Many rodents are kept as household pets, but some have better pet potential than others. Explore some of the most commonly kept rodents and decide if one of these fascinating creatures might be the right companion for you.
Domesticated gerbils look similar to hamsters with a few exceptions. They have slightly broader heads with very small ears, slimmer bodies, and a long tail. Their backs are arched, and they tend to move like mice. Their entire length, including their tails, runs about eight inches long on average.
Gerbils have short fur that comes in many colors, including basic colors like:
The American Gerbil Society provides a complete listing of the various recognized colors for these rodents as well as photos.
Gerbils make decent pets, but they're not ideal for young children. You may prefer to just watch them rather than hold them because they tend to nip, and they must be handled a lot as youngsters to overcome this trait.
Beyond that, these rodents are very active pets that take several naps throughout the day to recharge their energy. This means you'll see a lot more activity from them during the day than you would from a hamster which is largely nocturnal. They love to burrow in their litter, and they'll climb anything that is in their habitat. They really need an exercise wheel, and they also love exploring the world from the safety of a hamster ball.
- Gerbils are sociable and prefer to live with members of their own species.
- The average lifespan is two to four years.
- Picking a gerbil up by its tail can cause injury.
- These rodents are prohibited in California and Hawaii.
Guinea pigs, more accurately called cavies, are plump little tailless creatures that weigh approximately two pounds when fully grown. They have blunt, Roman noses and round eyes, and their ears look similar to rose petals.
These cute, domesticated pets can have long or short hair, depending on their breed, and there are 13 breeds currently recognized by the American Cavy Breeders Association. Some have hair that grows in rosettes all over their bodies, and there are even curly-haired Guinea pigs called Texels. One of the rarest types of all is the "skinny pig," which is largely naked except for a small amount of fine down. Guinea pigs come in a wide variety of color combinations and patterns.
Guinea pigs make excellent pets that rarely, if ever, try to bite. They are very good-natured and social, and they seem to enjoy being cuddled as long as you hold them securely and don't attempt to turn them on their backs. They also learn to recognize their caregivers and will whistle at them in greeting when they approach.
These are active creatures that like to have a lot of space, and require roomy, well-ventilated habitats. They have an endearing habit of "pop-corning," which is a joyful little hop and kick combination. To provide some extra enrichment and mental stimulation, you can let them run around in a Guinea pig play pen while you're there to make sure they stay safe.
- Guinea pigs like to live with others of their species, but they should be of the same sex in order to avoid unwanted litters.
- The average lifespan is five to eight years.
- There is still some debate over whether these animals are truly considered rodents.
Domesticated Syrian hamsters are most commonly kept as pets. According to the Southern Hamster Club, they are stocky little creatures that measure about five inches long on average. They have fairly large eyes for their size, and their ears are erect. They also have very stubby tails.
Syrian hamsters can have long or short hair, and they come in various colors, including:
Syrian hamsters make reasonably good pets, but they don't especially like to be held and are prone to nipping unless they are handled a lot when they're young. Since they're nocturnal, you won't be able to interact much with them during the day, but they do become quite active at night. They love running in exercise wheels and through tunnels, and they are also avid chewers that need plenty of safe chew toys to keep their teeth in good shape.
- Most Syrian hamsters prefer to live alone rather than with other hamsters.
- The average lifespan is two to three years.
- Hamsters are prohibited in Hawaii.
Mice are one of the smallest rodents kept as pets, but their size varies according to breed. Some are as small as four inches long from nose to tail, while some show mice are bred to grow six inches or more.
These rodents have prominent, rounded eyes, tulip-shaped ears and long tails. They come in a wide range of colors, and their eye color ranges from dark to red, depending on the color of their fur, which should be glossy regardless of its color.
Mice make fair pets, and they are very entertaining to watch. However, they are not naturally fond of being handled. According to the Rat & Mouse Club of America, domesticated mice are very cautious around humans, and it can take as long as three weeks of close, regular contact to gain their trust. Once they trust you, they'll readily step onto your hand without nipping.
Mice, like hamsters, are basically nocturnal so you'll see the most activity from them at night. They are very active and love to have places to climb and safe items to chew.
- Females can live happily together, but males tend to fight unless they are introduced to each other before they are five weeks old.
- Females can reproduce as young as six weeks old.
- The average lifespan is one to two years.
Rats look quite similar to mice although they are typically much larger. The average rat grows about ten inches long from its nose to the base of its tail, and the ridged tail usually adds another seven inches to the total length of the animal.
A rat's coat should be glossy, and it comes in a wide variety of colors, including black and various shades of grey, brown and beige, to name a few. The fur also comes in various patterns, including merle, Himalayan, Siamese and Burmese. There are also hairless rats, which require special care to protect their skin and keep them warm.
Domesticated rats can make wonderful pets if they receive a lot of socialization. According to the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Associations, these rodents are extremely intelligent, curious and active. They can learn to perform different behaviors if you take the time to train them. Males and females can make equally good pets although the males do become a bit more laid back when mature.
Although rats are basically nocturnal by nature, but they can adjust to spend more time with you when you're available to play with them. Just make sure they have toys that satisfy their urges to exercise and chew, and they can keep themselves occupied when you can be with them.
- Grinding their teeth can be a sign of contentment.
- Some say a clean rat's scent is similar to sandalwood.
- The average lifespan is two to three years.
- Alaska only allows albino rats to be kept as pets, and Anchorage and the Pribilof Islands ban pet rats completely.
Chinchillas are very attractive rodents that have lush coats and furry tails. Their eyes are large and round, and their large, erect ears operate as their cooling system. They are similar in size to a Guinea pig, and typically reach about ten inches in length, with about an additional five inches worth of tail. They are main colored grey or beige with a darker coat on top and a lighter shade beneath.
Domesticated chinchillas can make good pets for adults and older children who understand these animals need to be handled gently. Chins are easily stressed if there is too much noise and activity around their living space. Most chins find it difficult to tolerate loud noises, so the noise level should be kept to a minimum as much as possible. This doesn't mean you have to keep your home as silent as a library, but do use common sense and avoid yelling, blasting the TV or radio, etc.
According to the Chinchilla Club, chins are mainly nocturnal, and they tend to be most active around dawn, and then again around dusk. They do need time out of their cage, but keep a close eye on them because they love to chew.
Taming a chinchilla is a matter of gaining the animal's trust, and this takes a good deal of time and patience. Tame chins can be fairly affectionate, and will readily come to you when you open the cage door. However, they do like to nibble things in order to check them out, and this can include your fingers. Tamed chins learn to nibble gently, so frequent handling is necessary for them to get used to their caregivers.
- Female chinchillas are dominant over males.
- Chins need social interaction and prefer to live with another member of their species.
- Average lifespan is ten years, but some chins live more than 20 years when given exceptional care.
Make Sure Your Rodent Pal Is Legal
Not all pet rodents are equally welcome across the USA. California and Hawaii in particular exclude some pet rodents in order to protect their natural wild animal populations and environments. A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you can buy a particular rodent at a major local pet store, it is probably legal to keep the animal where you live. However, it's always safest to check with your local Department of Natural Resources to make sure you aren't going to break any laws. Doing this before you purchase or adopt a rodent can save you the heartache of having to give the animal up later on.