Guide to Hamsters

Of the many species of hamster that live in the wild, relativity few have found their way into the pet world. One of the most common of these is the Golden or Syrian hamster; although this is still a comparatively new pet which has only been available since its re-discovery in 1930.

Syrian hamsters are solitary animals with both sexes living apart in the wild and only coming together for mating purposes, in captivity these hamsters must be housed separately, as fights to the death are not uncommon.

All hamsters will need to be housed in a strong cage that fits tightly onto a strong plastic base, ideally with more than one level and as large as possible. Hamsters are adept at escaping – so be extra sure that their cage is secure!

Hamsters are very active creatures throughout their short two-three year lives and should have an exercise wheel with solid treads fitted to the side of the cage so the hamster cannot hurt its feet.

Most hamsters will accept, and use, any of the wide variety of houses that can be brought for them to sleep in, while others will ignore them and even remove any bedding material placed inside them, and proceed to make a nest else where in the cage.

Hamsters like all rodents have teeth (incisors) that grow continually throughout their life, so plenty of gnawing material will need to be in the cage, or the cage itself will become the centre of its gnawing.

Considering the amount of time hamsters have been part of the pet world they are available in a great many colours and coat lengths, the long hair varieties will need extra grooming but all hamsters, no matter what their coat type, should be handled ever day.

Dwarf Hamsters

There are 3 main species of dwarf hamsters that are becoming more popular as pets, they all live from between 2 – 3 years and have similar requirements to the golden hamster.

The Chinese dwarf hamster is about half the size of a golden hamster with a long sleek body a short, but not stubby, tail and a distinctive dark coloured line that runs along the animals back starting on its face and ending at the base of its short tail.

The other 2 species both come from Russia, the smallest being Roborovski or Russian Winter White, because if kept in cool conditions its topcoat, which is normally grey, will fade until it almost matches the pale white underbelly. This hamster is also sometimes called A Siberian Miniature Hamster. Because when fully grown it is only about 1″ in length. Its body and head are well rounded with large dark eyes and the fur that is less dense than other hamsters cover the entire animal including the tail and feet.

The 2nd dwarf hamster from Russia are called Campbell’s Hamster, these reach a length of between 1 Ѕ – 2 Ѕ” are much more stockier and have the thickest fur, this again covers the short and stubby tail as well as the animals feet.

The overall appearance of this hamster is that of a small fuzz ball often it is difficult to even see the hamster’s legs when it is walking about. This hamster, like the golden, is usually available in a variety of different colours but only ever with the normal coat length.

Diet

Feeding these smaller hamsters poses no real problem, other than the size and amount of food that should be fed to them.

Hamsters in the wild collect their food during the early evening and night filling their cheek pouches to bursting point before returning to there burrows several times and storing the food in its food chamber. These trips always end before daylight when the hamster stays in its burrow, until its next night of foraging.

This behaviour pattern can be seen in all golden hamsters kept as pets, few will be seen during the day, most will empty food dishes and spend most of the night on an exercise wheel.

The feeding requirements of hamsters are like all rodents, a basic diet of a hard food hamster mix which is then supplemented with treat foods like; carrot, celery, grapes, pear, grass, dandelion leaves and raisins. Always be careful not to over feed any one food and make a balanced diet from all the foods your hamster will eat.

When any fresh food is offered make sure it has been washed and dried, any foods collected from the wild are free from any chemicals, pesticides or fouling by other animals. And that the size of the item is relative to the size of the hamster it is being offered to.

Because of the hamsters method of collecting its food care must be taken when fresh food is offered, only feed what your hamster will eat in front of you.
If while cleaning the cage you find a store of old food, clean it away but replace it with fresh food, if you don’t your hamster might think it has no where safe to store its food, and will then start to keep all its food in its cheek pouches. If this happens it could lead to a serious health problem.

Housing

The Chinese and Campbell hamsters can be housed securely in cages, when they are adults, providing the bars of the cage are not too far apart. Even so young adults of these breeds and the Roborovski hamsters will be more secure in a converted aquarium or similar tank.

However you choose to house these smaller breeds their requirements for toys and solidly constructed exercise wheels are the same as for the golden hamster.
All of the dwarf hamsters are more sociable than the golden and will live happier when kept as a pair or part of a group. Females kept together are less likely to squabble than males but providing that sufficient space is allowed per hamster they should all live happily together.

The behaviour of all adult animals, no matter what species, will be greatly influenced by the temperament of the parents, the individual’s personality of the animal and to a much lesser degree by how the animal was handled and socialised as a baby and youngster.

Guide to Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs make lovely pets, they are easy to handle and will become quite tame. They will live for 4 – 5 years, and some may live as long as 8 or 9 years.

Guinea pigs are sociable creatures and love company – that of humans and as well as other piggies. Females can be kept together or in groups, and two males may also live together. An adult male can be introduced to a very young male i.e. 4 – 10 weeks, but you cannot put together two adult males of a similar age, as they will fight for dominance.

A male and female will obviously produce more guinea pigs, however males can be castrated from 5 months of age, and then they can be kept with females.

