Are you are looking for a small pet for the first time? Or, have you only ever had one species and are considering a change? This article is here to help you make an informed decision about which pet is most likely to easily fit into your life.
There are several species of domesticated small mammals that are easy to care for, but there are many differences between them. Today we will look at each type of small pet and discover their traits, size, lifespan, sociability and care needs.
We’ll consider why each species might suit you perfectly, and – just as importantly – some of the main problems that can arise. We’ll aim to close the gap between expectation and the reality of sharing your home with these animals.
- Why Choose A Small Pet At All?
- Mice As Pets
- The Syrian Hamster
- Campbell’s Dwarf Russian Hamster
- Gerbils As Pets
- Rats As Pets
- Guinea Pigs As Pets
- Rabbits As Pets
- Chinchillas As Pets
- Sourcing Your Small Pet and Why It Matters
Why Choose A Small Pet At All?
There are many benefits to choosing a small animal as a pet, over say a cat or dog.
- They can be cared for entirely within your home and – for some – garden. No walks are needed.
- They are often cheaper to purchase, even when housing is included.
- They usually have a shorter lifespan, which can be a benefit if you only want a short-term commitment.
- They do not require as much human companionship as a dog (and some cats) – though some will thrive on it.
- They often have lower maintenance costs for food, toys, and holiday care – plus no grooming, training, etc.
- Over a lifetime they are likely to have much lower veterinary costs than larger animals.
- They usually require less daily care time.
- They are likely to make less of an impact on your home in terms of dirt, molting, scratching/chewing furniture and woodwork, etc.
- They can be picked up, carried and transported easily, even when sick.
It’s possible that for some people some of these benefits will be perceived as negative – such as the shorter lifespan or not needing walks. In this case, it might be best to consider a dog over a small pet.
It’s also important to realize that we are only including small pets who are easy to care for in this article. This excludes most exotics and those pets who need special lighting and heating arrangements.
So, let’s begin with the smallest pets and work our way up!
Mice As Pets
The mouse (Mus musculus) is the smallest domesticated mammal that is routinely kept as a pet. They are colony dwellers and the same species as the common house mouse. An adult mouse is around 3 to 4 inches long, including their tail and weighs between ⅓ oz to just under an oz. Males are generally larger than females.
Mice have the shortest lifespan of all small pets, usually living between one and two years. Lifespan can be longer where excellent veterinary care is available.
How Many Mice Should I Get?
Wild male mice are territorial but live in colonies with females. Therefore, most mice do not do well as solitary animals. Some males will accept other males as companions, but more often this can lead to fighting and injury.
The easiest option for a new mouse owner is to get a group of at least 3 females. Female mice also smell less – male mouse urine has a strong musky smell that some people find offensive. Another successful grouping is a castrated male plus at least two females.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Mice are extremely active and need a proportionately large cage to their tiny size, but even a large mouse cage is comparatively cheap compared to the housing needed for a chinchilla, rabbit, or rat. Other set up costs include toys, a bed (or hammock), something to climb on and a solid wheel.
Maintenance costs are low; as the amounts of bedding, cage litter and food needed are relatively small. However, you will need to expect some veterinary costs will be incurred. Male mice may need to be castrated to live with each other or with girls, and many mice get tumors or respiratory issues.
Are Mice For Me?
Mice can make excellent pets and with correct handling, time and attention they can become very tame. However, they aren’t cuddly pets. This, along with their small size and speed makes them unsuitable for many younger children.
If you want pets who are intelligent, trainable, interesting and active then mice are perfect, especially if you don’t have space for a large cage. Mice are highly sociable and will enjoy building a relationship with you.
There are several hamster species that are kept as pets, with the main differences being size and sociability with their own kind. We will look at one larger solitary hamster – the Syrian (Mesocricetus auratus), and one smaller social hamster – the Campbell’s Dwarf Russian hamster (Phodopus campbelli).
The Syrian Hamster
The Syrian or golden hamster was the first hamster to be widely domesticated and remains a popular pet who is easy to care for. Syrians grow to around 5 to 7 inches and can weigh up to 7oz. Their average lifespan is from 2 to 3 years though some may live up to 4 years.
