Rabbit, Horse, and Other Pet Care
Looking for advice on caring for rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, or hamsters? Want to learn how to prevent your horse from being lost or stolen? Here is helpful information on these topics and more.
Are you interested in experiencing the joys of horse ownership? While sharing your life with a horse can be a rewarding experience, it also means accepting the responsibility of caring for your equine companion for life. Here are some general guidelines for caring for your horse:
General Horse Care Guidelines
- Even routine horse care is a significant and ongoing expense. In fact, the cost of purchasing a horse is often much less than the cost of maintaining one for a year. Make sure you are realistic about your ability to afford quality care before you adopt an equine companion.
- Horses need a regular supply of food. In most cases, they need to have hay or pasture throughout the day, with additional grain feedings twice a day. An average-size horse will eat about 20 lbs. of food a day and drink at least eight gallons of water. Because their stomachs are relatively small and their digestive systems surprisingly delicate, horses need to nibble or graze throughout the day, rather than have one or two meals a day.
- Horses need regular hoof care. Plan to hire a farrier (blacksmith) every six to eight weeks for routine hoof trimming or shoeing.
- Horses need regular veterinary care. At least once a year, your horse will need to be vaccinated against tetanus and other diseases. The veterinarian will also provide routine dental care. Keep in mind that medical emergencies, which are always an unfortunate possibility, can cost several thousand dollars to treat.
- Since horses are constantly exposed to intestinal worms from the ground they graze on, they must be dewormed every six to eight weeks. Carrying a heavy burden of worms can cause serious illness or death in equines, so regular and timely treatment is crucial to your horse's health.
- Horses need constant access to a dry, safe, comfortable shelter to protect them from rain, wind, and snow. In warm and sunny weather, the shelter you supply will provide your companion with much needed shade. At a minimum, you should have a well-constructed, three-sided shed into which your horse can retreat at all times. You will need to remove manure from the stall or shelter every day.
- Horses need exercise. To supplement the exercise your horse will get when you ride him, he should have a paddock or pasture in which to relax and stroll. No horse should spend all day confined in a stall, except on a veterinarian's recommendation. The pasture should be bordered by safe, sturdy fencing that will keep the horse safe and secure. Barbed wire is not an acceptable fencing material¿it has been the cause of many serious injuries.
Preventing Horse Barn Fires
Barn fires are one of horse owners' biggest nightmares. In just a few minutes of heat, smoke, and fury, thousands of dollars of saddles, bridles, hay, grain, and equipment can be lost along with the barn. That your horse could be trapped inside is almost too painful to imagine.
Most barn fires are preventable, and a new booklet from The Humane Society of the United States, Making Your Horse Barn Fire Safe, will help horse owners prevent tragedy and protect their horses and barns from fire. This booklet is full of helpful information including precautions for existing barns, how to respond to a barn fire, building a fire-safe barn, and where to find additional resources.
Copies of Making Your Horse Barn Fire Safe are available for $2.00 each (plus $3.00 for shipping and handling). Send check or money order to:
The Human Society of the United States
"Making Your Horse Barn Fire Safe"
2100 L St., NW
Washington, D.C. 20037
Protect Your Horse From Being Lost or Stolen
Horse theft is not just a legend of the Wild West. Every day, horses are reported missing or stolen -- an estimated 40,000 annually in the United States. Horses can also disappear following natural disasters such as hurricanes, fires, and floods. Once lost, horses are very difficult to recover; many are quickly sold at auctions to slaughterhouses. To keep your horse safe, follow these tips.
- Keep proof-of-ownership documents in a secure place. Photos, registration papers, and health records will help identify your horse and prove ownership in the event your horse is missing. The photographs should be clear and current and show your horse from all four sides to highlight his identifying marks.
- Have your horse permanently identified. You can have your horse permanently identified by microchip or freeze brand. If you have your horse microchipped, be sure to register the microchip with a national registry.
- Don't leave a halter on your horse. Halters make it easier for thieves to catch horses. This is a safety issue, too: A halter might get caught on something and cause your horse to be trapped. Also, do not leave halters hanging near gates where thieves might enter.
- Lock gates and barn doors. Locked gates and barn doors often will deter a thief, but be certain that they do not create a fire hazard.