Housing

Guinea pigs usually live in hutches outside, but can be kept in indoor cages. Those that live indoors tend to be friendlier as they are more integrated into the family. If the Guinea pigs are housed outside over the winter period the hutch must have plenty of hay for them to burrow in, and it will be necessary to cover the hutch at night to keep it warmer.

In the summer the guinea pigs can be put out in runs on the lawn as they make excellent lawn mowers! (However, if you have treated your grass recently, your guinea could ingest poisons, so do be aware).

Do not put them out if the grass is damp or the weather is unfavourable. Inside the hutch we usually put a layer of biodegradable litter such as Biocatolet or supreme carefresh, (DO NOT use Wood shavings as this can lead to respiratory problems and ultimately death) and cover with a good quality hay, which should be shaken to remove the seeds. Hay is preferable to straw as straw can injure their eyes.

Never house Guinea pigs with rabbits. While you may see them together in pet shops, this is not a good idea. When the rabbit is mature it will try and mate the Guinea pig regardless of the rabbit’s sex. We have seen piggies with broken pelvises as a result of living with a rabbit as well as ones that have died from shock due to being kicked or mounted by a rabbit.

Also, if it feels threatened, the Guinea pig will inevitably bite the Rabbit causing abscesses. There are many cases of rabbits killing or seriously injuring guinea pigs if they live together.

So please do not consider this an option.

Diet

Guinea pigs are never happier than when they are eating! They can eat a wide variety of food. They should be given good quality hay to wear their teeth down and fresh food preferably twice a day. This is because they cannot produce their own vitamin C. Guinea pigs will eat almost any fruit or vegetable, if the Guinea doesn’t eat a particular food remove it and do not feed this again.

A Guinea pig will rarely eat food that is harmful to it. Potato should not be given; and lettuce and apples should only be given in small quantities. Apples can cause ulcers in the mouth, lettuce can cause diarrhoea.

Guinea pigs also enjoy a variety of wild plants, the commonest being dandelions, shepherd’s purse, plantain and chickweed – and of course grass.

Any fruit or vegetable should be clean and fresh. Grass clippings from the mower should not be fed as they rapidly heat up and ferment.

While there are a number of guinea pig foods on the market, do try and limit our piggies intake to once every other day. Hay should from 80% of their diet, fresh fruit and grass 15% and then dried food just 5%. This is because they can suffer from overgrown back teeth if they do not get enough wear (which will lead to death) and also kidney problems.

Health

If kept in clean, warm hutches, and fed a good diet, guinea pigs rarely become ill. They do not need any vaccinations but they may need their nails cut occasionally. Also it is important to look at their coats regularly, as mange (caused by a burrowing mite) is very common. This looks first like scruffiness, and loss of hair, and then the guinea pig develops open itchy sores.

The sooner this is treated the better. Long coated breeds need regular grooming at least once a day. It is advisable to have your Guinea pig shampooed and conditioned one a month during the summer months to prevent mites from laying eggs and to keep the coat nice and healthy.

Guinea Pig FAQs

Basic Care

Before you start reading this, you should note that I’ve covered off nearly every eventuality concerning pig healthcare and welfare. It is not meant to scare you – piggies are hardy little creatures who rarely get ill – but this is a guide so you have a good idea of what to do and what to look out for.

Most importantly, piggies need lots of cuddles, fresh air and love!

Diet

We feed dried food in the morning, sometimes with readigrass (a dried grass product that you can buy in bulk from equestrian centres) or good quality hay.

In the evenings, they have fresh food – their bodies absorb the vitamins better at this time of day.

A diet consisting purely of dried food is not healthy. As these dried foods are full of protein, excessive feeding can cause kidney stones, leading to kidney failure.

FOODS TO FEED PLENTIFULLY

Cucumber
Melon
Cabbage
Carrots
Cauliflower
Celery – this is good for their kidneys
Broccoli – full of protein

GO EASY ON
Apples (can cause mouth ulcers)

AVOID
Potatoes (poisonous)
Lettuce (can cause diarrhoea which can lead to death)

If you feed them cut grass or dandelions, make sure the grass has not been treated and that the dandelions are not near the road otherwise they can be poisoned by exhaust toxins.

Hay

We only use good quality, dust free hay normally a bale costs about £6. We also use readigrass (or similar) which is a dried grass product that the piggies love. This is available from Pets At Home (£2-£3 a small bag) or a bale is around £7 from an equestrian centre. We favour the equestrian version as it is cheap and designed for horses who are very susceptible to respiratory disease.

Hay can sometimes carry mites, but these are not visible to the human eye. Never use straw, the ends are sharp and can damage the piggies’ eyes.

Kidneys

Piggies cannot make their own vitamin C and can have problems if they don’t get enough. Fresh foods provide it but once a week we put a quarter of a soluble vitamin C 1000mg tablet – the ones you buy for humans – into their drinking water to keep them healthy. They love the taste too!

Claws

Check the piggies claws regularly – they need trimming normally once a month in the Summer, less in the Winter. Your vet can do this.

