Rodents 101 — How to Choose the Best Pet Rodent for You

About 4 percent of pet owners have small animals, according to one online survey of 10,000 pet owners by the American Pet Products Association. Of those pet owners, however, only 6% own a rat or mouse, while 4% own a gerbil, 25% a hamster, and 27% a guinea pig. While it’s clear that rodents aren’t as popular as dogs and cats, those who wish to get their first pet rodent can find themselves lost — especially when it comes to narrowing down which rodent is best for them. From the variety of options out there to knowing what to expect — and how to get your new furry friend settled, here’s what you should consider before heading to the pet store.

A variety of options

For those looking to pick out a pet rodent, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the choices available before making an ultimate decision. In addition to the common choice of hamsters, mice, rats, gerbils, and guinea pigs are other options commonly found at the pet store — though each comes with their own considerations.  While pet hamsters are great for beginner pet owners, for example, they’re a pet that’s best housed alone, and are well regarded for their nocturnal habits making them a better choice for pet owners who won’t mind their rustling about at nighttime. 

On the other hand, gerbils are happier when housed in pairs or small groups — though they may be illegal to own in your state. And, while pet mice can be easy to care for, they can be more nervous than gerbils or hamsters. When it comes to larger rodent options, however, rats often make great pets for those who want to form a strong bond with their pet, and are also known for being social animals. Guinea pigs are another larger choice, and are well known for their more gentle demeanor, making them great for beginner rodent owners. Due to their sizes, rats and guinea pigs can also be easier to handle when compared to mice or hamsters. 

While the rodent you choose will likely depend on preference, it’s important to keep your lifestyle in mind as well, especially when considering a more unusual rodent type. Chinchillas, for instance, are another pet rodent option worth mentioning, though these animals come with the added responsibilities of a specialized care routine (such as regular dust baths), making them less ideal for those who want a relatively easy rodent to care for or start out with. This is especially true when looking for the perfect pet rodent for children, as chinchillas tend to be nervous and can be rather difficult to hold. 

Readjusting your expectations

When looking into getting a rodent for a pet, it’s essential to realize that they’re very much unlike a cat or a dog. In terms of life expectancy, for instance, rodents tend to live much shorter lives. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, mice have an average life expectancy of just one to three years, rats an average of two to four, hamsters and gerbils two to three, and guinea pigs five to seven years. 

Caring for a rodent also requires certain expectations as well. While they’re famous for being lower maintenance pets vs. dogs and cats, they do require specific care needs. For example, all rodents will need fresh food and water constantly, and their cages should be cleaned regularly. Depending on the rodent you choose, you may also have to consider special dietary needs — guinea pigs and chinchillas, for instance, have special dietary needs, not to mention the fact that their teeth continuously grow, making for additional care considerations. 

Getting your rodent settled

Regardless of the rodent you choose, bringing home your new pet is always an exciting event, though the endeavor will require special care when it comes to getting them settled successfully. Ensuring that you have a cage that’s spacious enough is imperative to any rodent’s comfort and health, for instance, and the setup should be ready to go when you bring your new pet home. If you’ve chosen a hamster, ideally, the cage should contain enough floors and surroundings to maintain the rodent’s interest, and the recommended temperature should be at around 70 degrees fahrenheit. After meeting your hamster’s basic needs of food, water, space, and temperature, learning how to get your hamster to like you can seem like a major challenge at first. However, bonding with your new pet doesn’t have to be difficult, and can be done on a daily basis. For example, standing outside of the cage quietly can allow your new hamster to get used to your presence. 

Putting the cage in a location that isn’t stressful or full of noise (though in a location that you frequent, such as a bedroom or home office) is another great way to bond, and can further allow your hamster to get used to their surroundings. From there, building up to interactions (such as handling and playing) can be done over time, and should be conducted in a calm manner. Above all, giving any new pet rodent time to adjust is often the best thing you can do to ensure a successful transition. Should you happen to get bitten when first handling your pet rodent, it’s important to take care of the wound, and to watch for signs of infection. In the case of a rat bite, for instance, VerywellHealth notes that signs of heat, pus drainage, redness, and swelling in the hours and days after a bite can indicate signs of infection, and that a doctor should always be consulted following a bite.

Looking into getting a pet rodent for the first time can be an exciting endeavor, though it’s important to realize that there are plenty of considerations involved. From the level of care involved to the range of options, taking your expectations into consideration and knowing how to get your new pet settled can help in owning a rodent successfully.