- Erect sturdy fencing around your property. Wire fencing is easily cut by thieves.
- Restrict access to your property. To prevent easy access to your horse by unauthorized vehicles, block farm lanes and driveways that are in remote areas or far away from your residence.
- When possible, move your horse to an area where she can be seen from your residence or the roadway. This is particularly important at night, when theft is most likely to occur.
- Install motion-activated lights to illuminate the areas where you keep your horse at night. Mount the lights on barn buildings or fences so they will turn on if anyone approaches the barn or field.
- Consider purchasing monitors or alarms. Video monitors and alarm systems can be wired to your residence.
- Inform your local animal control agency and police department of any suspicious activities. Be sure to write down a description of the people and vehicles involved, including the vehicle license plate number. Encourage your neighbors to watch for suspicious activity, too.
- Immediately report a horse theft or disappearance to the appropriate law enforcement agency in your area. Also, provide a written description and photographs of your horse to livestock auctions in your area and in surrounding states. Post flyers offering a reward for information leading to the safe return of your horse. Contact local media with your story. Finally, consider visiting horse slaughterhouses in your state and in neighboring states; there have been several cases of horses being recovered at these facilities when owners have acted quickly. The Humane Society of the United States can provide you with a list of horse slaughterhouses in the United States.
Your horse depends on your love, care, and commitment. You'll show your love through grooming, petting, riding, and the occasional treat. You must also show your commitment by providing for her needs 365 days a year, in good weather and bad. With good care, your horse can live 35 years or more, so plan to enjoy a long and mutually rewarding relationship with your horse.
Choosing the Right Pet Bird
When deciding to add a feathered friend to your family, it's important to select a bird whose needs can be met in your home. Many birds, though popular and readily available, are not appropriate pets for most people. There are several species of birds with physical, behavioral, and social needs that are simply too great to be addressed in an average household. These birds should not be pets and are best left in their natural habitats.
Canaries, finches, cockatiels, parakeets, and lovebirds are birds who have a long history of selective breeding in captivity, and can be considered domesticated strains of wild species. Their basic needs are more easily met, proper supplies to care for them are readily available, and these birds can live long, happy lives in a caring home.
In comparison, birds like conures, parrots, macaws, cockatoos, and toucans are problematic because they have not undergone the same process of long captive breeding and genetic selection. These birds are still wild animals, even when bred in captivity. As such, their normal behavior can make them difficult and demanding to live with. Issues like size, noise, destructive behavior, biting, and behavioral vices, coupled with a lifespan of 50 years or more, can make these species inappropriate as pets for the average owner. Because of these humane reasons, these animals are not recommended as pets. Most people simply cannot provide for the many complex needs of such birds, causing them to suffer for their entire lives.
Another reason to choose captive-bred domestic strains of bird species is because of the wild animal trade. Despite U.S. laws that prohibit the import of many species of wild-caught birds, millions of birds are still caught every year for the pet trade and sold all over the world in pet stores or online. The commercial trade in wild animals is a multi-billion dollar business that threatens the survival of many different species, and results in the inhumane treatment of billions of animals every year. While your local pet store may be full of colorful birds, those creatures represent just a tiny fraction of the captured wild animals who did not survive the process.
If you decide that you would like to get a bird, check with your local animal shelter before getting one from a pet store, the Internet, or a classified ad in the newspaper. Many shelters today are not limited to just dogs and cats, and have plenty of birds who are looking for new homes. Go to www.Pets911.com or www.PetFinder.com to search for adoptable birds at animal shelters and bird rescue groups in your area.
Caring For Your Pet Bird
Birds, after cats and dogs, are the third most popular pet in the United States. Even though they are small and caged, birds still require a great deal of care and attention. They are complex creatures, and if you take good care of your own bird, you will have the opportunity to see what unique pets they are.
Before bringing home a bird or buying supplies, find an ideal location in your home for the bird's cage. This space must be indoors, provide appropriate temperature and light, and allow for regular interaction between you and the bird. This location should be large enough to accommodate a sizable cage. Do not keep birds in the kitchen because Teflon-coated pans, aerosol cooking and cleaning sprays, hot water, and gas stoves can pose serious health threats, including death, to birds. The location should receive strong natural light, but not subject the bird to full sun through a window. Also guard against drafts from windows or doors, especially in winter. And although you want the bird to be around you and your family, be aware that birds need a quiet and undisturbed period for sleep at night.