Weight

Using kitchen scales, weigh your piggies once a month and keep a note of their weight. Seeing them every day, you will not notice any weight loss, which can be the first sign of illness.

Skin / Fur conditions

Mites is a horrible affliction that, left untreated in piggies, can have devastating effects and can lead to death. If the piggie starts to lose its fur, scratches a lot, or their skin looks red or “pin-pricked”, get them to the vet asap. It may be mites or it may be a fungal infection, but whatever it could be, the earlier you see your vet, the better.

Bedding

Any piggies adopted from CavyRescue are adopted on the terms that they are not put on sawdust or wood shavings. Dusty products can cause respiratory problems and – before we got into rescuing and were simply pet owners – one of piggies died as a result of being on dusty shavings.

We recommend you use EcoPetBed (which you can buy online from www.earthlyenterprises.co.uk at around £17 a bale ) or Carefresh Pet Bedding, from Supreme and available in most pet shops.

Newspaper, changed daily to stop the ammonia causing breathing problems, is an OK stop gap and, despite what people say, we’ve never heard of a piggie dying from being on newspaper.

Heatstroke/ The Cold

Piggies can die of heatstroke. In very hot weather, bring them indoors and put them in a cool room with a fan on. Place a bowl of water near the fan to help humidity. If the air is too dry, over a period of time, lung damage and respiratory problems can occur.

Summer

Hutches should always be in a shaded in the Summer and can be kept cool by:

  • putting sun umbrellas over them
  • pouring water on the roof and down the sides to cool the air
  • putting a frozen bottle of water in the hutch (make sure the piggie doesn’t get frost bite, so use a bottle that is rounded and the piggie cannot lay on it)
  • use existing trees and shrubs as shade

Winter

Piggies also are susceptible to the cold – piggies can freeze to death. In the Winter, put bubble wrap across the wire part of their cage on the outside (secure with drawing pins). They can still see out but have their very own double gazing.

Make sure they have plenty of bedding to keep them warm and check that the water bottle hasn’t frozen. An old sock with the end cut off slipped over the bottle will help stop it freezing.

Shock

Piggies are timid and can die of shock. Never startle them; NEVER put them with rabbits – we have seen so many fatal injuries where rabbits and piggies have been kept together – for example, where a rabbit gets scared and kicks out and the guinea takes the brunt of the powerful kick; and keep them away from where foxes can get to them.

Flystrike

Flystrike is a horrible illness that can cause terrible pain and distress to an animal and can even lead to death. However, there are simple, easy steps you can take to help prevent it.

What is it?

Flystrike happens when adult flies lay their eggs in faeces-soiled fur around a rabbit’s or guinea pigs bottom. Within as little as 8-10 hours the eggs hatch into rapidly-multiplying maggots which feed on the animal by burrowing into its flesh.

This causes extreme pain and distress for the animal and eventually, they will go into shock and die. While flystrike most commonly occurs in rabbits and guinea pigs, debilitated cats and dogs who are unable to groom themselves properly, can be affected too.

Pet hygiene and prevention

It is imperative that you give any pet a daily hygiene check twice daily during hot and humid weather, when flies are particularly active.
Examine your pet every morning and evening and check that their fur is clean, dry and not matted. If their bottom is not clean, use cotton wool and warm water or fragrance free baby wipes to clean it for them.

In the case of rabbits and guinea pigs, change their bedding daily and ensure the rest of their home is clean and dry. Be particularly vigilant if the pet has loose droppings, as they will be more at risk.

To keep the flies away, use a suitable pet-friendly fly repellent available from your vet or pet store, and hang a fly strip close to the hutch. (The safest fly strips to buy are available from equestrian centres some traditional fly strips or fly killers may be suitable for household use, but can be lethal in close proximity to small pets).

There is also a product called Rearguard that is suitable for rabbits and promises to keep them free from maggot infestation for up to 10 weeks.

Speak to your vet for further help and information on preventative measures.

Finally, if you think your pet may be suffering from flystrike or you can see maggots, treat it as an emergency and get your pet to a vet immediately. Prompt treatment can save your pet from unnecessary suffering and even death.

Guinea Pig Basic Care

Before you start reading this, you should note that I’ve covered off nearly every eventuality concerning pig healthcare and welfare. It is not meant to scare you – piggies are hardy little creatures who rarely get il – but this is a guide so you have a good idea of what to do and what to look out for.

Most importantly, the piggies need lots of cuddles, fresh air and love!

Diet

We feed dried food maybe twice or three times a week. Their main diet is readigrass (a dried grass product that you can buy in bulk from equestrian centres or Burgess Supa Forage Excel) and good quality hay.

In the evenings, they have fresh food – their bodies absorb the vitamins better at this time of day.

A diet consisting purely of dried food is not healthy as these dried foods are full of protein, excessive feeding can cause kidney stones, leading to kidney failure.

Also, NEVER feed dried food designed for rabbits as some contain pellets that are poisonous (and fatal) to GPs.