How Many Syrian Hamsters Should I Get?
Despite being easily tamed and very friendly towards humans, the Syrian hamster is a solitary animal, so they need to be kept alone. This can make care easier as you only have one animal to focus on.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Golden hamsters are very active when awake and cover a lot of ground. Cages need to be as big as possible, as small cages and lack of enrichment are known to cause stress. A wheel (10 to 12 inches) is essential to allow for running behavior.
Initial costs are relatively low, primarily the cage, a solid wheel, a bed, toys, food, bedding, and a water bottle. Maintenance can be very low, as hamsters are naturally very clean animals, who go to the toilet in a specific area, away from their nest. This reduces the need to clean out the whole cage.
Vet visits may be needed for illnesses such as wet tail or respiratory infection, but hamsters are generally robust creatures when kept in a roomy, enriched, and clean environment with minimal stress.
Is A Syrian Hamster For Me?
Like many rodents, hamsters are crepuscular in the wild, not nocturnal. This means that they are most awake during the twilight periods of dawn and dusk. However, laboratory studies have shown that captive hamsters are strictly nocturnal.
This can be a problem if you want a small pet to interact with younger children or live in their bedroom, as their night-time activity can disrupt sleep.
Hamsters do not like to be woken up during the day and can be grumpy or even aggressive if you try to do this. The evening is the best time to socialize with your hamster when they are naturally awake.
A golden hamster can be a perfect small pet, who is easy to care for, interesting to watch, and very happy to engage with you during its natural wakeful periods. In a well set up cage, they can also be a joy to watch as they go about their busy business!
Campbell’s Dwarf Russian Hamster
The main differences between the Russian Dwarf and the Syrian hamster are size and sociability. Dwarfs are around 2 inches long as adults and weight little more than 1oz. The smaller size can make handling harder.
How Many Dwarf Russian Hamsters Should I Get?
Dwarf hamsters are social within their species and need to live in groups. However, they are less readily sociable with humans and need regular handling to keep them tame. This can be a problem for busy families.
It should be noted though, that given a large and enriched habitat a group of Russian dwarfs can be a pleasure just to watch and care for, even if cuddles are not on the agenda. Equally, with persistent handling, they can become very tame.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Because of their small size, you might think that you can get a smaller cage for your dwarf hamsters – not so! Dwarfs are very active and because you will have a small group of them they too need as much space as you can offer.
Dwarfs can also be toilet trained but – perhaps because there is a group of them – it can take a bit longer for everyone to get the idea. They will also need a wheel – but a smaller 6.5 to 8 inch one is suitable.
In view of this, set up and maintenance costs are similar to getting a Syrian other than:
- You will have the added purchase price of several hamsters.
- Veterinary bills will be higher, with more individuals to treat.
Are Dwarf Russian Hamsters For Me?
Dwarfs are a little more challenging than Syrian hamsters but can be well worth the effort and a lot of fun. However, you do need to consider their need for frequent handling throughout their lives to remain tame.
Their small size reduces the ease of handling them and also makes cage security more of an issue. They can squeeze out of very small spaces!
However, they do make great pets for teenagers and adults if given the necessary time and attention. Their general care is easy – and they are fascinating to watch.
Gerbils As Pets
Domesticated gerbils are almost always Mongolian gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus). Adult gerbils are around 8 inches long – half of which is the tail – and weigh between 2 and 2.5oz. Their lifespan is about 2-3 years but can be longer.
How Many Gerbils Should I Get?
These bouncy little rodents are social creatures who live in colonies in the wild and should not be kept alone.
Experts, such as those at the Gerbil and Rodent Rescue UK, recommend small groups of two or three gerbils to reduce the likelihood of infighting. Unusually, in this species, males are less likely to fight than females in larger groups.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Like all animals, gerbils need to express natural behaviors and these include running, climbing, and digging. Groups are best housed in large (2-3ft) aquariums filled with deep digging substrate, with a wire cage topper attached to give space for climbing, toys and a wheel.
Gerbils are expert chewers and their housing and toys need to be chosen with this in mind. Plastic and wood are not good for housing as they will almost certainly be chewed. However, you can have great fun making chewable toys for your gerbils to destroy from cardboard and wood.
