stool sample may not actually be a true representation of what’s going on in that pet’s intestines. This is particularly true for reptiles that are so often infected with gastrointestinal parasites that we routinely deworm them with general deworming medications even before we get back the results of their fecal analyses. So, even if your mammal, bird, or reptile is seemingly healthy, it is critical that he or she is checked annually for gastrointestinal parasites, both for their health and your health. Even if they are not obviously affected now with these organisms, if these parasites are left untreated, your pet may eventually lose weight and become ill, and worse yet, so could your family. Deworming is safe, easy, and inexpensive. Why wait for a serious problem to happen if you can prevent it now?

Don’t lose your pet from hairloss!

Have you ever looked at your pet and wondered,  “Is my pet going bald?”

He’s probably not. Hair loss is one of the most common complaints for which owners bring their pets into the animal hospital, and generally, there is an underlying infectious or hormonal cause for it. Rabbits and rodents (chinchillas, guinea pigs, and small rodents like mice, rats, hamsters and gerbils) often get patches of hair loss from ringworm/fungal infection and mites – both of which may be transmittable to people. Ringworm is not actually a worm; it is a fungus that is transmitted from animal to animal or from the environment to an animal through microscopic spores that resist disinfection and can live months to years in dry areas. All furry pets can carry these spores on their coats without having any signs at all. Rabbits will commonly be infected with a mite called Cheylitiella – or walking dandruff mite – that looks like big white flakes that move through the fur, particularly over rabbits’ shoulders and back of their necks. This mite can be quite itchy to both pets and people. Female guinea pigs, too, can lose hair symmetrically on both sides of their bodies from cysts that develop in their ovaries that can become large and painful over time. Ferrets most often lose hair secondary to the hormones produced by cancerous adrenal glands. While not contagious to people, adrenal disease in ferrets can cause enlargement of the prostate gland, causing secondary urinary tract obstruction in males and bone marrow suppression in both males and females; both conditions may be life threatening in ferrets. Ferrets with hair loss from adrenal disease also may be itchy and form small blackhead-like pimples on the skin.

So, whether your bunny or rodent has lost hair from an infection with mites, fungus, or some other organism, or if your ferret is losing hair from adrenal gland disease, the only way to treat these treatable conditions is to bring him or her into the veterinarian for testing. Bald may be beautiful in people but can be a sign of illness in furry pets. Call the Veterinary Center to have any signs of hairloss checked right away.