FOODS TO FEED PLENTIFULLY

Cucumber
Melon
Cabbage
Carrots
Cauliflower
Celery – this is good for their kidneys
Broccoli – full of protein

GO EASY ON
Apples (can cause mouth ulcers)

AVOID
Potatoes (poisonous)
Lettuce (can cause diarrhoea which can lead to death)

If you feed them cut grass or dandelions, make sure the grass has not been treated and that the dandelions are not near the road – otherwise they can be poisoned by exhaust toxins.

Hay

We only use good quality, dust free hay – normally a bale costs about £6. We also use readigrass (or similar) which is a dried grass product that the piggies love. This is available from Pets At Home (£2-£3 a small bag) or a bale is around £7 from an equestrian centre. We favour the equestrian version as it is cheap and designed for horses who are very susceptible to respiratory disease.

Hay can sometimes carry mites, but these are not visible to the human eye.

Scurvy and Alkaline balance in the Kidneys

Piggies cannot make their own vitamin C and can have problems if they don’t get enough. Fresh foods provide it but once a week we put a quarter of a soluble vitamin C 1000mg tablet – the ones you buy for humans – into their drinking water to keep them healthy. They love the taste too!
Claws

Check the piggies’ claws regularly – they need trimming normally once a month in the Summer, less in the Winter. Your vet can do this.

Weight

Using kitchen scales, weigh your piggies once a month and keep a note of their weight. Seeing them every day, you will not notice any weight loss, which can be the first sign of illness.

Skin / Fur Conditions

Mites is a horrible affliction that, left untreated in piggies, can have devastating effects and can lead to death. If the piggie starts to lose its fur, scratches a lot, or their skin looks red or ‘pin-pricked’, get them to the vet asap. It may be mites or it may be a fungal infection, but whatever it could be, the earlier you see your vet, the better.

Bedding

Any piggies adopted from CavyRescue are adopted on the terms that they are not put on sawdust or wood shavings. Dusty products can cause respiratory problems and – before we got into rescuing and were simply pet owners – one of piggies died as a result of being on dusty shavings.

We recommend you use EcoPetBed (available online from www.earthlyenterprises.co.uk at around £20 a bale, Carefresh Pet Bedding, from Supreme and available in most pet shops. Or, Financard, another cardboard bedding.

Newspaper, changed daily to stop the ammonia causing breathing problems, is OK and, despite what people say, we’ve never heard of a piggie dying from being on newspaper.

Heatstroke

Piggies can die of heatstroke. In very hot weather, bring them indoors and put them in a cool room with a fan on. Place a bowl of water near the fan to help humidity. If the air is too dry, over a period of time, lung damage and respiratory problems can occur.

Summer

Hutches should always be in a shaded in the Summer and can be kept cool by:

  • putting sun umbrellas over them
  • pouring water on the roof and down the sides to cool the air
  • putting a frozen bottle of water in the hutch (make sure the piggie doesn’t get frost bite, so use a bottle that is rounded and the piggie cannot lay on it)
  • Use existing trees and shrubs as shade

Winter

Piggies also are susceptible to the cold – piggies can freeze to death. In the Winter, put bubble wrap across the wire part of their cage on the outside (secure with drawing pins). They can still see out but have double gazing.

Make sure they have plenty of bedding to keep them warm and check that the water bottle hasn’t frozen. Cut the end off an old sock and put it over the bottle to insulate it.

Shock

Piggies are timid and can die of shock. Never startle them; never put them with rabbits; and keep them away from where foxes can get to them.

Feeding your guinea pig the correct diet

Guineas love to eat and as soon as it is feeding time they will start ‘wheeking’ at you to tell you to get a move on and get their breakfast/lunch/ dinner/snack!

If yours are indoor piggies, they can be in another part of the house, but as soon as that fridge door opens or you rustle a plastic shopping bag, they will start wheeking at you, demanding some cucumber!

You may be surprised to learn that an ideal diet for a piggie should consist of 70% good quality hay such as Timothy Hay; 5% commercial guinea pig food and 25% fresh fruit and vegetables.

This almost mimics the diet that your guinea pig’s ancestors would have had in the wild and will help keep your piggie in the optimum of health.

The diet you feed your guinea pig is of the utmost importance. Feed them incorrectly and they could face obesity, severe dental problems and death.

Dietary fibre

While there are a number of dried guinea pig foods on the market, do try and limit your piggies’ intake to about one large handful of food every other day per guinea. While these commercial foods provide all the right nutrients, they do not have enough dietary fibre.

A lack of dietary fibre in the diet can not only lead to obesity, but to nasty dental problems, both of which can shorten your guinea pig’s life considerably.

Dust-free hay provides lots of dietary fibre and your guinea should always have plenty of fresh hay daily. Ideally it should be kept in a hayrack to avoid the hay getting contaminated by faeces on the floor of their hutch or cage.

Always feed your guineas good quality hay. Timothy Hay is ideal. Dried grass products, available from equestrian centres or pet shops, are also packed with dietary fibre and piggies love it!

If your guinea starts to chew his fur and the vet has checked him out for mites, it could be because he is not getting enough fibre in his diet.

