Common Health Hazards and Toxins for Small Mammals

When people hear about commonly kept small mammal pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, ferrets, rats, hamsters and gerbils, they don’t usually think of them being at high risk for getting into trouble in the home. However, if you own one of these pets, there are certain home hazards you should be aware of. These little creatures are clever, curious and very capable of getting into things that they shouldn’t.

1. Electric cords are so much fun to chew!

Wires commonly contain heavy metals like zinc and are oh-so-tempting to gnaw on. Small mammals that chew on and ingest wires commonly develop zinc poisoning, which can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) upset, blood disturbances and even death. Some wires also contain copper, which can be lethal as well. Electrical cords can be a chewy treat for small mammals when they find them running along baseboards on the floor or when they are sitting on furniture near electrical plugs. When chewed on, live electrical wires can also cause electrocution and instant death or, at the least, severe oral burns. So whenever your little buddy is “cage free,” he or she must be monitored at all times. If you have these small pets, all wires and cords must be safely secured so your pet cannot access them. Wires can be enclosed in PVC piping and whenever possible, plugged into higher outlets.

2. Lead can be so tasty!

Many construction materials used in homes, especially older homes, including paint, linoleum and dry wall, may contain lead. These materials are commonly used to build walls and floors — places easily accessed by free-roaming small mammal pets. Baseboards, floor edges and other places where small mammals can hide and chew endlessly without being noticed can be deadly for them if the items they chew on contain lead. Lead causes nerve damage, severe GI problems, anemia and even death. Keep pets away from chipping paint and other potentially lead-containing substances, as even a few bites of these materials can be deadly for smaller pets.

3. Not so terrific treats

Several items marketed as treats for small mammals, such as yogurt drops, seed sticks, raisins and other inappropriate foods, are not really meant to be fed to them. These items contain high levels of sugar and fat that most of these pets’ GI systems are not built to handle. Consumption of these so-called treats can lead to significant GI disruption and, in some cases, death. The rule of thumb is that herbivores, such as guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits, should not eat excessive sugar, as found in raisins and yogurt drops, or excess fat, as found in seed-based treats. Small amounts of fresh vegetables, such as carrots, are appropriate treats for these pets. Ferrets, who are carnivorous, and hedgehogs, who are insectivores (insect-eaters), are better offered high-protein treats, such as low-salt deli meat for ferrets, and high-protein cat food or mealworms for hedgehogs. Occasional treats can be delicious and fun to feed; just use them judiciously.

4. Extreme temperatures are extremely dangerous

Most small mammal pets live very comfortably at temperatures that are comfortable to us. However, some small mammals are sensitive to very high or very low temperatures. For example, chinchillas and rabbits have thick coats and cannot sweat. They can get overheated at temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit and can die. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are subject to a condition called torpor when it gets cold. At temperatures below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they enter a state of hibernation. Their heart rate drops, their metabolism slows and they become more susceptible to illness and ultimately to death if they remain at that temperature. Therefore, it is critical that small mammals, depending on the species, are kept within their optimal temperature ranges to flourish and stay healthy. Consult your veterinarian to learn how to keep your particular pet safe and comfortable.

5. People foods are not pet foods

Many foods that we love to eat can be potentially toxic to our small mammal pets. For example, garlic and onions can be very bad for small mammals. While few studies have been done in small mammal species documenting the effects of these foods, numerous studies in dogs and cats have shown how toxic these items are to these pets, resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, abdominal pain and potentially fatal anemia. Other foods containing seeds (like apples and pears) and central pits (like avocados, cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines and plums) should never be fed to small mammals with the seeds and pits intact, as they may contain small amounts of cyanide, which can damage the heart. Chocolate, alcohol and caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and soda are also dangerous to pets. The difference between humans consuming these foods and our small mammal pets eating them is that even tiny amounts of these items can be fatal to these animals.

6. Well-meaning young children

Animals can be great for helping to teach kids how to be responsible and caring. Yet many small mammals are jumpy and get very stressed by children’s quick movements and loud voices. Even worse, many well-intentioned small children try to pick up small mammals and accidentally drop them, causing fatal injuries such as back fractures or ruptured internal organs. Young children should be supervised at all times when handling small mammals and taught how to handle small creatures gently and with respect.

7. The wild outdoors

Wild animals are evolutionary adapted to outdoor environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity and the presence of other wild animals. Our domesticated pets have not evolved this way and are not equipped to handle outdoor wild settings. For example, the wild rabbits that live outside are an entirely different species than those we keep as pets. Most domesticated small mammals do not do well living outside, where they can get overheated, are subject to frostbite, exposed to predatory wild animals and are extremely fearful. Keep domesticated small mammals inside and the wild animals out.

8. Not-so-right cages

Not all cages are created equal. Cages are designed with bar spacing of different diameters, depending on the pet they are created to house. Chinchillas, for example, have very spindly narrow legs that commonly get caught between narrowly spaced cage bars, leading to possible fractures. Rabbits, on the other hand, often get ulcerations of the bottoms of their feet when they are housed on wire floored cages. Thus, they need solid-bottommed cages to keep their feet healthy. Soft plastic cages may be inappropriate for rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets that chew a lot, as they can break off pieces and ingest them. Heavy plastic or stainless steel cages are usually the best option for most small mammals. Wooden cages aren’t ideal, as they are very hard to keep clean. The rule of thumb is that cages should always be chosen based on species and pet size. Your veterinarian can advise you on what is best.

9. Overly friendly pets

I frequently hear small mammal owners tell me that their animal loves to play with their pet dogs and cats. This scares me, as most pet small mammals, other than ferrets, are prey species, while cats and dogs are predators. Naturally, predators go after prey. Even the gentlest cats and dogs may instinctively try to hunt small mammal prey. Many dogs and cats like to play with small mammals, but they don’t realize how rough they are playing or how hard they are biting down when they pick these pets up in their mouths. Many cats and dogs inadvertently cause fatal injuries to their petmates just by trying to play with them. The take-home message: Keep the cats and dogs away when it’s time to play.

All of these small mammal species can make great pets under the right circumstances. Just be sure that, if you’re planning on owning one of them, that you keep them safe, happy and hazard-free!

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