Dogs are great and cats are awesome but sometimes our larger, better known four-legged friends overshadow some of Gerbil in Handthe other critters that also make wonderful companion options. “Pocket pet” is a term used to describe any small mammal that is domesticated and kept as a household pet. They can range anywhere from the common hamster to the more exotic flying squirrel and even hedgehogs. With all of the options available out there, it can be difficult to know which type of pet would fit your lifestyle. Below you will find some basic information on the most typical types of “pocket pets” in order to help you choose which might be the right one for you and your family.

Before you make a choice on a pet, even on a small one, it is important to remember a couple of things. First, your new friend, regardless of his size, needs companionship and interaction with you. Even though pocket pets traditionally live in cages and aquariums, that does not mean they should be isolated from human contact. As a matter of fact, most of these creatures are very social and require some quality time with their owners to prevent boredom and maintain healthy social habits.

Second, “pocket pets,” just like dogs and cats, are available for rescue at a variety of animal shelters. Accidental breeding and misunderstandings regarding the care and needs of these animals has led to large numbers being abandoned by their owners. Please check locally and help save a life when considering bringing a pet into your home.

*A Note on Salmonella
Salmonella contamination is a risk associated with several of the animals below and has been officially linked to these rodents by the Centers for Disease Control. And while the threat is very minor, it should be taken seriously. However, it can be greatly reduced or eliminated if a few very basic precautionary steps are taken:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly after changing your pet’s bedding and/or cage.
  2. Children younger than five should be supervised when handling pets due to the child’s weaker immune system. Children should always wash their hands after handling a pet rodent.
  3. Do not eat or smoke while handling a rodent.
  4. Do not kiss your pet.
  5. Do not handle your rodent near food preparation areas.

Gerbils
Average Life Span: 3-5 years
Average Annual Cost: $300
Compatibility with Children: The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend gerbils for families with children five years of age or younger due to a slight risk of salmonella (although no known cases have ever been reported).
Space Needed: Ten-gallon aquarium
Size: 4 inches plus the tail

Special Considerations: Gerbils are daytime animals and very social. It is recommended that you get at least two (preferably from the same litter) so they don’t get bored or lonely. Remember that more gerbils need more space. They rarely bite and can be easily trained to be handled properly.

Guinea Pigs
Average Life Span: 5-7 years
Average Annual Cost: $635-$705
Compatibility with Children: Recommended for older children who know how to handle small animals.
Space Needed: About four square feet per pig (2’ x 2’ cage with a solid floor)
Size: Up to two pounds

Special Considerations: Guinea pigs need lots of attention and get bored easily. It is highly recommended to get two pigs at once to ensure that they are properly socialized and well adjusted. As well, they need daily exercise outside of their cage and appropriate grooming depending on their hair length.

Hamsters
Average Life Span: 2.5-3 years
Average Annual Cost: $300
Compatibility with Children: Not recommended for kids under age eight who lack the fine motor skills to handle small animals.
Space Needed: Syrian hamsters require separate ten-gallon aquariums while Dwarf hamsters can use cages suited for mice.
Size: Syrian average six inches in size while Dwarf varieties are between two and three inches

Special Considerations: All hamsters are nocturnal and bite when woken up in the daytime. They also love to exercise on wheels, which could get noisy throughout the evening. Hamsters are also known to carry various diseases such as salmonella and Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis, which could potentially infect small children.

Mice
Average Life Span: 1.5-3 years
Average Annual Cost: $300
Compatibility with Children: Mice are very quick and generally suited to children age five and older.
Space Needed: A ten-gallon aquarium is suitable for three to four mice. Wire cages are not recommended because the mice can squeeze through the bars.
Size: 3.5 inches in length and .5 to 1 ounce

Special Considerations: Mice carry a small risk of salmonella. Males can also be territorial and need to be introduced slowly. Mice are easily trained and can be taught to sit on your shoulder.

Rabbits
Average Life Span: 7-10+ years
Average Annual Cost: $730-$1055
Compatibility with Children: Rabbits aren’t recommended for young children because they are easily frightened and easily injured by rough handling.
Space Needed: Rabbits need large cages or dog kennels, as well as an additional “rabbit proofed” room to exercise and explore.
Size: 2-20 pounds

Special Considerations: Rabbits are very active and need several hours of supervised playtime outside of their cage. They are also very smart and can be taught to play tag and use a litter box. Rabbits also need lots of toys and their cages need cleaned more regularly than other pocket pets. They also have more complex diets and require more fresh vegetables then their rodent cousins.

Rats
Average Life Span: 2.5-3 years
Average Annual Cost: $300
Compatibility with Children: Not recommended for children under age five due to the risk of salmonella.
Space Needed: 2’ x 2’ x 2’ cage with a solid bottom. Some height is important because rats like to climb.
Size: 14 to 18 inches long (including the tail)

Special Considerations: Rats are very smart and very social and can be trained to ride on your shoulder. As well, they work better in same sex pairs because they can get lonely and bored easily. They are nocturnal but can be trained to match your schedule.

There are plenty of resources to help you determine proper care care of your pocket pet. A good place to start is the ASPCA website.  These often overlooked pets can bring entertainment, joy and companionship and are a good choice when a larger pet may not work for your family! —Mike Griffin

Mike is a dog lover who also has a fondness for cats. And rabbits. And birds. And hamsters. The list pretty much includes any critter that will let him enjoy their company or occasionally pet them. When Mike isn’t writing for Ohio Animal Companion, you’ll probably find him at any one of the local parks or trying to not to burn down his house with the experiments he holds in his kitchen that he likes to call “cooking.”