Social vs. Solitary
Gerbils, Dwarf Hamsters, Rats, & Mice are social
Gerbils, Mice, Rats, Chinese, Campbells Dwarfs, Winter White Dwarfs and Roborovski Dwarfs are social species. There is so much good information about fancy Rats and Mice on the internet and in books that I won't duplicate it here. As social species they can be housed as bonded breeding pairs (except Chinese) or same sex colonies. Chinese are better in breeding trios or colonies where the males out-number the females. It is best to put these animals together at weaning and not separate them and try to re-bond them later. If a breeding pair needs to be separated because of problems with the litter or partner, or producing undesirable colors then it's best to keep a same sex offspring with each parent. If the separation is for temporary population control then I recommend split caging the parents until you decide to let them breed again. A same sex offspring isn't necessary for company when splitting for birth control. If you decide later to not breed one or both then you can introduce a same sexed animal later using the appropriate method discussed in Animal Introductions. Whenever putting new animals together caution and observation are always called for. While Chinese, Campbells Dwarfs, Winter White Dwarfs and Roborovski Dwarfs are social in the wild they are happy to be kept singly as well as socially in the home. Chinese usually end up being kept singly since they get very stressed by changes. Gerbils rarely like to be alone.
Pygmy Mice have special considerations because of their size. See Pygmy Mice 101 for their special guidelines.
Syrians are solitary by nature. Do not put your own emotions on this animal. They are not lonely living by themselves. They prefer it. In very rare circumstances without providing extra space and entertainment a few Syrians will be non-solitary. A well-known Syrian breeder and judge with vast personal experience and exposure to other experienced breeders said she had 3 out of 5000 Syrians that were non-solitary. That is 0.06% of her Hamsters. It's not worth the possible maiming and death of one or more Hamsters to find out if they are non-solitary. They should only be put together under supervision for breeding. Then the pups need to be removed at weaning and separated by gender. Then have their own individual homes by 6 weeks. Visit this page for graphic pictures and story of 2 Syrians kept together too long by a store.
ONE SYRIAN HAMSTER = ONE CAGE!
Cage, Tank or Bin?
The important things to keep in mind are the size of your pet, its chewing habits and climbing ability. The Syrian here is really climbing up the corner of a room. She routinely reaches the ceiling, needing to be caught by her owner as she drops. You need housing they can easily maneuver around in but can't escape from. Dwarves are quite small and may have trouble negotiating tubes or reaching a water bottle but can escape from some cages with larger openings. There are a number of cages available that are suitable for Hamsters and Gerbils. Keep in mind the size of your new friends. Any cage system that you purchase should have smaller tubes for Dwarves and larger ones for Syrians. Some Syrians are larger than others. The larger Hamsters may not be able to stay in a tube style cage. Compare the sizes of several before you make your purchase. If you got your Syrian from a breeder, then ask how big their stock gets and what they recommend.
Some cages come with wire shelves and wire bottoms. These are dangerous. Their feet can slip between the wires and they can break their legs or develop infected blisters on their paws (bumble foot). I do not recommend these cages for any animal. Examples of suitable housing: Habitrail Space Station®, Habitrail Safari®, CritterTrail® 1, 10 gallon tanks (aquariums) and plastic bins. A ten-gallon tank with a screen top (with clips for Gerbils and Syrians or without clips for Dwarfs) works quite well for any age or size rodent discussed here. I find them to be less expensive then a cage. They are also more secure from other family pets (with clips). Some breeders use bins (like RubberMaid®) and alter them to make them suitable for hamsters. I don't like them for a number of reasons: plastic absorbs odors; plastic (especially soft plastic) is easy for a rodent to chew; lack of visibility of the pet through the sides; difficulty in securing the water bottle for access yet not provide an escape route; securing the lid to prevent escapes and keep other pets out; providing adequate ventilation.
Remember all Syrians must be housed alone. One Hamster per cage. The only time a Syrian wants to be with another is to briefly mate. And I do mean briefly. The mother Syrian tolerates her young until they are weaned. At that point in time, the young start seeking solitary nests of their own and the mother avoids them.
