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Small Pets

General advice about small animal care

Birds

Types

Parakeet / Budgerigar

These are friendly birds which are relatively easy to tame and look after. Budgies grow up to 10 inches long and come in a variety of colours. They can live for up to 10 years and are an excellent choice for a 'first bird' pet.

Canary

The male canary is a very popular choice of pet as it has a beautiful song. Canaries are small birds (up to 7 inches long) and can live for up to 9 years. They are normally, predominantly yellow.

Cockatiel

The cockatiel is a very friendly and intelligent and popular bird. They need a lot of companionship and can suffer from boredom if they are not paid enough attention. Cockatiels can grow up to 14 inches long and can live for up to 25 years.

Macaws

Macaws are incredibly beautiful and intelligent birds who easily learn to mimic speech. They require a lifelong and intense commitment from the owner and can be temperamental and aggressive - potential owners should think long and hard before committing to purchase these birds. Macaws can grow to 40 inches long and can live for up to 50 years.

Cage

Select a cage that provides room to fly for exercise. The cage should be as large as your space and budget allows and wider than it is tall.

If your bird type enjoys walking around the cage (e.g. a Parakeet or a Cockatiel) choose horizontal bars to enable the bird to exercise. If your bird likes to fly from perch to perch (e.g. Canary) pick a cage with vertical bars.

Special requirements

Have a number of differently sized perches hung at different heights. This allows the bird to exercise their feet. Macaws like perches made of natural twigs and branches but you should be aware that some wood can be poisonous. Get advice before introducing natural perches of your own.

Placement of the cage in front of a window can result in wide fluctuations in temperature, and should be avoided. Birds benefit most from being placed high up in a room which is used often.

The cage should be cleaned frequently to provide a healthy environment for you and your pet.

Feeding

It is important to provide your bird with a balanced diet. The easiest way of ensuring that your bird gets a correct balance of nutrition is to purchase ready-mixed feed from a good pet shop. Some birds will eat fruit, such as apples and oranges - this helps introduce some variety into their diet.

Ensure that a supply of clean water is always available. This water supply should be replaced daily to ensure that it remains fresh.

Cuttlefish provide a source of calcium which is an important part of a bird's diet.

Companionship

Depending on both the owner and the bird, you may develop a bond which allows you to handle and let the bird out of its cage for a period of time. In this case, ensure that the bird has a safe environment before release (e.g. no open windows, predators, fires etc.).

Toys

All caged birds enjoy toys. Many pet shops cater to pet birds, and offer a wide variety of safe toys. The bird will eventually destroy the toy but that is part of the fun. Select toys that do not have small pieces that can be swallowed or sharp edges. Avoid anything that can become caught on the leg band.

Bathing

Birds are incredibly clean creatures and need an occasional shower or bath to have healthy feathers. Offer a shallow (about an inch) dish of water several times a week for them to bathe in. Alternatively, spray the bird with cool water to improve the condition of the feathers.

Health Problems

Getting used to your bird - pay attention to its normal appearance and behaviour - will help you spot potential problems (changes) at an early stage. A dull and lifeless bird, who has ruffled feathers and often stays in one position for a long period of time is often a sick bird.

Watch out for the following indicators:

  • A change in appearance or behaviour
  • Sneezing
  • Irregular breathing
  • The bird plucking its own feathers out
  • Looser droppings
  • Loss of appetite
  • Watering eyes
  • Sitting on the bottom of the cage

Consult a veterinarian if these symptoms should appear. Periodic visits to the veterinarian for beak trimming or wing clipping will provide an opportunity for a visual health check.

Ferrets

It is not too far in the past that "ferreting" was a popular country occupation. In rabbit infested areas the use of nets and working ferrets gave the younger generation hours of harmless fun and often a tasty meal for the family afterwards. As habits and trends change the pet ferret population has diminished significantly. So of course has the rabbit population since Myxomatosis swept the UK.

The ferret is descended from the wild European polecat but many generations of breeding in a domestic environment has made the ferret into a very intelligent and rewarding pet that will provide hours and hours of fun. They come in a variety of colours from pure white (albino) to polecat. Like all animals they will develop trust in their owners if handled in a friendly and sympathetic way and are given clean and comfortable living quarters together with a suitable diet. They are not vicious animals but must be handled carefully and there are times (particularly during the breeding season) when ferrets like some privacy.

Regular handling from an early age establishes confidence and ferrets will learn very quickly. They can even be trained to walk on a lead and will live to about 10 years of age.

Like all intelligent furry animals, they should not be spoilt and children should not be encouraged to let their ferrets roam unattended in the house. Ferrets are experts at hiding away in a dark corner or finding interesting areas to explore. Their sharp claws will quickly take them up the curtains and there is nothing more than a young ferret will enjoy than playing hide and seek. Being very small they can easily disappear for hours into a bed or down the back of a sofa.