Once you have chosen a space and are ready to select a cage, get the largest cage that you can afford to buy. This may cost hundreds of dollars, but keep in mind that this is a one-time purchase, and it is where your bird will be spending a majority of her time. Look for cages made of metal that are designed to be easy to clean, and will withstand scrubbing and periodic disinfection. Likewise, look for cages equipped with with a removable tray in the bottom and feed and water bowls that can be serviced from outside the cage. Avoid purchasing cages that are excessively fancy or have lots of decorative detail. Also, avoid cages made of wood or wicker, that are round or cylindrical, and that do not allow for freedom of movement for the bird. Keep in mind that you are looking for a wide cage with room for a bird to move horizontally, not vertically. The width of a bird's cage is significantly more important than its height. The size of the bird housed will dictate the size and spacing of the cage bars. You'll want bars that are close enough together to keep your bird from escaping.
The cage should have perches of an appropriate size for your bird to sit on and climb. Perch placement should encourage the bird to move from one to another by flying or hopping. Do not fill a cage with too many perches and structures that will only reduce the space available for movement.
There should be a minimum of one food bowl, one water bowl for drinking, and one bowl for bathing. Make sure that the bowls are durable and made of materials that will allow for thorough a cleaning and disinfecting. Also, ensure that birds can reach the bowls comfortably from a perch, and that bowls are not placed directly under perches where they will be fouled by bird droppings.
Every bird cage needs toys. Although finches and canaries are less likely to use them, objects that the birds can manipulate or climb on, or chew up or hide in, are critical for parakeets, lovebirds, and cockatiels. There is an assortment of wooden and plastic bird toys available. Some birds also enjoy seeing themselves in small mirrors.
The birds discussed here can be divided into two categories: hard-bills (seed eaters) and hookbills. Seed eaters include canaries and finches, while hookbills include parakeets, cockatiels, and lovebirds. Hookbill is also a general term for all parrots, whether small or large species. (The HSUS does not recommend parrots as pets.)
Hard Bills/Seed Eaters: Finches and canaries in their native environments eat the ripening seeds of various grasses and flowering plants. They will also, on occasion, consume insects or other creatures. Commercial seed mixes for these birds are widely available at pet supply stores. In addition to seed mixes, these birds relish leafy greens like romaine, dandelions, or chicory, as well as slices of apples or oranges.
Hookbills: The smaller hookbills (parakeets, lovebirds, and cockatiels) are also seed eaters. They additionally consume bark, leaves, and fruits and berries. For these species, there are appropriate commercial seed mixes, which generally include some larger seeds such as sunflower and safflower. You can offer these birds fruits and vegetables as well as seed mix. Their beaks allow them to do a very efficient job on a wide range of fresh items.
A bird's food and water bowls must be cleaned every single day. As birds eat, they leave seed hulls in their feed dish. What appears to you to be a full cup of seed may be all hulls; this is one reason that food and water must be changed and replenished each day. This means that all old food or water must be discarded, the bowls must be scrubbed thoroughly and dried, and new, fresh food and water must be provided. It is essential that a bird's food and water sources remain as clean as possible.
Pelleted diets are also available for all of these bird species; this food provides a nutritionally balanced diet in a uniform pellet. Both pellet and seed diets have their devoted fans. Regardless of what your bird eats, though, make sure it is fresh, stored appropriately, and of good quality.
Small birds enjoy a cuttlebone in their cage, which provides some mineral supplementation and keeps beaks occupied and in shape. Likewise, seed-eaters consume small bits of rocks and sand, which aids in the breakdown of foods in their gizzards. Grit for these birds should be supplied in a small feed cup as opposed to on the cage floor.
Do not offer chocolate and avocado to any birds; these are dangerous foods that can cause death.
Socialization and Sterilization
While one bird can make a wonderful addition to your family, he might be a lot happier with a friend. Even though male canaries may typically be kept by themselves, all birds will be much happier with a partner or small flock. In most cases, male/female pairs will do the best together.