Set up costs are generally low as tanks are relatively inexpensive, but maintenance costs can be higher than for other pets of a similar size. This is due to the amount of substrate that is needed to get a deep enough litter for digging and tunneling.
Savings can be made by buying large bales of suitable horse bedding (card/kiln-dried shavings). Gerbils will also create their own free top-up bedding if you give them cardboard, egg boxes, etc to shred.
Vet visits may be necessary as tumors can occur as they age. Other health issues can include gut infection (diarrhea), teeth issues and respiratory infections, which will also need expert care. However, gerbils are pretty robust and excellent care will decrease the risk of infectious illness.
Are Gerbils For Me?
Despite their busy, eager, and inquisitive personalities it is quite easy to tame gerbils, and they can come to enjoy handling and climbing on their humans. They don’t tend to bite people unless they are startled or feel trapped.
They can fit in well to many human routines because they are not nocturnal and have several wakeful periods throughout every 24 hours.
These energetic little rodents can make excellent first pets for older children, as they are fun to watch and can – with regular attention – can become very tame and easy to handle. As a small group, they are also happy when left to themselves in a roomy and interesting habitat, so long as their care needs are met.
Rats As Pets
Most pet rats (sometimes called fancy rats) are the same species as the dominant wild rat in Europe and North America – Rattus norvegicus – the Brown rat. The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association gives their body length at 9 to 11 inches with the tail adding another 7 to 9 inches.
There is a large size difference between the sexes with adult males weighing anywhere between 12 and 30oz and females 9 to 19oz. Being bigger and slower than the smaller domesticated rodents can make rats an excellent pet for children. Their lifespan is around 18 months to 3 years.
How Many Rats Should I Get?
Rats are highly social colony dwellers, and both males and females will usually live happily in same-sex groups. Research has shown that rats prefer groups of 6 and that living in pairs can be almost as stressful as living alone. Groups of at least 3 rats are preferable and they should never be kept alone.
Their sociability extends to humans and – despite being most active at dawn and dusk – they are always eager for attention, regardless of the time of day. Rats don’t wake up grumpy and will do almost anything for a tasty treat. This makes them very easy to train.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Being larger and extremely agile and active, rats need big cages with both digging and climbing opportunities. Housing, cage furniture, and toys are the main initial outlay but rats also benefit from free exploration outside of the cage, so many people invest in some equipment for this as well.
Ongoing costs are also somewhat higher than for smaller rodents, as they have a larger home and prefer deep litter for digging and foraging in, plus they need a greater quantity of food. However, they can be very satisfied with toys made from recycling and packaging waste.
Veterinary treatment is likely to be needed at some point with their main illnesses being a respiratory infection, mammary lumps and kidney disease in old age.
Are Rats For Me?
Rats are generally easy to care for, but they do need your time as they thrive on attention and like to engage in whatever interesting things are going on. They can also be a little afraid of newness, so they favor routine and find big changes stressful.
The rat’s lifespan is short and one of the problems with choosing them as pets is that they tend to create really strong bonds with their humans and vice versa. Because they have this impact on people, their loss after such a short time can be very distressing.
These lovable rodents have often been referred to as “dog-like” in their animal-human relationship and the ability for training. Rats are fun, quirky, and intelligent, with oodles of personality, which makes them an excellent choice for a small pet if you have space and time for them.
Guinea Pigs As Pets
Guinea Pigs (also called cavies) come in several breed types, which are are all the same species (Cavia porcellusa). These gentle creatures grow to around 8 to 10 inches long as adults, with not much size difference between the sexes. They can weight anywhere between 2 and 3lbs.
Guinea pigs are much longer lived than the smaller rodents, with a lifespan of 5 to 7 years or even more. Depending on your circumstances this could be a positive or negative factor, but it certainly needs your consideration.
How Many Guinea Pigs Should I Get?
Guinea Pigs are a herding species and are very social with their own kind. Consequently, they should never be kept alone.