What About the Odour?

Ferrets do have a distinctive odour and the male of the species particularly so! However, clean bedding at all times and attention to hygiene will greatly reduce any unpleasant smell. Keeping their fur clean and free of any fleas should be a daily routine.

Housing

Their cage should be stoutly built about 4 feet by 2 feet, a depth of 2 feet and have a private nesting/sleeping area out of view. It should have a roof that is waterproof and legs to keep it about 3 feet off the ground. It should be in a sheltered spot. A nesting area is particularly important for any breeding ferret as they are very sensitive to having their young disturbed at an early age. Ferrets will be healthier if kept outside with plenty of fresh air and with warm bedding will be happy during the winter months. Like any other animal they hate damp conditions.

Exercise

Ferrets are very active and need time spent on a daily basis. They cannot be left like a hamster or a guinea pig unattended for any period of time. They like to be on the move, are very inquisitive and of course their natural instinct is to hunt and "ferret about". If you are not prepared to spend time and take a great interest, ferrets are not for you! The time spent is amply rewarded as ferrets are affectionate, sociable, clever and fun. Lack of exercise and being confined to a small space for long periods of time is probably the cause of bad temper, nervousness and the reason why a ferret might not be averse to the odd painful bite. They are intelligent animals who do not like being neglected. With the right introduction they will happily interact with other family pets such as cats and dogs.

Diet

Ferrets are natural carnivores and there is nothing they love better than to get their face embedded in a piece of raw meat. Tinned specialist pet foods are fine and also cereal biscuits help to keep their teeth and gums healthy. Under no circumstances should ferrets be introduced to sweet foods as tooth decay will result. Plenty of fresh clean water should be available at all times. A simple diet and regular meal times with plenty of exercise forms the basis of good health.

Neutering

If single ferrets are kept and there is no wish to breed in the future, then it is wise to have a ferret neutered. This will also prevent unwanted reproductive diseases associated with the female developing later on and it will also reduce the tendency of the male to produce odours.

Fish

Aquarium owners often talk of spending hours on end being mesmerised by their pet fish. Certainly, keeping fish as pets can be fascinating and aquariums can add an interesting centre-piece to your room.

Types Of Aquarium Fish

Coldwater

These fish are probably the easiest choice if you are looking to keep fish for the first time. One complication, that of keeping the water in the tank heated, is removed with these fish.

Tropical

If you are looking for variety and colour for your aquarium, tropical fish may be the best choice. You will need to control the temperature of the water and understand which species can be housed together.

Marine

Marine fish require more care than the other types of fish and therefore should be considered very carefully before deciding that this is the type of fish for you to keep. Something for experienced fish owners only.

Caring For Your Fish - The Basics

The three major things to consider when caring for your fish are water, light and food.

Water

Fish use the oxygen in water to breathe and, therefore, ensuring the quality of the water in the tank is of paramount importance. Use a filter or pump to ensure that the water contains enough oxygen for your fish. You may need to test the water for ammonia, nitrites and ph levels.

Change the water in your tank at monthly intervals or when the water looks cloudy.

Light

Your fish require a controlled-light environment to thrive. You will need to use aquarium lights to ensure that your fish get the light they require.

Food

There is a large variety of food available and this can be confusing. The simplest way of choosing an appropriate food is to find a feed which is specially made for them.

Generally speaking, you should feed your fish each morning and evening. It should take your fish only a few minutes to eat all of the food. If it takes longer, you are probably feeding them too much which will, in turn, adversely affect the quality of the water in the tank.

Rabbits

Rabbits can make very good pets, but they have some important husbandry needs that must be addressed in order to provide adequately for their health and welfare. As well as social interaction with other rabbits, they also enjoy being friendly with humans too. They need to be given attention every day and require regular gentle handling to establish and maintain that human:rabbit social bond, although this must be on their terms. The daily contact also allows an opportunity to check them for any health problems.

All pet owners have a responsibility to provide suitable care for their pets, and this is outlined in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, you can find some examples of such requirements for rabbits below:

1. A suitable environment. A hutch on its own is not enough! They should have a secure, well insulated and ventilated hutch providing plenty of room to move around and stretch out, ideally a minimum size of 6ft long by 2ft wide and 2ft high or with enough space to fully stand up in, whichever is the smaller. This provides a sheltered space for rabbits to use as their base, and they should ideally have constant access to a grass run area which is a minimum size of 8 feet by 4 feet, alternatively a minimum access of 4 hours per day. Indoor rabbits need the same space allocation and may be enclosed within a pen or run, alternatively they may have free run of a room as space to run around helps to provide exercise.

2. A suitable diet. Rabbits are strict herbivores and spend a lot of time eating. It is best to give them a diet consisting mainly of hay, fresh, or dried grasses (approximately 85%). Approximately 10% of the diet may be made up of green leafy vegetation, and approximately 5% (about an egg cup full for an average sized 2.5kg rabbit) of good quality extruded pelleted concentrate food. The ideal is to ensure ad-lib, or unlimited, good quality hay, plus these other components. Water should be provided at all times, via a water bottle, clean bowl, or both.