We have tried all of the above setups and aquariums are our favorite way to go. Let me explain why. When rodents are put in wire cages they can make quite a racket chewing on the bars. This is annoying to you and sometimes their teeth get wedged in the bars and they need help getting out. Also, Gerbils LOVE to dig and pile bedding, it's in their nature. If you have Gerbils in a wire cage you will have to constantly vacuum or sweep up the bedding, food and poop they kick out. As for all plastic units... did I mention rodents also love to chew? They can easily chew up a plastic wheel or tube in a week. You would have to keep replacing ruined items which, to us, is a waste of time and money. They can also escape through holes they have chewed. It's good to keep in mind that anything that you put in with your rodent is going to be chewed.
Aquariums require a little more work to set up than cages, but it is well worth the effort since you have more control over what goes into their home.
Listed below is a guideline that most experts agree on for how many critters can live in certain sized aquariums:
Bedding & Houses
Aspen shavings or CareFresh® are the best types of bedding available at this time. CareFresh® is a paper product made into bedding material. Pine shavings can be used IF they are kiln dried. It can cause irritation to your pets' lungs and eyes. Cedar shavings are not to be used. The same fumes it gives off to keep moths out of clothes will harm your pets. The oils will irritate their skin and lungs. Long term exposure destroys their kidneys thus reducing their already short lives.
NEVER give your animals anything made from fiber to nest with. Cotton can get stuck in the Hamster pouches and cause infections. In a nest with babies, amputation and strangulation are common when the fibers twist around a limb or neck.
Toilet paper rolls that are almost used up are excellent nesting material. Your rodents know what to do with the soft toilet paper and will enjoy demolishing the cardboard tube. Hay and straw may be added as a treat for your pets. They enjoy eating it and nesting with it. It will also provide a fresher smell to the cage. The picture above is what I found inside an Igloo® with a Syrian Black Dominant Spot inside.
Your pets will appreciate a place to get away and build a nest. Make sure you get one the right size for it to get into and out of easily with plenty of room to turn around. Wood, plastic or ceramic houses are all good for your pet. However Gerbils should not have plastic unless you want to replace it often. They are avid chewers. Just remember your pets are rodents and will chew whatever you put in with them. The Gerbil mom on the left wants to ensure her privacy while raising her litter. The Syrian on the right has her own ideas on how an Igloo® is supposed to be used.
Water, Food & More
There are several types of water bottles that hang from the side of a cage or suspend from the edge of an aquarium. Do not use an open dish. It will get bedding in it and spoil quickly. Gerbils love to bury their food and water. Babies may even drown in the dish if they can't easily climb out. Your pets always need to have water available.
There are many good quality commercial food mixes available. High price does not necessarily mean high quality. Lab blocks are processed food put into an easily dispensable block form. These have a short shelf life, so check the date on the bag. These also provide good chewing activity for your rodents. I like these for when I go on vacation or travel with my pets. If I spill them, it is much easier to clean up the blocks then a seed and pellet mix. Supplement your pets' diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. Introduce them gradually to avoid diarrhea. Always remove uneaten treats before they spoil.
Vitamins are not necessary if your pets are otherwise healthy and are getting a good and varied diet. Water-soluble vitamins need to be given fresh daily and may increase the chance of bacterial growth in the water. Powdered vitamins can cause kidney and liver damage and eventually the early death of your beloved pets.
Again there are a number of good treats commercially available. Moderation is the key for your pets’ treats. Be careful of giving too many treats with fat, sugar or dairy products.
Rodents teeth never stop growing. They need to chew on hard items to wear them down. Again there are a number of items available. Each animal will have a preference on what it will chew. I like hazel nuts (or filberts) for my Hamsters. Alfalfa cubes are hard processed pieces of alfalfa. Not only are these good chews, but they help your animals’ digestion, too. Dog biscuits that don't contain garlic as garlic is a poison to rodents. Rawhide chews work, too. Again, make sure there is no garlic added. NylaBones® are good chew toys. They come in a variety of fruit and vegetable flavors. Find one your pets like. You can break them into smaller pieces or wedge them in the wires of a cage. Cheerios® and kashi make good treats.
