Small Animals Care

Know how to spot signs that your little friend is feeling under the weather

Small animals don't usually outwardly appear to be unwell, this is to protect themselves from predators in the wild. Look out for any unusual behaviour as it could be quite late by the time you notice so you must contact your vet immediately.

Who would you like to know about?

Rabbit, Guinea Pig, Hamster, Rat or Mouse, Ferret, Degu, Gerbil or Chinchilla

General Rules

Nails

If their nails are long and curvy you can trim them back but be careful to avoid the quick (the pink bit the middle). Ask a vet to show you how to trim them if you are unsure.

Coat, Eyes and Ears

Check for scurf, dandruff, itchy sores or crusty wax in their ears and wipe away any discharge from their nose and eyes.

Toilet Habits

Check their faeces daily, if there are any changes in colour, consistency or amount or if their urine suddenly turns red then consult your vet.

Environment

Small animals need to be kept in a warm but well ventilated environment with plenty of soft bedding. Avoid stress by keeping predators away and providing hiding places. Exercising outdoors in a protected pen is essential to keep bones and nails strong and healthy.

Food & Water

Some animals will chew their own, or even their companion's fur when stressed or to make up for a lack of fibre when hay is not available so make sure they always have a fresh stack. Treats should be given sparingly, especially if they have a podgy tummy or develop a dewlap (a fold of loose skin hanging from the neck). Make sure they always have access to clean, fresh water- just providing fresh fruit and vegetables is not enough.

Caring For Your Rabbits

Fly strike

Fly strike is caused by flies which are attracted to dirty rabbit fur. They lay eggs which hatch into maggots, eating into the skin and releasing toxins. When this occurs, urgent vet attention is required. Rabbits that cannot clean themselves because they are arthritic, overweight or long haired are particularly at risk. Prevent fly strike by checking your rabbit twice daily, cleaning or clipping dirty fur, using fly screens on hutches and runs as well as applying preventative treatments.

Respiratory disease

Look out for a runny nose, eyes or breathing difficulties as these can be signs of respiratory disease. Make sure your rabbit is kept in a well-ventilated area and clean the hutch out regularly to avoid strong smells accumulating and hay becoming dusty.

Diet

Rabbits need a high fibre diet, most of which they get from hay. They need to be continuously eating or other problems may follow, so if your rabbit stops eating or passing faeces, consult your vet as soon as possible. Also, if you notice they have diarrhoea then check their diet as this can be caused by insufficient fibre, too many sugary treats, or a change in diet.

Teeth

Dental problems are common in rabbits. A rabbit's teeth are continually growing and need plenty of fibre to help wear them down. This can be achieved by providing a varied diet and something for them to gnaw on. Check your rabbit's mouth regularly as their teeth sometimes need clipping to take off sharp edges. If your rabbit is not eating, losing weight, or keeps dropping food then consult your vet.

Vaccinations

Rabbits can be vaccinated against myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD). These viral diseases are very serious, but can be prevented through vaccination. Your vet will advise you on when you should vaccinate your rabbits.

Neutering

Neutering is an operation carried out by a vet. In male animals, the testicles are removed - this is called 'castration'. In female animals, the ovaries and the uterus (womb) are removed - this is called 'spaying'. Neutering stops animals from having unwanted litters, and also reduces the risk of rabbits developing some serious diseases. This can help them live longer and enjoy a better quality of life as well as reducing aggression, allowing two or more rabbits to live happily with each other.

Caring For Your Guinea Pig

Skin disease

Guinea pigs are prone to contracting mange which is caused by mites. Signs of skin disease are flaky, itchy skin and hair loss, often between the shoulder blades and along the back. Consult your vet if you notice this as your guinea pig will need treatment.

Dental disease

Your guinea pig's teeth can easily become overgrown. Keep an eye on their teeth and eating habits and consult your vet if you have any concerns.

Neutering

If you're keeping males and females together then the male guinea pig should be neutered, it's not usually necessary to spay the females however. Guinea pigs can start breeding as early as 4 weeks of age, so you need to separate males and females until the males can be neutered.

Caring For Your Hamster

Dermatitis/Mange

This is caused by a different mite to that seen in guinea pigs but the signs will be the same - flaky, scaly patches and irritated skin.

Teeth

Overgrown teeth can cause your hamster pain and difficulty eating. To help prevent this they need to have plenty of fibre and something to gnaw on. Your vet can clip your hamsters teeth when necessary - don't worry, its painless.

Lumps and Bumps

Lumps can be common and are not necessarily always serious. They can be abscesses or benign growths but it's still important to take them to be checked by a vet.

Wet Tail

This is severe diarrhoea caused by a bacteria. Vet treatment is needed as this can be a serious disease.

Hibernation

A sudden drop in temperature or even a series of dull days can cause your hamster to hibernate. Even if your hamster is cool, stiff and immobile they may be alive and well, just hibernating. If this happens then warm him in your hands or near a radiator, but do not over do the heat.

Caring For Your Mice & Rats

Teeth

As with all small animals, overgrown teeth can cause mice and rats pain and difficulty eating. To prevent this they need plenty of fibre and something to gnaw on. Make sure you check their teeth regularly and consult your vet if you notice anything unusual.

Lumps and Bumps

You should always get any lumps checked out by your vet as certain types of tumours are common in mice and rats.

Respiratory Disease

This is one of the most common illnesses in mice and rats. Watch out for a runny nose and eyes, and any difficulty breathing.

