Which Small Animal Species is Right For You?
Small mammals make wonderful pets. They’re fun to watch, offer daily companionship and have fun personalities making them a great addition to your family. While it’s easy to get swooned by their cuteness in the pet store, it’s important to do your research ahead of time to make sure you’re choosing a species that fits your lifestyle and are ready to meet their needs.
To help you prepare for this decision, we connected with Dr. Jennifer Parsons, a Mazuri® nutritionist with extensive experience with small animals. She offered tips to consider when choosing a pet as well as some unique factors you should know about each species. Let’s dive in.
What You Should Know Before Choosing a Small Animal
Keeping an animal healthy and happy all starts with great nutrition. To provide a diet that meets all their needs, we first need to understand how they digest their food because it’s very different from humans.
“A lot of small mammals, like rodents and rabbits, are hindgut fermenters, which means they have a microbial population that lives inside their gut and helps them digest their food. To keep those microbes healthy and functioning properly, you have to pay special attention to the health of their gut. If anything upsets the balance of those microbes, the animal can’t digest their food,” explained Dr. Parsons.
That may sound technical, but it just means you should adhere to these feeding fundamentals for herbivores in particular:
Feed a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Make sure your animal receives plenty of fiber.
Provide a species-specific fortified diet as well as a constant supply of grass hay for them to nibble on. Their digestive systems are designed to be working constantly.
Don’t change their diet abruptly or frequently because their microbes don’t adapt quickly and need a consistent environment to function properly.
Before you dive into small animal ownership, it’s also important to know that most of these species are nocturnal. Unlike your cat or dog, they won’t be ready to wind down for the night when you are.
“They’re going to be super active when you’re trying to sleep. That can mean chewing, digging or running on their wheel, which can be cute but also noisy,” explained Dr. Parsons.
If you’re getting a small animal as a first pet or companion for your child, Dr. Parsons also recommends choosing an animal whose size, behaviors and needs are appropriate for the age and abilities of your children. Some species require more care and attention than others.
Speaking of which, let’s explore some of those differences.
Unique Needs of Each Species
Rabbits have extensive microbial communities so it’s important to make sure you’re feeding those microbes well with a high-quality diet and plenty of fiber. Make sure they always have something to eat and are well hydrated, or they can develop a condition called GI stasis, which can be serious. Maintaining good dental health is also important in preventing GI stasis, otherwise dental challenges can prevent them from eating.
Mazuri Rabbit Diet is formulated to address these challenges when fed free choice along with plenty of fresh water and grass hay, if desired. The high-fiber pellets encourage continuous chewing behavior, plus the live probiotics support digestive health. This complete, balanced diet can be fed to rabbits of any age.
Like rabbits, guinea pigs also need constant food intake to keep their digestive systems happy. Unlike any other species in this category, they have a dietary need for vitamin C so make sure you’re buying a feed specific to guinea pigs that contains vitamin C. Mazuri Guinea Pig Diet is formulated with stabilized vitamin C, which remains active longer than traditional vitamin C, as well as plenty of fiber to promote chewing activity and probiotics to support digestive health.
Mice and Rats
Compared to other species in this category, mice and rats are on the lower end of the maintenance spectrum. They don’t have as many specific nutritional needs, but it is still important to ensure a healthy diet and make sure they are able express their chewing behavior as well as maintain dental health. Mazuri Rat and Mouse Diet provides all the nutrients they need in an easy-to-feed pellet form they’ll love to munch on.
It’s also important to allow mice and rats opportunities to partake in the types of movement they enjoy like climbing and running. If you’re purchasing an exercise wheel or exercise ball, just be sure it’s sized correctly, or it can tweak their spine.
Feeding a chinchilla is a lot like feeding a rabbit or guinea pig, although their fiber requirements are little bit lower. Mazuri Chinchilla Diet is nutritionally complete and requires no supplements. Plus, it smells and tastes delicious so your chinchilla is sure to love it. As nocturnal creatures, they will eat most of their food during the night so make sure they have plenty of food and water before you go to sleep.
Aside from quality nutrition, these animals also need the opportunity to take care of their fur by taking dust baths. You can buy dust bath houses and dust to go in them. If they have the materials, your chinchilla will know exactly what to do, and it’s fun to watch as they roll and spin around in the dust. This keeps their fur in good, healthy shape and removes any excess oil and dirt.
Unlike the animals previously mentioned, hedgehogs are insectivores, not herbivorous hindgut fermenters. That said, it’s especially important to make sure you feed a diet that’s made for specifically for them, including the right amount of indigestible material, similar to what they would ingest if eating insects in the wild. This is key for maintaining digestive health. It’s also important to make sure their feed mimics the crunchy texture of insects to keep their dental health.
“When I worked with zoos, the number one reason hedgehogs were brought to me was because they had tooth problems, and they couldn’t eat their food anymore. This is often because they’ve been fed a mash or soft canned food because the hedgehog enjoys it, but it’s not good for their teeth,” shared Dr. Parsons.
Mazuri Hedgehog Diet was formulated to mimic the high-protein, high-fiber diet they’d eat in the wild, containing a variety of animal ingredients that are appropriate for insectivores. As insectivores, you should know hedgehog feces is a bit more stinky than herbivorous species, so you’ll need to prioritize cleaning their enclosure to keep odors down.
“I sometimes refer to ferrets as the Border Collie of the small mammal category. They’re very smart and love to run. Physical and mental exercise are important for them,” advised Dr. Parsons.
Ferrets are fascinating creatures, but they can’t just be kept in an enclosure and admired from afar. They need to be let out to run and provided activities to keep their brain busy. When it comes to nutrition, ferrets are not herbivorous hindgut fermenters either. They’re carnivores. Getting nutrition right is critical for these critters because obesity can be a serious issue. Mazuri Ferret Diet is a nutritionally complete ferret feed formulated with multiple animal-derived proteins appropriate for carnivores, as well as natural antioxidants, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids.
Care Tips for Your Small Animal
Regardless of which species you choose from the above list, keep these tips in mind as you prepare to care for your new friend.
Find the right veterinarian ahead of time. Establish a relationship with them before you bring your animal home so they’ll be there to answer questions and provide regular care. Many general dog and cat practices don’t know much about exotics species like these small mammals. Look for an exotic practice or small animal clinic that specializes in small mammals so the veterinarians can attend to their unique needs.
Prevent obesity. We mentioned it with ferrets, but preventing obesity is important for all of these animals. Otherwise, they can face health challenges like heart disease, liver issues and more.
Feed a species-specific food. While there are many similarities among these animals, there are clear, key differences that can make a big difference when it comes to their health and wellness. Mazuri is proud to offer species-specific diets for each of these animals so you can feed your friend confidently, knowing they’re receiving nutrition tailored to their every need.
Provide plenty of water. Water is just as important as feed. Make sure your animal has access to fresh, clean water at all times so they can stay hydrated.
As you continue your small animal research, find more resources and insights from our nutritional experts and follow us on Facebook and Instagram for additional tips.