Wheels are the most common exercise equipment for rodents. As with the cages, do not get the wire rung kind. Your pets’ foot can slip between the wires and get broken. If this is your only choice, take a strip of paper the width of the wheel and wrap it around the outside and tape it. You'll have to replace it as it gets soiled and chewed, but your pets will be safe using it. There is a wire mesh style that is quite safe. Get a wheel large enough that your animals can run on it without arching its back. We normally hang our wheels from the screen top for the tank. The pets have no problem getting up into them and it gives them more space on the ground. It's also high enough to prevent babies getting into them and getting hurt. We use twisty ties to secure the wheels so it doesn't have to be anything fancy or expensive. Wodent Wheels are good for Hamsters but are quickly chewed up by Gerbils.
Roller balls are another good form of exercise for all Hamsters. Gerbils don't seem to like them. Keep an eye on them so they don't go where you can't find them. Keep them safe from stairs. Putting a piece of tape on the door will prevent the door from coming off and the Hamster escaping. I've had some Hamsters run into a wall to pop the door off on purpose. The door also loosens with age and can easily slide open on your Hamster.
Feel free to get creative. Inexpensive things can often amuse your pets to no end. Tubes from toilet paper and paper towels for example. Instead of throwing them away, give them to your animals and they'll spend hours gnawing them down for their nest. Don't limit yourself to the small and furry section. I've found suitable items in the fish, reptile and bird areas as well as craft stores.
This is a Hamster Harness. It's a figure 8 design like cat harnesses. Of the pocket pets, this is recommend for Syrians only. The other Hamster species and Gerbils are too small to be secure in the harness. Unlike dogs you absolutely can not leave your Syrian unattended while in the harness. I used it for security while a Syrian was shoulder sitting or exploring a table or counter. It prevented suicide leaps because of their poor eyesight. It kept them from dashing under a big piece of furniture or discovering an escape hole during playtime. And the Hamsters seemed to be oblivious to having a harness on. You need to practice putting it on snug enough to prevent escapes before trusting it completely.
Let me add a word of warning here about free roaming. Many rodent owners allow their pets to freely roam a room for playtime. Great care needs to be taken if you plan on doing this. You must rodent proof the room much like you would child proof a room.
These are only a few Free Roaming guidelines:
Cleaning Your Pet
You should not have to wash your rodent with soap and water. Chinchilla sand (not dust) is all they usually need. They know instinctively what to do. They will scatter sand about as they roll and clean themselves. Some people leave a bowl of sand permanently in with their animals but then it gets used as potty, pantry and bed as well as a bath. I usually have sand in the carrier I put my pets in while I'm cleaning their tank. That way they get cleaned at the same time as their home. You can also use play sand or garden sand if it has been processed by washing and sterilizing. If necessary, you can take a damp cloth to sponge clean your animal. But you must take care the animal is kept warm and out of drafts until the fur dries.
Cleaning the Cage
This is a good time to put your pets in the carrier with sand. Empty all accessories out of the cage and dump the bedding. Your normal dishwashing soap (not detergent) works well for cleaning the cage and the accessories. Make sure you rinse and dry well. Use vinegar for the crusty build up in the potty corner. This will also cut the smell from the potty area. Make sure you wash the vinegar off afterwards. Put in fresh bedding material and return all of the clean and dry items. It's now ready for your pet again. I routinely soak the food dishes and water bottles in a bleach solution. I remove the rubber gasket from the spout too. This insures a thorough cleaning against bacteria and mold. Rinse very well afterwards. I have extra bottles and rotate them for use.
Most Hamsters use one corner as their potty. Find that corner (usually the one closest to the water bottle) and put a small ceramic bowl or commercial potty product there. Place some soiled shavings on top of the sand (chinchilla sand works well) so it gets the idea. It may take some time for the Hamster to use the potty. It may move the potty over to use that corner anyway. Or it may switch corners. Most Hamsters can be trained eventually.