Teeth

Going back to trying to mimic what guinea pigs would eat in the wild, they’d be continually gnawing all day which would wear their teeth down. Like chinchillas and degus, guinea pigs have open rooted back teeth. They grow continually and so need to be worn down.

If the upper back teeth down aren’t worn down adequately, they grow up into the skull. The root can puncture the sinuses, causing respiratory problems or it can grow towards the eyeball, causing eye infections.

The lower molars also grow downwards through the jawbone. Painful abscesses can form.

Both sets of molars will also continue growing into the mouth and it can get to the stage where your guinea is unable to shut his mouth. He will not be able to eat or swallow properly. (Try swallowing with your mouth open and you will see how hard it is).

Guineas with this problem may show signs of having a continually wet chin. This is caused by excessive saliva known as ‘slobbers’ (see pic). Your guinea will also lose weight quite dramatically as he will be unable to eat properly. Other symptoms include chronic wasting and small or no faeces. If the guineas grind their teeth, this could be a sign that they are in a great deal of pain.

An x-ray of the skull is usually the only way to determine if your guinea is suffering from this and sadly the long-term prognosis is not good.

Dried foods

A diet consisting purely of dried food is not healthy. As these dried foods are full of protein, excessive feeding can cause kidney stones, leading to kidney failure.

Also, never buy rabbit food to feed your guinea pigs. Some commercial rabbit foods contain pellets that are toxic to guinea pigs. Also, guinea pigs need vitamin C and rabbit foods do not contain sufficient vitamin C for them.

Vitamin C

Piggies cannot make their own vitamin C and will have problems if they don’t get enough. They can get scurvy, a weakened immune system and an alkaline imbalance in their kidneys.

While fresh foods can provide it, it is always a good idea to supplement their diet with it, especially if they are ill as vitamin C helps the immune system.

You can do this by putting a quarter of a soluble vitamin C 1000mg tablet (for humans) into your guineas’ water bottle once a week to keep them healthy. They love the taste too!

As Vitamin C is a mild acid, it can react with a lot of metals and is subsequently destroyed. If you use vitamin C in a water bottle, ensure that the spout is made of stainless steel.

You can also get commercial vitamin drops from pet shops.

Guinea pigs who are old, sick, pregnant or feeding young guineas will need more vitamin C than a healthy adult guinea pig. You vet may prescribe some vitamin C tablets that can be crushed over their food.

What to feed

Apart from loads of hay and a tiny bit of dried food, guineas love fruit, vegetables and other plants.

Obviously, grass is great. If you have a guinea pig, you don’t need a lawn mower! However, never put your guinea on wet grass as this can cause him to catch a cold. And never put him on grass that has been treated with anything (e.g. weed killer or lawn treatments). This will be toxic to your guinea pig and he could die.

Foods that are good to feed include cucumber, melon, cabbage, carrots (including leaves), cauliflower (including leaves), celery, broccoli, parsley, green and red bell peppers, and strawberry leaves

Go easy on apples as they can cause mouth ulcers and blistering around the mouth due to the acid in them.

Avoid tomato, tomato leaves and potatoes which are poisonous to guineas,
lettuce (which can cause diarrhoea which can lead to death), and obviously, meat, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and dairy products.

If you feed your guineas dandelions ensure that the dandelions have not been picked from an area near the roadside – otherwise your guinea can be poisoned by exhaust toxins.

The best of health

Now that you know the correct diet for your guinea pig, there are other ways to ensure that he is kept in the best of health.

First of all, using digital kitchen scales, weigh your piggies once a month and keep a note of their weight. Seeing them every day, you will not notice any weight loss, which can be the first sign of illness.

Make sure that you have twice yearly veterinary checks ups that include a dental check.

Wet chins, small or absent faeces and weight loss need immediate treatment, so see your vet as soon as possible.

Footloose Furballs

Guinea pigs, as with most animals, need exercise to stay fit and healthy. Having a big area to explore and bullet around in also keeps our furry friends stimulated and entertained, which is equally as important. Opening up your home to your guinea pigs seems an ideal way to cover both.

But how easy is it to make your house safe for the wanderings of small animals on a free-range or semi free-range basis, and what are the benefits of doing so?

Giving your guinea pigs access to a big and varied environment improves their world in an incredible way. Even a large cage or hutch is quite a restrictive space, which is why daily floor time or sessions in an exercise pen are so important. Free roaming brings the obvious increases in opportunities for mental and physical stimulation for them, but let’s not forget there’s plenty in it for us too!

Popcorning and strutting piggers

Seeing them strut around the house as bold as brass, popcorning across the rug and playing piggy trains around the sofas is delightful! They usually become more active, their confidence increases and they seek interaction in a much more liberated way than simply squeaking at you from a cage.

Having guinea pigs follow you round the house pied piper style isn’t unusual, and just you try making a meal without the odd piggy popping in to the kitchen to see if he can help dispose of any unwanted veggies! The extra freedom does of course give them additional powers of manipulation which they will inevitably abuse.