3. To exhibit normal behaviour. To do this, they require adequate space, opportunities to run, jump, dig and forage. Try to make their environment interesting with tubes, hides, cardboard boxes, and objects to stand on and look around. Beware that rabbits burrow so an outdoor run area should have buried wire sides, or be checked or moved frequently. Neutered rabbits are less prone to digging deep burrows, but, being part of their normal behaviour, digging should be accommodated, even indoors. Trays or earth, shavings, hay, cardboard chips etc provide good digging boxes.

4. Interaction with other rabbits, in compatible pairings or small groups. Rabbits are social animals, and solitary confinement is unnatural to them. To avoid rabbits breeding like, well, rabbits, and to prevent potentially fatal uterine cancer in the females, both sexes should be neutered.

5. To be protected from pain, injury or disease. This means that they should be vaccinated, treated for any parasites as directed by your veterinary surgeon, and regularly (daily), checked for any signs of ill health by their owners. Regularly checking the teeth, ears, skin, claws and underside, around the back end, in particular, are vital. There are several signs that your rabbit may be ill and require veterinary attention. Among these are:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • looking depressed
  • skin trouble
  • runny faeces and/or urine soaking into the back legs
  • discharges from the nose, eyes or mouth
  • difficulty breathing

Rodents

Chinchilla

Chinchillas are squirrel like rodents, available in 2 varieties. They are clean animals with no body odour, their thick coat means that they do not get parasites like fleas and ticks.

They should be kept in a wire cage away from sunlight and noise, plastic should not be kept in the cage as they will gnaw at anything to exercise their constantly growing teeth. Only place hard materials such as wood and pumice stone in the cage for it to chew on. Also in the cage should be some bedding (white pine shavings), sleeping quarters, some branches for climbing, a hayrack, water bottle and a dust container. As chinchillas hate water they take dry baths to remove excess oils from the fur. Dust should be available from your pet shop.

Chinchillas are vegetarians, surviving on special food pellets, hay and fresh water. They can be very frightened by noise or rough handling, and when frightened emit a pungent odour like skunks.

Gerbil

Gerbils are intelligent, sociable animals that are best kept in pairs. They should be handled daily and they will be affectionate to you, make sure you wash your hand before handling them to avoid passing germs to them, also keep an eye on any other pets you have.

They like to keep themselves occupied in a large wire cage. This should be lined with bedding and cleaned twice a week. To keep them busy and stimulated their cage should be full of toys and challenges. They also love tubes to run through and chew on.

You will be able to find pre-mixed food for your gerbil in pet stores for a well balanced diet. This can also be supplemented with sunflower seeds, vegetables and nuts. Fresh water should be provided with daily. A sterilized bone or twig should be provided for them to chew on.

Guinea Pig

The Guinea pig is a sociable and companionable animal and relish attention. It is a very vocal animal with several different sounds.

They should be kept indoors with a secure cage. The cage should be kept clean and change its bedding often, this will help prevent against diseases. Food pellets are available for guinea pigs, but their diet should be supplemented with fresh fruit, hay and water. Make sure that fresh food is changed daily and kept separate from the pellets. It will also appreciate chewing toys like all rodents do.

Signs of illness can include runny nose and eyes, excessive salivating, diarrhoea, skin disease and loss of appetite, they are also prone to shock and dehydration. They should also be bathed weekly, before their bath they should be groomed, long hair should be trimmed and its nails should be clipped.

Hamster

Hamsters are busy animals that love exercise and play. A large metal cage should be used with an exercise wheel, tubes for tunnelling and clean shavings for bedding. The bedding should be changed every day to stop any smells forming. They also love to chew so wooden blocks are also a good idea to keep in the cage.

A drinking bottle should be provided, with the water changed every day, it is also best check that the ball in the water bottle works often to stop your hamster getting dehydrated.

Hamsters like a good diet, with seed bells and blends of grains. They may also like fresh vegetables and fruits.

Rats and mice

Both rats and mice are relatively short-lived animals but provide good companionship during their lives.

They should be kept in a large cage with plenty of room. An area for them to retreat to and a place for exercise should be provided. Rats, in particular like to burrow so bedding should be plentiful. It should be changed 2 to 3 times a week. The cage should be kept in area that is well light, ventilated, away from excessive noise and stresses.

Specialist food can be bought from pet stores for your rats or mice though this can be supplemented with fresh fruit and vegetables, non-fat yoghurt and whole-wheat bread. Grass hay or hay block should always be available along with fresh water, which should be changed daily.

A general note is that small animals are expensive to treat so an early visitation to a vet is best to avoid any complications at the first sign of a problem.

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