If you are new to Guinea pigs you would be best getting a pair of females, as males can sometimes be territorial and need neutering to live peacefully together without fighting. Another successful grouping is two females with a neutered male.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Guinea pigs are not particularly agile, and can’t climb very well at all. They need a lot of floor space, but the walls of their enclosure do not need to be very high and they do not need a roof. This means that they can happily be kept in a large playpen-like structure, which allows you easy access to them in your home.
However, they are prey animals and as such can easily get spooked or fearful. So, you would need to protect them from young children and other household pets – in which case a long (4ft plus) plastic-based cage with a wire top is ideal.
The natural climate of a cavy is warm and dry (South America) and they are not hardy in extremes of cold, or sudden fluctuations in temperature. In some climates, a roomy outdoor hutch with an attached enclosed grassy run is another option for housing them.
However, this can reduce human interaction and it is often preferred that they live indoors and have an outdoor run to use in warm weather. The initial costs of purchasing the Guinea pigs, their habitat and equipment (hides, tubes, toys, etc.) can be higher than for the smaller rodents.
Maintenance costs are moderate, as Guniea pigs will need to be cleaned out often as they produce a lot of urine. Food pellets, hay, fresh fruit, and vegetables are also needed in fair quantity. However, they are relatively easy to care for and (with their cheerful vocalizations) can be uplifting to be around.
Veterinary care will be needed and the main health issues affecting Guinea pigs are respiratory infections, diarrhea, abscesses, and vitamin C deficiency (which can be avoided with a good diet).
Are Guinea Pigs For Me?
When it comes to human interaction Guinea pigs have a reputation for being gentle, sociable and even cuddly. This makes them an excellent pet for children who want a calmer pet who is more likely to sit with them and be stroked or groomed.
The cavy also has a wide and appealing repertoire of vocalization and uses sound to express a variety of emotions such as pleasure, excitement, anger, and pain. This can make it easier to understand your pet in different situations.
So, if you are looking for a calmer, potentially cuddly pet, Guinea pigs might be the small pets for you. They can be an excellent choice for some (calm and gentle) children but their longer lifespan and the commitment involved needs to be considered.
Rabbits As Pets
Pet rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) are the same species as wild rabbits and come in many shapes and sizes, from the tiny Netherland Dwarf to the Flemish Giant, who, at around 14-16lbs is the size of a medium dog.
The most common pet breeds tend to be the small and medium-sized rabbits, with easy-going affectionate breed traits making certain types like the Mini Lop, Polish, and Chinchilla extremely popular.
There are also differences in lifespan between the various breeds. Most rabbits will live to be around 5 years at least, but some breeds generally have much greater longevity, such as the Netherland Dwarfs who often live closer to 10 years.
How Many Rabbits Should I Get?
Rabbits are colony dwellers and need the company of their own kind. In a few instances, a house rabbit can substitute full-time human company for a rabbit friend, but as a general rule two rabbits are best. This is easily achieved because even one rabbit needs a large home whether indoors or out.
The best pairing is often a neutered male and a spayed female. This works well because most vets recommend these procedures routinely for rabbits anyway, as they have health benefits, improve social bonding, and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Gone are the days when a sad lonely rabbit sat in a tiny hutch at the bottom of the garden. We now realize that these wonderful creatures need space to hop, skip and jump – and rabbits are just as likely to be found living indoors as outside.
With regular handling and affection rabbits can become very comfortable with humans, enjoying the attention and even snuggling up on the couch. However, they remain rabbits and will really appreciate some outside time where they are safely able to nibble grass.
So, setting up a suitable home for your rabbits can become quite costly. They need a large house – either indoor or outdoor – and a roomy pen for outdoor exercise. They also need enrichment, toys and a litter pan (especially if they are inside). Your rabbits will also need to be vaccinated and neutered.
Maintenance costs will include food, bedding, toys, and a yearly check-up at the vets for vaccination, as well as any treatment for illnesses over their lifetime.
Are Rabbits For Me?
When considering a rabbit, breed variances need to be researched carefully before you decide that a particular rabbit is for you. It’s really important to note that some breeds have a tendency towards being skittish and may not make good family pets.
Other breeds can have specific health issues associated with them such as malocclusion of the teeth which can lead to a rabbit needing regular vet visits to get their teeth burred down. Wooly breeds are at a higher risk of wool block, a dangerous condition where fur from the coat builds up (and block) the digestive tract.