Unlike cats, dogs, rabbits, and other pets, you do not need to spay or neuter your birds. These surgeries for birds are much more invasive, and because of birds' extremely light weights, correct anesthesia can be tricky. Also, since birds lay eggs, their population can be controlled by simply removing the eggs.
In general, the smaller domesticated bird species (canaries, finches, cockatiels, parakeets, lovebirds) are less likely to suffer from behavior problems than their wilder, more exotic counterparts. These species have been adapted to life as companion animals through long genetic selection. If you take proper care of them, most will never exhibit any behavior problems.
For those birds who do have behavior problems, the more common ones include frequent egg-laying by the female, or self-mutilating behaviors, such as feather-plucking. Such problems can be signs of boredom, dietary issues, incompatibility with cage mates, or stress. Keep in mind that these issues are less frequent or non-existent in domesticated species, but can be seen more frequently in larger species.
Hygiene and Physical Health
As pets, canaries and finches can live 8-10 years, while cockatiels, parakeets, and lovebirds can live up to 20 years. However, if you want your bird to live as long as possible, it is important that your bird stays healthy. Before getting your bird, you will need to find an avian-certified veterinarian in your area. If you have trouble finding one, contact your local animal shelter for advice.
Birds will do a good job of keeping themselves clean, but they need a little help from you. All birds like and need to bathe. Most birds will bathe themselves vigorously if they have access to a shallow water bowl in their cages. This bowl should be separate from their drinking water. Some birds, especially cockatiels, may prefer to be spritzed by a squirt bottle.
Another part of avian hygiene is preening. Preening is a bird's way of grooming and caring for his feathers. His preening will make sure that all of his feathers are nice and neat and pointing in the right directions.
It is also important to keep an eye on your bird's nails. Nails may need to be trimmed periodically. If your bird's nails start to curve around or if he is having trouble standing on a perch, it is probably time for a trim. Because trimming a bird's nails must be done carefully, take the bird to a vet or have someone with experience assist you.
When birds are sick or injured, they will normally try to hide their illness. However, here are a few things to look for:
- Closed or swollen eyes;
- Diarrhea; or fecal stains on the feathers surrounding the vent (anus);
- Sitting in one place for extended periods of time during the daylight hours with feathers puffed out;
- Noisy or labored breathing, with wheezing or clicking sounds.
If you see any of these signs, please call your veterinarian immediately.
How to Care for Ferrets
- Pick out Some Furniture Ferrets' ancestors were den animals, so the home you create should be like a den, too. Use a wire cage that's at least 18 inches long, 18 inches deep, and 30 inches wide. Many ferrets prefer bi-level cages that feature stairs or ramps that they can climb, and shelves or hammocks where they can perch. Avoid aquariums, which provide poor ventilation. Because ferrets are accomplished escape artists, the cage should feature a secure latch and openings no larger than one inch by two inches. Since wire flooring is uncomfortable to a ferret's feet, place linoleum tiles on the floor or line the cage bottom with soft material such as washable carpet. Not all materials will work, however: Wood flooring is difficult to disinfect, newspaper will blacken a ferret's feet, and cedar chips hold in bad odors and may even cause respiratory problems. Place the cage away from direct sunlight, in a cool, shaded area where temperatures range between 55 and 70 degrees. Clean bedding with a mild detergent and hot water, then disinfect the cage.
- Teach 'Em Litter Literacy You can save time cleaning a ferret's cage by simply teaching the animal to use a litter pan. Find a small cardboard or plastic tray that is three to five inches high to serve as a litter box, and secure it to one side of the cage, away from sleeping and eating areas. Clumping litter will irritate a ferret's eyes and may cause respiratory problems, so fill the litter tray with one inch or more of pelleted litter products made from paper or plant fibers. Ferrets aren't as fastidious as cats and may not cover their waste regularly, so you will probably need to scoop the litter more often.
- Show 'Em a Good Time Like cats, ferrets enjoy their naps and will often sleep 15 to 20 hours a day. But when awake, ferrets like to be active, so the more you entertain them, the happier -- and less mischievous -- they'll be. Ferrets love to crawl through almost anything, including PVC piping, cardboard boxes, paper bags, clothes dryer hoses, and even denim blue jeans. Safely secure a toy to the top of the cage, and your guest may be content to bat the object around for a while.
