How to Choose a Healthy Small Pet
Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs. Foster & Smith

Avoid bringing home a problem pet

When considering adding a small pet to your home, and definitely in advance of any purchase, we recommend that you read extensively to become familiar with your prospective pet's personality traits and care needs. Also, talk to your veterinarian. Explain what kind of pet you desire, and what you want from the pet. He or she will be able to tell you what pets will best meet your expectations and offer tips for making a healthy selection. This research will help make sure you select a pet you can properly care for throughout its entire life.

Pet guinea pigsWhen many people fall in love with a pet the only question they think to ask is "How much does he or she cost?" Cost is one factor; however, the only way to protect yourself from an emotional and uninformed decision, and to make sure that you bring home the healthiest pet possible, is to inspect the pet carefully from nose-to-tail, observe its behavior over a period of time, and ask questions. Lots of questions.

When considering where to get your pet – professional breeders, friends, pet stores, or other – you need to be well aware that their pets may vary widely in the quality of their health, as well as in the nature of their personality. Selecting an unhealthy pet can lead to big health care expenses. Selecting a sullen or anxious pet can interfere with your mutual enjoyment and happiness. Here are some tips to help you conduct an objective search by asking yourself and others the right questions.

Observe prospective pets in action

Because some small pets are nocturnal, observing them under "normal" conditions may be difficult. Throughout the day, and even under store lights in the evening, nocturnal animals, such as hamsters, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, and chinchillas are likely to be sleeping. They are also likely to find customer traffic intimidating. We recommend that you visit prospective small animal pets on more than one occasion. Watch for these behaviors, good and bad:

Gerbils – Kept in pairs or larger groups, gerbils will rub noses, wink, thump, and sometimes even purr. If afraid, they emit a high pitched squeak. They are active, alert animals. If depressed, they can become inactive or overly aggressive.

Guinea pigs – Guinea pigs are relatively docile, but are alert animals. When excited or alarmed, they sometimes emit a high-pitched "reep-reep" sound.

Chinchillas – Active animals with strong hind legs, chinchillas move about with a hopping gait and are surprisingly good jumpers.

Pet ratsRats & mice – Mice and rats are also very active and have a strong instinct to climb. They need and enjoy a lot of exercise.

Rabbits – For any rabbit to be kept as a pet, proper handling by humans during the first months of his life is vital. Watch out for any rabbit that is easily startled when approached.

Hamsters – Hamsters like to chew and burrow, and prefer to have a nesting house where they can sleep undisturbed during the day. Almost all hamsters will use a hamster wheel, for hours, mostly at night.

Sugar gliders – Sugar gliders should be well-socialized when young. They are playful and intelligent, but can become alarmed if awakened during the day.

Hedgehogs – When alarmed, hedgehogs will roll in a tight ball. They are active mostly at night, and like diging, climbing, and running.

Observe current conditions

The conditions under which the pets are kept, no matter the duration, are important factors in their general health and development. When making a purchase from a reputable pet dealer, you should never have to rescue a pet from poor conditions or a bad social environment. To do so only puts your success with the pet at risk. It is important that each of the following "components of care" be well managed.

  • Habitat: Are the pet's present living conditions clean? Is the bedding fresh and dry? Have used up chew toys and old food been removed?

  • Temperature: Is the habitat temperate, not too warm or cold? Is it monitored by a thermostat?

  • Food: Is fresh food provided in a clean bowl or feeder? Is appropriate variety provided?

  • Water: Is the amount of water adequate? Is it provided in a clean bowl or bottle?

  • Toys: Does the pet have adequate chew toys?

  • Exercise: Does the pet have tunnels, ramps, wheels or other means of exercise appropriate to its species?

  • Droppings: Are the pet's droppings normal for that species? Note: Signs of abnormality include strong odor, watery consistency, and color variations.

  • Socialization: Has the pet had sufficient handling by humans? Is the pet housed in isolation or with other animals? How does the pet relate to others of his own kind?

Do a nose-to-tail health check

Be sure to observe and evaluate each of these key health indicators.

      Eyes: Clear, never cloudy; no discharge or matting below the eyes.

      Ears: Clean; no sign of redness or parasites.

      Nose: Clear passageways; no sneezing or discharge.

      Teeth: All teeth present; none overly long.

      Mouth: Free of sores or inflammation.

      Whiskers: Sufficient number; balanced in length.

      Legs and feet: Well formed; all toes and nails present and healthy.

      Tail: Normal in size and shape.

      Rectum: Clean; no matting or discoloration of hair.

      Coat and skin: Hair is smooth and thick; no patchy hair loss; no skin lesions or rash.

      Skeleton: Symmetrical; no internal lumps or bumps that would suggest abnormal internal growths.

      Weight: Appropriate for his size and age; not skinny or overweight.

Questions for the pet keeper

RabbitIt is important to determine whether prospective pets are receiving appropriate care. Don't be shy about asking these and any other questions that come to mind. If you are in a retail store, and the person helping you is not a small animal specialist, ask who in the store can best address your questions.

  • Who determines the care regimen for each pet?

  • Have you had disease among any of these pets?

  • If you discover a problem with a pet, how do you resolve it?

  • What guarantees do you offer?

  • For what specific reasons have you had customers return pets?

  • What equipment, diet, and care do you recommend to ensure my success with this pet?

  • What problems might I encounter with this pet?

  • What information resources do you recommend for learning about this type of pet?

Finally, do a thorough background check

Once you have narrowed the field to your pet or pets of choice, ask these questions.

  • What is the age of this pet?
  • What breed is this pet?
  • Where was this pet born?
  • How long has this pet been in your care?
  • Can I see the parents of this pet?
  • (If you are shopping with a reseller) can I contact the breeder of this pet with questions?

The time you invest to learn about a new pet before you purchase one will be well spent. Your patience will be rewarded with a healthier pet.

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