If you choose the right breed to suit your circumstances a pair of rabbits can provide many years of companionship and pleasure, especially as house rabbits where they are very much a part of your family.
Chinchillas As Pets
With a lifespan of up to 22 years, a chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera) is a longterm commitment and although relatively easy to care for, certainly isn’t the right pet for most people. They are around 9 to 14 inches long and their tail adds another 4 to 6 inches. Adult weight can reach as high as 3.5lb.
How Many Chinchillas Should I Get?
Chinchillas live in social groups in the wild and should not generally be housed alone, however, some may actually prefer their own company. Both males and females can make excellent pets and should be housed in same-sex pairs.
Neutering (especially females) can be extremely risky and should not be attempted unless medically necessary.
Set Up And Maintenance Costs
Due to their size, and their excellent jumping and climbing skills, chinchillas need a large cage with multiple levels and plenty of height. They need a number of specialist cage accessories, including a cooling slab to aid temperature control, a huge wheel, and a chinchilla sand bath
Diet also needs special consideration as chinchillas are very limited in what they can safely eat and digest. High-quality chinchilla or rabbit pellets, hay and fresh water are all that is needed, but you can also give a few individual ‘treat’ food items that are safe, such as goji berries, rolled oats, and plain shredded wheat.
Chinchillas chew! They need lots of wood in the cage to allow them to do this and prevent them from chewing things they shouldn’t. You need to be careful about their wider environment to make sure they can’t access electrical cables and house plants.
The cost at purchase can be prohibitive with both the individual chinchillas and their habitat costing up to several hundred dollars each. Ongoing costs are moderately low, but specialist veterinary care must be considered.
Are Chinchillas For Me?
Chinchillas are crepuscular – most active at dawn and dusk – so you need to be able to give them some attention in the evenings, and a calm environment during the day so that they can sleep.
If pet odor is something that bothers you, chinchillas are pretty much odorless, and even their waste is without any negative smell. This is a solid benefit when having a pet in the living area of your home.
A well-raised chinchilla can become a friendly and affectionate pet and your frequent attention and handling will help this happen. Beyond this, care is actually quite easy with cage cleanouts, regular dust baths, and a simple (strict) diet. Males also need to be checked regularly for hair rings.
Chinchillas are often quite shy and need patience, time and attention to learn to trust their humans. They are adorable to watch as they jump, run, groom and play. However, they may never morph into a pet that you can snuggle up with. And 20 years is a long term relationship by any standards!
Sourcing Your Small Pet and Why It Matters
All mammals (including us) are the result of our genes and our experiences. If you want a top quality pet you need to seek out a top-quality breeder, who feeds a great diet for the species. This helps to establish a strong immune system, which in turn reduces the risk of infectious diseases.
Temperament has a strong genetic factor so make sure that both parents of your babies are pet quality animals with great temperaments. Mothers, in particular, can affect temperament in their offspring as a result of their mothering style.
A highly anxious mother can often create anxious and flighty babies, and while handling can have some impact, one of the qualities of a great pet is their ability to be relaxed and companionable around their humans.
So, take your time in sourcing your pets and – when you are getting youngsters of any species – look to the whole set up and the attitude of the breeder and the parents.
Another option is to rescue mature animals. You may need to look around for the right individuals for you and your family, but in meeting the adults before agreeing to home them you will at least be able to see any temperamental issues.
Buying animals from pet shops is a lottery that often involves misery for the animals (produced in mass breeding establishments) and potentially for you too. Sourcing them responsibly can take time but at least they come with the huge benefit of a great start in life.
If you’re happy to open your heart and home to (potentially) more challenging individuals, rescue shelters are always looking for homes for those who haven’t had a great beginning. Small pets are no exception.
We’ve looked broadly at the traits and characteristics of eight of the easiest small animals you could choose to be your pet(s). We hope you have enough information to narrow down your search to the species that are most likely to fit with your aspirations and lifestyle.
We still encourage you to research further into your chosen species and you’ll find plenty of in-depth articles on our website to help you do this. Whatever you decide, we hope you enjoy your new companions.
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