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Rodents: more than just vermin

When I tell people I treat rodents, often their initial reaction is, “You treat what?!” I know that at this point, they’re thinking about pesky vermin that get into the trash in your garage or that run through the subway. Somehow, the word “rodent” has a very negative connotation. What most people fail to realize is that many adorable, fuzzy, familiar pets are actually rodents. Here are 5 common rodents that I care for regularly in my exotic animal hospital that have their own unique features and benefits as pets.

Guinea pigs: One of my all-time favorite rodents. Guinea pigs are small, fairly low-maintenance animals that make great first-time pets for families. They don’t require a lot of space, are very responsive to their owners (they actually purr when you pet them!), and can live up to about 8 years with proper care. They do require a great deal of hay to chew on so that they can wear down their continuously growing teeth, some commercial guinea pig pellets, and a small amount of fresh vegetables. They also need a daily vitamin C supplement, since their bodies don’t make vitamin C naturally. They come in different coat colors and lengths and love to interact with their owners and be petted.

Rats: Another terrific pet. Most people don’t think of rats as pets, but talk to any rat owner, and they’ll tell you what phenomenal pets rats can make. Perhaps the smartest rodents, rats can learn tricks, love to hang out with their owners, and are extremely affectionate. They actually respond to their owners when their name is called. They also require a modest sized living space and a simple diet of a good quality rodent pellet plus a small amount of fresh vegetables daily. They come in white, brown, gray, black, and variations of these colors, as well as varying coat lengths (short-haired, long-haired, and hairless). The only down side of rats is that they are short-lived, with most surviving only 2-3 years.

Degus: Very similar to rats. With a body the size of a rat’s and a tail the length of a gerbil’s, degus (also called brush-tailed rats) look kind of like oversized gerbils. Intelligent like their rat cousins, degus are very social and full of personality. They communicate through an extensive vocabulary of sounds and are very active during the day, unlike many other rodents that are nocturnal, making degus more attractive as pets. Degus thrive on a diet very similar to rats’. They are also fairly long-lived, with an average lifespan of 6-8 years but as long as 13 years. They are perhaps one of the less well-known but highly recommended rodents as pets.

Chinchillas: perhaps the cuddliest of all the rodents I treat. Slightly more skittish than some other pet rodents, chinchillas are definitely one of the cutest. With their incredibly soft, fluffy fur, they look more like toys than other rodent species. They live, on average, 8-10 years but have been reported to live as long as 20 years by some breeders. Their tiny noses and whiskers twitch continuously, and they often dart around very fast. They are curious and active and have been known to run for miles in wheels in their cages at night. When grabbed by a predator, they actually escape by releasing a large clump of fur – a defense mechanism called a fur slip. Thus, it’s important to never hold them by their skin. Like guinea pigs, they must chew hay constantly to wear down their ever-growing teeth that can become impacted (like our wisdom teeth) if they don’t frequently chew. Their luxurious fur comes in a variety of colors (black, brown, ivory, beige, and others) that they keep clean and oil-free by rolling around rapidly in bath of finely ground pumice stone – a quite amusing sight that never fails to entertain their owners.

Small Rodents: Hamsters, gerbils, and mice are less demanding than some larger rodents. While these 3 species look different from each other, they are similar in that they generally fit in the palm of your hand and typically require fairly small, multi-level tanks in which to live. These small rodents are low maintenance pets that eat commercial rodent pellets and fresh vegetables daily. They generally live 1-2 years. While some hamsters enjoy being held, other hamsters and many mice and gerbils can be a bit nippy; young children may enjoy them more by watching these active little pets bury themselves in shredded paper, climb through tubes, and zoom up ramps across their cages.  Children may also enjoy building paper towel tunnels for them to run through. These animals can make good first pets for kids as long as they have adult supervision for care and handling.

So, next time you hear the word, “rodent,” maybe you will conjure up the image of a fluffy chinchilla or a purring guinea pig. Rodents come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, with varying lifespans. If you’re considering animal you can pet but that doesn’t require a lot of high maintenance care, perhaps a rodent is right for you

Taking exotic pets outdoors: precautions & cautions

It’s spring! Time to bring your pets outside to get fresh air and sunshine – But wait! Things to remember before bringing your exotic pet outdoors:

– Furry mammals, like rabbits and ferrets, are susceptible to flea and tick infection, just like cats and dogs. So, if you plan on taking your bunny or ferret outside, you should make sure it has a flea and tick preventative on it first. Not all flea and tick preventatives used on cats and dogs are safe on exotic animals. Check with us at the Veterinary Center before using any medication on your exotic pet so we can be sure to prescribe only the preventatives appropriate for exotics.

– When out pets go outside in spring, all those lush green leaves and buds look so yummy. But many outdoor plants can be toxic to your pet. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If you bring your bird, ferret, rabbit, rodent, reptile, or other exotic animal outside, be sure to prevent access to all outdoor plants. Even safe plants can have chemicals on them from fertilizers or pesticides that are potentially toxic. When you bring your pet outside, better to bring a snack from home!