It’s hard to turn down a line of pigs who all come over to where you’re sitting and stand on their back legs begging for food with desperate, hungry faces. Not to mention those who figure out where the veggies come from, and pace the floor by the fridge, chuntering impatiently until some romaine falls down. But seeing your pet active and having fun is what it’s all about – the happier you can make them, the more pleasure they bring you.

Safety

So now to the practical aspects of free-ranging. Firstly, anywhere animals like cats and dogs have access to is ruled out. Same rule applies where small children may be wandering about, or where there are children of an age that still need supervision to ensure they handle animals safely and gently.

All could create situations where the pigs could be unintentionally stressed out, injured or killed. In all these circumstances, a secure pen is better for exercise.

Next, the issue of ‘pig proofing’. Basically anywhere they could crawl in to and get trapped, or where you don’t want them to go must be securely blocked off. Think about your houseplants. Many are poisonous to small animals so these should not only be out of reach, but away from where they could drop leaves on to areas the pigs have access to. Here is a list of some poisonous plants http://www.cavies.com/poisplnt.htm.

You must be careful about leaving large windows and doors open as cats and wild animals could climb in and injure or kill your pet. And then there’s the chewing problem. Every wire they could chew must be placed safely out of reach.

I’ve never had a problem with them chewing furniture but that’s also something worth considering if you have furniture you think of as anything other than a place to park your behind. Incidentally, people who have bar chewing pigs often think free-ranging would be unsuitable or dangerous for them. But many actually find that the destructive chewing behaviour stops once the pig has more space and stimulation. He will still nibble at things as they all do, but now has better things to do than constantly twang on the bars!

As a matter of habit, don’t put anything valuable or important on the floor in reach of their teeth – they have a particular liking for papers and books.

Once you have the basic set up secured, keeping it up and watching where you put your feet quickly becomes second nature.

Litter training

Those who haven’t already tried free-ranging will probably be thinking about toileting matters about now – won’t they just wee everywhere? The good news is that many guinea pigs can be litter trained whether they return to the open cage, or use a litter tray in the room. Most pigs can be encouraged to at least wee in certain areas, while dropping the odd rebellious bean, which is enough for a lot of people. And many can go the whole way. It’s a gentle process and simply involves providing a litter tray (I first used shredded newspaper in a filing tray) or an easy return to the cage for them.

With the litter tray method, just pop some soiled bedding from their cage in it and place it in a corner of the room. This may be enough but if they go elsewhere, just clean up what they do straight away, and place it in the litter tray until they catch on. If they select another regular place to go, simply move the litter tray there. You may find that placing the pig in the litter tray (or back in the cage if you are not using one) from time to time will encourage them to go there too.

There are some pigs who don’t catch on, or just can’t be bothered, and in this case an exercise pen where you can protect the floor is a much better idea as you really don’t want urine soaking in to your floorboards. Something waterproof like a shower curtain, covered with a towel is a good choice.

So give it a go! If it doesn’t work out for you and your pets, then concentrate on having as big a cage for them as you can manage, and giving them as much exercise and stimulation as possible – see www.cavycages.com for how to make a splendidly sized cage or pen your pig will love for very little money!

About the Author

Article written by piggie fanatic Treen of the wonderful www.treenspigs.com website. Check out piccies of piggers as you’ve never seen them before, enter fun competitions and watch Treen’s animated piggies among lots of other brilliant stuff!!

It really is an excellent site for lovers of all small furries, not just piggy lovers…if you are ever having a bad day, log on to www.treenspigs.com and you’ll soon be laughing!

Guide to Gerbils

Although there are many different species of Gerbil or Jirds / Girds in the wild the one most commonly available as pets is the Mongolian Gerbil. This species was first brought into the United Kingdom in the 1930’s and 40’s to be used in laboratory experiments – whilst being bred under these conditions they were tamed and domesticated with the first specimens released to the public as pets in the 1950’s.

In the wild these very sociable animals live in family groups or colonies, in their burrow systems that contain nesting and sleeping chambers, separate food stores and a latrine area. These animals are not only active during part of the night but have periods of activity in the early morning, late afternoon and evening.

Their life span is about 3 years, although many will reach 4, and some even 5 years old. The most common colour for a gerbil is agouti; this name comes from the agouti animal of South America, and is an overall speckled Brown and grey.

This is achieved by each single hair having different colours along its length which when combined produce the final coat colour. Over the years and with selective breeding these colours have been separated out to produce the wide variety of colours that are now available.

Housing

Gerbils are natural diggers, even the young when only 10 days old without yet having their eyes open can be seen wandering around and digging in the deep bedding, which should be used to cover the floor of their home.

For this reason gerbils are best housed in aquariums with a snug-fitting top made from wire mesh over a wooden frame and not cages. This housing should be bought as large as possible; males kept together are less likely to squabble providing they have sufficient space.

As with all rodents, gerbils teeth (incisors) grow continually so it is necessary to give them safe toys and objects to gnaw on which will help to prevent teeth problems from occurring, and any wooden or plastic items placed in the tank will eventually need replacing as they become worn and eventually ignored.

Gerbils are also less likely to use any of the many housing options available, which some hamsters will use, and prefer to make a shallow dip in their bedding (we use Biocatolet cat litter; Carefresh, Ecopetbed or Finacard as bedding – all are dust free and safe).