Remember: a red coloured discharge from your rat's eyes and nose is not blood, its discharge stained red by a pigment produced by the rat, however it is often released in response to stress or illness. Don't panic if you see this, but pay attention as it could mean he or she is feeling under the weather.

Skin Disease

Pet mice will often show signs of skin disease. It can be caused by mites or infection but is sometimes due to fighting or self trauma from rubbing themselves on their cage or equipment. If you are concerned then consult your vet.

Caring For Your Ferret

Neutering

Female ferrets (Jill) are induced ovulators, which means until they mate they remain in season; this can cause severe health problems including hair loss and even death from oestrogen-associated anaemia (deficiency in red blood cells). Ask your vet about the best option for your ferrets.

Microchipping

As ferrets can be masters of escape, consider having them micro-chipped so you can trace their whereabouts if they ever go missing. Talk to your vet to find out more.

Hairballs

Ferrets are proficient self-groomers, requiring little human help. Because they shed each year in the spring and autumn, hairballs may develop. Hairballs can cause vomiting, decreased appetite or intestinal blockage. Use a soft brush to comb the fur. Loose hair can be controlled by changing bedding once a week. Your vet can recommend appropriate treatment if the excessive shedding is causing concerns.

Ear Care

Ears should be cleaned once a month to remove the reddish wax build-up common in ferrets. Please talk to your vet about what to use and how to clean their ears as they are very sensitive. Do not use cotton buds as these can cause lasting damage.

Vaccination

Annual check-ups mean the vet can check their general health and give them a yearly vaccination against canine distemper. Ferrets are very susceptible to canine distemper, which is fatal and can affect both indoor and outdoor ferrets.

Caring For Your Degu

Teeth

Degus teeth grow constantly so they need appropriate food and toys to wear these down. Their teeth should be yellow - white teeth are a sign of vitamin A deficiency. If you notice a wetness around their mouth, this could be a sign of overgrown teeth; talk to your vet if you have any concerns.

Grooming

Providing a dust bath filled with chinchilla dust several times a week will help your degus keep their coats clean and shiny. Dust baths should be removed after half an hour or so to prevent them from being used as a toilet.

Diabetes

Degus are prone to developing diabetes if their diet is too high in sugar; this can be avoided by feeding a balanced and appropriate diet for degus and not giving sugary treats or fruits. Signs of this condition include excessive drinking, weight loss and a white clouding of the eyes. Consult your vet if you notice any of these signs.

Temperature

Keeping their environment at around 20 degrees centigrade is important as degus cannot sweat and may overheat if the temperature rises above this. Degus may be seen lying flat on their stomachs and limiting movement if they are too hot.

Caring For Your Gerbil

Teeth

Gerbils’ teeth grow constantly so it’s important to provide them with wooden blocks, suitable branches and appropriate nesting materials to shred as these help to prevent overgrown teeth. Check their teeth regularly and talk to your vet if you’re concerned.

Digestive upsets

Signs of infection include depression, rough hair coat, hunched posture, loss of appetite, dehydration and watery diarrhoea. As digestive upsets are contagious, a sick gerbil should be separated from other gerbils and you should contact your vet immediately as it can be serious. Gerbils can transmit salmonella to humans so always wash your hands after handling them.

Irritation of the Face and Nose

Incompatible cage mates, high humidity and overcrowding can cause gerbils' tear glands to secrete an excess of porphyrin, a red-brown pigment around the nostrils and eyes. This can cause skin irritation, which leads the gerbil to scratch and hurt itself.

Inner ear problems

Gerbils over the age of 2 can develop growths inside their ear which can affect their balance as the growth pushes into the inner ear. If you notice signs of incoordination with your gerbil, remove objects in their cage that may harm them and seek advice from your vet.

Coat

Gerbils need to groom regularly to keep their coats clean and healthy. Provide a small amount of chinchilla dust in a shallow dish each day to help keep their coats healthy. Remove the sand and sieve it clean afterwards.

Tail-slip

Never pick a gerbil up by the tail, as this can result in fur loss or cause the skin on the tail to slip off. This is called tail-slip. The portions of the tail that are exposed by skin slippage often rot and must be treated by amputation.

Caring For Your Chinchilla

Fur Slip

Chinchillas should be handled calmly and gently to minimise stress. A protective reaction, known as fur slip, may occur if the animal is frightened; resulting in the release of a large patch of fur and revealing smooth skin underneath. It may also happen due to improper handling, fighting or overexcitement. Fur can take several months to regrow and may be a different shade. To prevent this, handle chinchillas gently, move slowly and speak softly.

Teeth

Like all rodents, chinchillas’ teeth grow constantly so it’s important to provide things to chew on like hay, wooden toys and mineral stones. Cuttlebone is also great to gnaw on and provides calcium too.

Coat

Chinchillas like to keep their soft fur clean and enjoy a dust bath. It may seem unusual but bathing in special chinchilla dust is a vital part of their grooming routine. Place a chinchilla bath filled with dust in their cage and leave it in for about five minutes at a time. Your animals should bathe several times a week to keep their coat shiny and clean. Take care not to leave the bath in their cage as they may use it as a toilet.

Temperature

Chinchillas are prone to heatstroke at temperatures greater than 80°F (27°C). Keep chinchillas indoors in temperatures around 50 to 60°F (10 to 16°C) and in a dry place, free of draughts, moderately cool and away from direct sun.

Vitamins and supplements

Vitamins can be added to food or water. Probiotic supplements can help to maintain healthy digestion and relieve stress. Getting used to their new surroundings can be stressful for your chinchilla so consider buying probiotic supplements before you take them home, but always speak to your vet first.