– While most pets enjoy an outdoor time, it’s very important that before you take your animals outside, you take proper precautions so that they don’t escape or get injured. Mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs should be kept in enclosures with sides high enough to prevent them from getting out or from predators from getting in. They should never be left unsupervised outside, even in enclosures, as it takes just one swipe from a wild animal (even through a cage) to kill these vulnerable pets. Also, since these pets are very susceptible to overheating, it’s essential that they be given shade and plenty of water. Even reptiles that thrive at warmer temperatures should never be left in direct sunlight for long periods of time, as they can overheat and become dehydrated, too. In addition, if you’re thinking of bringing your birds outside, be sure to clip his wings first; just one gust of wind, and he could sail away forever. Don’t rely on “flight suits” made to tether birds on a leash; they can easily slip out of these and fly away. Finally, regardless of what kind of exotic pet you have, if you’re going to take him outside, you should really have him microchipped. Microchipping is a simple procedure in which we place a small chip containing a code under the animal’s skin that can be read by a universal scanner kept by most vets and shelters. Microchips help assure that if your pet does get away, you’ll get him back home safe and sound.

Parrots, Problems, and the Power of the Positive

It happens every year. Birds scream. People scream back. As the days get longer and temperatures start to climb, the screaming gets worse. Some pet parrots scream all year long, but many scream louder when their hormonal clocks get wound up in spring as they are looking to mate.

The fact is that birds in the wild scream. They scream at dawn to wake each other up and to start to forage for breakfast. They scream at dusk when they get back together as a flock to eat dinner. But what may be a natural behavior for them in the wild is a socially unacceptable annoyance to many parrot owners, especially if they and their birds live in small apartments with neighbors who don’t share their love for these feathered companions. So, what do these pet owners do when their parrots scream? Unfortunately, they start to scream back, only making the situation worse.

Birds in captivity scream for different reasons. They generally don’t scream to wake others up or to round their flock mates up for food. Rather, most pet parrots scream for their owners’ attention. They scream, and their owners come to them (even if just to scream back at them to stop screaming). And so the cycle of positive reinforcement of the screaming behavior begins. Parrot screams, owner comes, what will happen next? Parrot will continue to scream so owner will continue to come, and so on, and so forth…

Screaming is not the only behavior that parrot owners unknowingly reinforce. Biting is another one. Bird owners will often hold out their hands for their birds to step up; yet, if the birds don’t want to step up at that moment, they may bite the hands. As a result, owners may scream (giving attention to the birds unwittingly) and remove their hands (reinforcing the biting because now the birds no longer have to step up). Another cycle is established.

So, what are pet owners to do if their animals are screaming and biting and driving them nuts? All too often, owners give up on these relationships, either ignoring their birds completely or giving them away to others who are more tolerant. This happens even more after they have owned the birds for a few years, when the birds reach sexual maturity. What is unfortunate is that with just a few minutes a day of work, many of these relationships can be salvaged, and birds owners can learn to enjoy their birds again.

As my mentor, Dr. Susan Friedman taught me, behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum. All behavior is learned, in part, either to get something good (i.e. attention from an owner) or to avoid something bad (i.e. having to step up on a hand when you don’t want to). This is true for all behaviors performed by both animals and people. Think about it: behaviors are perpetuated because they accomplish something for their performers. Why else would these behaviors be repeated if they didn’t?

What I teach bird owners who come to me with behavior problems is that they can use the principle of positive reinforcement to help solve these behavior issues. Positive reinforcement in this situation means rewarding the pet’s behavior with something uniquely valuable to that pet (i.e. a food treat, a head scratch, verbal praise, etc.).  What is rewarding to one pet might not be to another, so it is essential that an owner try to figure out what makes his particular animal happy. If an owner positively reinforces what he considers a more socially acceptable behavior that his pet already knows (such as tapping his beak on the cage) to get attention or to let the owner know that he doesn’t want to step up, the animal will no longer have to perform the socially unacceptable behavior of screaming to accomplish the same end. Eventually, the screaming behavior will go away if it is no longer positively reinforced, as the beak tapping is; the screaming is no longer as rewarding as the more socially acceptable behavior of beak tapping.

Pet owners also can teach animals new behaviors (such as ringing a bell) by positively reinforcing these behaviors even if they occur accidentally or unpredictably. Eventually, these newly learned behaviors may be used to help replace problem behaviors if these new behaviors can be reinforced in the situations that usually elicit the problem behavior. So, if you own a bird or other pet with a problem behavior and you are willing to work at it, problems behaviors can be eliminated, and the pet-owner bond can be rekindled. Remember, however, that animals aren’t machines; like us, they are allowed to have good days and bad, and when training new behavior, a pet may take three steps forward and an occasional step back. There is no magic pill or overnight solution to problem behaviors, but with a little daily practice and a lot of patience and dedication, you and your pet can learn to live happily together once again.