Pocket Pets: From a Veterinarian’s Perspective
“Pocket Pets” may be small in size compared to other familiar mammalian furry family members; but these little guys are huge in the love department. Included in these highly popular pint-sized mammals are hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, hedgehogs, guinea pigs and chinchillas. Recently sugar gliders are becoming trendy in the group of exotic companion animals.
When considering acquiring a pocket pet, before making decisions about which of these fascinating species floats your boat; learn more about them! Do extensive research! Since exotic pets require specialized care; choose the pocket pet that will best suit your lifestyle and your family needs.
Owning these enchanting, petite fur-pals is legal throughout the United States with the exception of California, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Alaska and Hawaii. Special ordinances and required permits are needed to permit sugar gliders as pets in Georgia, New Mexico and in the five boroughs of New York City.
“Pocket pets are so adorably little with such big personalities”, says FloridaWild Veterinarian, Sarina Barbara, DVM. “I see the joy these little critters bring to their owners so it is always rewarding when I am able to help them.”
So, without further ado, let’s learn a little more in-depth about some of the more popular pocket pets.
Sugar gliders aren’t rodents. They are small marsupials in the same family as a Kangaroo or Koala bear. They originally came from the rainforests of Australia and Indonesia, and have been domestically bred in the United States for the last 12-15 years. Sugar Gliders got their name because they are similar to the flying squirrel, having a gliding membrane stretching from their wrist to their ankles, allowing them to glide (not fly) between trees. Even though Sugar Gliders adore sweets, they should never be fed anything containing refined sugar.
Sugar Gliders have distinctive personalities and make wonderful pets. According to Dr. Barbara, “To become bonded with their owner, they require daily handling and interactions. With ample handling, they can develop personalities similar to dogs and cats and they enjoy affection from their owners. However, sugar gliders are colony animals so it is highly recommended to have at least two of them. Sugar gliders are fragile little critters, and should be handled with great care. Never scruff them or pick them up by the tail.”
Sugar Gliders have special nutritional requirements, thriving on a species-appropriate diet. Dr. Barbara explains, “In their natural setting, sugar gliders feed on pollen, plants and insects. When in captivity, it is recommended to feed a commercial pellet/kibble or follow guidelines for at-home-preparations of meals to ensure adequate nutritional balance. They should also be offered vegetables and insects daily. Small amounts of fruit can be given as treats. Fruits should be offered sparingly as these are high in sugar.”
Dr. Barbara adds, “FloridaWild has guidelines for owners who want to prepare their sugar glider’s meals rather than buying a commercial pelleted feed. Preparing home meals can be a great way for owners to ensure their sugar gliders receive good quality nutrition. Sugar gliders tend to love the home-prepped meals as well!”
Home Prepared Sugar Glider Diet Recipe:
15 mls. portions Leadbeater mix (approximately 45-50% of diet)
150 mls. warm water
150 mls. honey
1 shelled boiled egg
1 tbsp. baby cereal (flakes, rice based)
1 tsp. powdered avian vitamin/mineral supplement
Mix warm water and honey. In a separate container, blend egg until homogenized. Gradually add water/honey, then vitamin powder, then baby cereal, blending after each addition until smooth. Divide into 15 mls. portions (ice cube tray); freeze unused portions. Thaw and keep refrigerated until served.
1 tablespoon insectivore/carnivore diet makes up 45-50% diet
Treat foods: Various fruits (chopped), may add bee pollen, vitamin/mineral supplement, enriched diet fed adult insects (2 adult crickets per serving). Total treat intake should be a maximum of 10% of the daily intake.
Sugar Gliders may develop a rather unpleasant pungent body odor. According to Dr. Barbara, “Male sugar gliders have scent glands that can make them a little smelly at times. If your sugar glider has a potent odor since infections and abscesses may occur to create a bad smell. Therefore it’s a good idea to have them examined by a veterinarian.”
Other small exotic mammals such as hamsters, gerbils, fancy mice, fancy rats, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and ferrets all need species-appropriate diets to keep them in robust health. “There are commercial pellets made for all these critters. I recommend feeding the appropriate species specific pellets to these small mammals to ensure proper balanced nutrition”, Dr. Barbara advises.
“Oxbow is my favorite exotic food producer”, says Dr. Barbara. “They sell high quality well researched diets. Hamsters, gerbils, mice and rats can be offered cooked lean meat, fruits, vegetables, unsweetened cereal and nuts as snacks. These should all be given in moderation as they will choose to eat these snacks instead of their pelleted feed, if given the opportunity. Guinea pigs and chinchillas should always have access to Timothy Hay as roughage which should make up a large portion of their diet. Ferrets are carnivores and can be offered cooked lean meats as treats.”
Just like any companion animal, pocket pets also require veterinary care. According to Dr. Barbara, “I recommend treating all exotic pets as if they are a dog or cat and having them seen by a veterinarian for routine preventive care. By having your pet examined once or twice a year we will be able to pick up trends such as changes in weight, examine their mouth for the beginnings of dental disease, and find any changes/abnormalities on physical exam. We can also run bloodwork during routine wellness visits which will give us a baseline of normal values for that individual animal. That way if in the future that pet becomes sick, we have their previous healthy blood values with which we can compare them.
“Just like our dogs and cats, it’s beneficial to run blood work on our pocket pets to get a better idea of their health. However, it is difficult to safely restrain many of these critters for a blood draw, so we often briefly anesthetize them in order to acquire a blood sample.”
Reptiles are also very popular pets that also require a species-appropriate diet. According to Dr. Barbara, “Reptiles are very particular about their diet, substrate, humidity, temperature, and ultraviolet light exposure. Each species have very specific dietary requirements. Something as simple as having their enclosure a couple degrees colder than they require can lead to significant health problems. I highly recommend all reptile owners visit Dr. Melissa Kaplan’s website. Dr. Kaplan breaks down all the husbandry requirements for most reptiles based on their species.”
In celebration of Pocket Pets and Reptile Appreciation month, FloridaWild Vet Hospital is offering 10% off Reptile and Small Mammal and Complete Bloodwork.
By: Jo Singer, MSW, CSW, LCSW (Ret.)