As for nesting material, this should again be made from a safe material. Shredded paper is ideal, as they will take great pleasure from shredding it down even further before using it. Always avoid the material that looks like cotton wool or J-cloths and never use newspaper, as all of these materials could if accidentally swallowed cause the death of the gerbil.

Gerbils are very active and inquisitive animals, which will not only investigate and gnaw any new items but also try and bury most things that are in their tank. Food dishes are no exception so by sprinkling a little food around the tank, being careful to avoid their toilet area, will let them behave more naturally.

Sexing

When deciding on what gerbils to keep remember they are very social animals and will do much better when kept as a group and not singly, however sometimes this is unavoidable if a partner has died, in which case more attention must be paid to the survivor if it is not to pine away.

Obviously mixed sexes will produce many more gerbils who, after opening their eyes at about 14 days, will be sexually mature at 8 weeks with the females producing between 4 and 7 young after gestating for only 25 days.

Sexing gerbils is quite easy, as with all rodents; the difference between the sexes is in the distance between the genitals and the anus, this distance being greater in the males than in the females. So even if trying to sex gerbils at an early age and are unsure of the exact sex of the animal by comparing two you should at least be able to separate them successfully.

Handling

The correct way to pick up a gerbil, that is not tame enough to come onto your hand, is to hold the animal at the base of its tail, (nearest the body), between thumb and forefinger without pinching it, and then placing it on the palm of your other hand for support. Never leave the animal swinging around or pick it up by any other part of its tail, as long as the animal feels safe it is less likely to wriggle or bite. Never surprise any animal by putting your hand in quickly and immediately trying to pick it up always give the animal time to sniff and smell your hand first.

Apart from the normal food consumption curve, shown by all animals, which sees an increase in food intake up to the time when they reach maturity and then a slow decrease in food consumption, as they grow older, other factors can effect the amount of food any gerbil will eat and, like us, include exercise; active gerbils will require extra food to maintain good condition.

If the conditions are too cold the gerbils will need extra food for energy to keep them warm. Reproductive females will also need extra food just prior to and immediately after giving birth.

Any sick animal will also loose its appetite during the illness and then benefit from an increase in good quality food as they recover. The mental state of an animal can and will adversely effect its eating habits, and depending on how the individual copes with the stress it will either eat absolutely everything that is put in front of it, or in other cases refuse to eat at all.

Diet

Gerbils should have a balanced diet made up from a basic hard food gerbil mix, which can be brought from any pet shop, with this being supplemented with a variety of fresh items which can include; Swede, Tomato, Lettuce, Cheese, Carrots, Dried or Baked Bread, Celery, Grapes, Grass, Apples, Hardboiled Egg, Orange, Dandelion Leaves and Raisins.

When any fresh food is offered make sure it has been washed and dried, that any foods collected from the wild are free from any chemicals, pesticides or fouling by other animals.

The size of the item is relative to the size of the gerbil it is being offered to, lettuce is about 85% water and if fed in large quantities will act as a laxative while hardboiled egg will have the opposite effect. Always remove any uneaten fresh food the same day to prevent it from spoiling in the tank.

All animals are individuals and will have their own tastes and preferences for foods that might not be good for them in large quantities, so it’s up to you to make sure your gerbils get and eat a good and proper balanced diet.

Baby gerbil’s injured paw

In July 2005, myself and my daughter Coral helped foster some silver fawn gerbils – among many other small furries! – from GBH Rescue in Kent.

Within two days of their arrival, lots of squeaking indicated that Mum gerbil had given birth to seven babies. Having never had new born animals before, I was far too frightened to handle these little guys for the first day or so – they looked so fragile.

However, I was assured by Jacky that the Mum would not mind and eventually I took the plunge, handling the babies every day for a few minutes and making sure they were all okay.

Jacky also gave me a crash course on how to sex the gerbils and we eventually established that we had 5 little boys and 2 girls.

Late one night when they were about 10 days old, I was checking them all over and saw that something was not quite right with one of the little boys. Initially I thought something had got stuck to one of its front paws, but on closer examination, it was the limb itself which was the problem. It was very swollen and didn’t look at all nice.

Coral came over the following morning with her camera and took some pictures in order to get some advice as to the problem. On zooming in, it looked as if something had wrapped itself around the limb and was cutting into it. I was mortified and could not understand how anything could have got into the cage which would cause this to occur. That afternoon, off we went to the vets with Mum and all her babes.

Our vet managed to remove the offending article which resembled a thread, but could give us no guarantee whether the little chap would lose the limb or not. Antibiotics were prescribed together with some cream which we were told to apply liberally to the wound in an endeavour to promote healing and minimise any scar tissue.

The baby boy was very good and liked his medicine so much that he would nibble the end of the syringe! Applying the cream was not quite so easy as he was so small and wriggly and invariably the cream ended up not only on his paw but around his nose and all over his body as well.

