MICE, RATS, HAMSTERS, GERBILS
Rodents are true pocket pets that do not take up much room and are easy and inexpensive to acquire and care for. In my opinion, out of all the various small rodents, rats tend to make the best pets. They will become very tame and friendly and will interact with the family. Hamsters are popular pets, are cute and fuzzy, but do have more of a tendency to bite then some of the other rodents. Mice also make good pets but tend to be a little more active and then rats. Gerbils generally are very tame and sweet and typically are not bitters, but again are very active and must be socialized well to be a good pet. The primary drawback with all our small rodents species is their limited life span, with a 2yr old often considered an old rodent.
As with all pets, many health problems can potentially develop. However, a couple of the more common problems in rats are upper respiratory infections and mammary gland tumors. Respiratory infections are contagious among rats and the ill pet will often exhibit tearing (often red tears), nasal discharge and sneezing. If caught early the infection can be treated by your veterinarian. Mammary gland tissue is present over a wide area on rats and tumors are very common anywhere on the body. Often these tumors are benign but will still cause the rat problems due to the large size. Tumors can be surgically removed by your veterinarian. Always choose any new pet carefully. As with all animals, it is better to acquire your new pet from a reputable small breeder rather then a chain store which mass produces rats. Rats from pet shops or mass breeders tend to have more health problems because various sources are often mixed together and the breeding is indiscriminate. It is best to go to a small local breeder who is breeding selectively and socializing the rats early in life. It is always best to choose your new pet rat as carefully as you would a new puppy.
Hamsters are likely the most popular of the small rodents and are available in a variety of sizes, coat colors and lengths. Hamsters do have a reputation for biting, especially when awoken. Always buy young hamsters that have been handled and socialized well. Common problems we see with hamsters are broken limbs (often from wire cages), diarrhea, mites and hormonal disease. All small rodents should be housed on a solid bottom cage because their small feet are easily caught in wire caging and frequently a fracture is the result. Wet tail or diarrhea is a common problem in hamsters and can be fatal if not addressed early. The small hamster will quickly become dehydrated if not treated promptly. Over the counter medications should never be used because they often are dosed inappropriately and may not even treat the actual infection. Your veterinarian will be better able to identify the problem and treat it correctly.
Mites are a common problem in all rodents and infected animals will be itchy and have hair loss, skin wounds, and flaky skin. Mites can be treated easily by your veterinarian with a variety of possible treatments. Lastly, older female hamsters can develop a hormonal condition that often looks like a mite infestation. The females will loose hair and are often very itchy. Again, your veterinarian is the best person to diagnose this condition.
Mice have many of the same problems as rats and a similar short lifespan. One problem we see in both rats and mice is tail trauma. If picked up by their tails the skin will actually slip off leaving unprotected tissue and bone. Rodents should therefore never be picked up by their tails. Also, in my experience mite infestations seem to be more common in mice and the affected individual will have hair loss, thickened skin and will be very itchy.
Gerbils generally make excellent pets and like hamsters they come in a variety of colors and coat textures. I prefer to house gerbils in same sex pairs, but if not already housed together they may fight. Also, overcrowding of gerbils or rodents in general, will result in a variety of health concerns due to stress, such as increased infections and behavioral problems. Gerbils should be purchased at a young age for a reputable breeder that has socialized them well. Tame gerbils will be anxious to be with you and interact with the family. They tend to be fairly healthy animals, but can acquire the same health concerns as other small rodents. Tail trauma is always a problem and again, rodents should never be picked up by their tails. Gerbils have a bare patch of skin on their abdomen that is actually a scent gland. Occasionally the scent gland will develop a tumor that can be surgically removed. Respiratory and gastrointestinal infections can also occur.