Days passed, the swelling subsided and although the wound healed, the end of the limb was not bearing his weight and would bend under him at right angles. I was convinced that the end of the limb was totally useless and that he would lose it, but it remained pink and healthy looking, even though the paw itself was not useable.

Five weeks after the birth, the babies were split with the 2 girls remaining with their Mum. The boys became little characters in their own right and as days went on, I realised that the little boy with the poorly paw was getting around just as easily as all the others, the only noticeable difference being the way he held his food.

They were delightful to look after and I continued to handle them all on a daily basis, just holding them in my hand as I took them out of the cage one after the other until all 5 were in my hand where they would all sit quite happily for a few minutes before wanting to be on the move again.

They went off to the new home before Christmas by which time, it was very difficult to find the boy with the damaged paw. He had made a wonderful recovery, his fur had grown over the wound and unless you looked very, very carefully, it was difficult to tell him apart from his brothers. The limb had regained its strength although I suspect that a weakness will always be there. I just hope it will never hinder that little chap in any way.

Article by : Sylvia Meetens

Gerbil Rescue

Back in July 2005, my daughter Coral asked me if I could help with what came to be known as the Cambridge Rescues. A vast quantity of exotics, hamsters of all varieties and gerbils needed to be collected and transported to various rescue centres and subsequently rehomed as far as this was possible.

I agreed to assist and we made our first journey to Bishops Stortford at the end of the month and collected a significant number of dwarf hamsters and gerbils in breeding pairs, some of which had litters already, which we took to GBH Rescue in Beckenham, Kent and placed into the care of Jacky Carter.

Jacky had previously asked Coral if she might like to foster and rehome some animals, to which Coral agreed, thinking at that time she was going to get some Syrian hammies, but no Syrians were collected on that trip.

In one of the containers was a pair of silver fawn gerbils with their litter which were old enough to be split away from the parents. Mum and Dad were also separated, although Mum was already noticeably pregnant again. As Coral did not have sufficient space to foster them at her flat, we arrived back at my house that evening with the pregnant Mum, her 3 daughters and a breeding pair of Roborovski hamsters who had not had babies for the previous 8 weeks.

Within 10 minutes, my lounge had become a mini animal sanctuary. We had no idea what to expect, never having dealt with new born baby animals before.

Two days later and lots of squeaking indicated that Mum had given birth. Having read a few articles on the Internet, I took the plunge and gently investigated the nest to find 7 little pink bodies. I was far too frightened to handle these little guys for the first day or so – they looked so fragile – but I was assured that the Mum would not mind and eventually took the plunge, handling them every day for a few minutes and making sure they were all okay.

Jacky had given us a crash course on how to sex them and we eventually established that we had 5 little boys and 2 girls.

They went off to the new home before Christmas and Coral gets regular updates from their new owner. It seems they are all doing well and still providing lots of amusement with their antics.

Being involved with those babies right from the outset was a wonderful experience – we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Sadly, one of the older girls that we bought home to foster, died only 24 hours after bringing her home, but her sisters survived well and were also successfully rehomed. The Mum and 2 daughters born at my house are now looked after by my youngest daughter and I gather are almost impossible to tell apart now.

As for the Roborovski hamsters, they had 5 babies about 7 to 10 days after bringing them home and the 2 groups – Mum and 2 daughters and Dad and 3 sons were all rehomed shortly before Christmas 2005.

A happy ending all round.

Article by : Sylvia Meetens

Flystrike

Flystrike is a horrible illness that can cause terrible pain and distress to an animal and can even lead to death. However, there are simple, easy steps you can take to help prevent it.

What it is

Flystrike happens when adult flies lay their eggs in faeces-soiled fur around a rabbit’s or guinea pig’s bottom. Within as little as 8-10 hours the eggs hatch into rapidly-multiplying maggots which feed on the animal by burrowing into its flesh.

This causes extreme pain and distress for the animal and eventually, they will go into shock and die. While flystrike most commonly occurs in rabbits and guinea pigs, debilitated cats and dogs who are unable to groom themselves properly, can be affected too.

Pet hygiene and prevention

It is imperative that you give any pet a daily hygiene check – twice daily during hot and humid weather, when flies are particularly active.

Examine your pet every morning and evening and check that their fur is clean, dry and not matted. If their bottom is not clean, use cotton wool and warm water or fragrance free baby wipes to clean it for them.

In the case of rabbits and guinea pigs, change their bedding daily and ensure the rest of their home is clean and dry. Be particularly vigilant if the pet has ‘loose’ droppings, as they will be more at risk.

To keep the flies away, use a suitable pet-friendly fly repellent available from your vet or pet store, and hang a fly strip close to the hutch. (The safest fly strips to buy are available from equestrian centres – some traditional fly strips or fly killers may be suitable for household use, but can be lethal in close proximity to small pets).

There is also a product called Rearguard that is suitable for rabbits and promises to keep them free from maggot infestation for up to 10 weeks.

Speak to your vet for further help and information on preventative measures.

Finally, if you think your pet may be suffering from flystrike or you can see maggots, treat it as an emergency and get your pet to a vet immediately. Prompt treatment can save your pet from unnecessary suffering and even death.