- Set the Table Ferrets are obligate carnivores and their good health depends on a quality ferret diet that contains at least 34% animal meat protein and 22% fat. Cat and dog foods are not appropriate. Snacks, such as chicken or turkey, are recommended. Vegetables should be avoided because they are difficult to digest and may cause choking or gastrointestinal blockages. Fruits should not be given because they contain fructose and sugars that have been shown to exacerbate insulinoma conditions. Egg whites (albumin) and raw onion can lead to hemolytic anemia.
- Hold on Loosely Ferrets are social creatures who enjoy visiting with people, so let them roam frequently in a secure area outside of their cages. Although they have a great sense of smell and acute hearing, ferrets have limited vision, which means you should avoid sudden movements and speak in a gentle voice before approaching. Because ferrets have fragile skeletons, be sure to handle them carefully. Never pick up a ferret by the tail; instead, let the ferret come to you, then lift him from behind using two hands¿one to support his chest and one to cradle his hips. You can also grasp the scruff of a ferret's neck and support his bottom with your hands. Remember, too, that ferrets are known to nip. If you point a finger at a ferret or poke him, he may think you're an enemy or a source of food.
- Keep 'Em Clean To put it kindly, ferrets don't always come up smelling like roses. A ferret's sebaceous glands, which are used to mark territory, secrete oil with a natural musky odor, and the animal's anal scent glands can spray just like a skunk's. You should spay or neuter your ferret to minimize odors, and also change the bedding frequently. Bathing a ferret with kitten shampoo, ferret shampoo, or diluted baby shampoo can also help. But too many baths will only force the animal's scent and oil glands to work overtime.
Ferrets are prone to ear mites, so every few weeks their ears should be cleaned with a cotton swab soaked in a cleanser purchased at a pet supply store. Like dogs and cats, ferrets are prone to fleas and ticks, but a veterinarian should help you meet their needs in that department.
HSUS Statement on Ferrets as Pets
The HSUS recognizes that domestic ferrets have become increasingly popular as pets in recent years and can be kept legally as pets in nearly every state. As with any companion animal, domestic ferrets deserve lifelong, responsible homes and caretakers. The HSUS believes that ferrets, like other companion animals, should not be bred for commercial purposes or sold in retail pet stores.
Ferret owners, individuals interested in adopting ferrets, and animal shelters should be aware of several issues surrounding the care of domestic ferrets. These include:
Ferrets are very different from more traditional companion animals such as dogs and cats. They are marketed by the pet industry as "unusual," but individuals considering adopting a ferret should be wary of the industry's claims that unusual pets are easy to care for. Ferrets require a high level of commitment to be cared for responsibly and humanely; individuals not prepared or able to make such a commitment should not keep ferrets as pets.
Like all mammals, ferrets can carry and transmit rabies. Therefore, all ferrets should be vaccinated against this fatal viral disease. In addition, all rabies-control policies for ferrets should mirror those recommended for dogs and cats. Towards that end, The HSUS urges state and local health departments to follow the rabies-control procedures for ferrets recommended in the Compendium of Animal Rabies Control, 1998, disseminated by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. These recommendations pertain to vaccinations, removal of strays, preexposure vaccination and management, interstate movement, licensure, postexposure management, and management of animals who bite humans (e.g., quarantine requirements).
Ferrets have sharp teeth and occasionally bite when startled, excited, or handled improperly. Because small children have been seriously injured by ferret bites, The HSUS recommends that children, particularly infants, never be left unsupervised with ferrets (or with any other companion animal).
Keeping ferrets humanely may be a challenge for individuals who are unfamiliar with their needs and habits. Ferrets sleep much of the time, but when awake are both curious and highly active. They should not be confined to a cage at all times, yet need close supervision when allowed out of their enclosures. It is usually necessary to take special measures to "ferret-proof" homes where ferrets are kept to ensure their safety.
Like other companion animals, ferrets require periodic veterinary check-ups and veterinary care when needed.
Pet ferrets must be spayed or neutered to prevent them from adding to the numbers of unwanted and homeless ferrets in need of shelter and rescue. Sterilization is particularly important for female ferrets, who can contract a disease called fatal aplastic anemia if kept in prolonged estrus.
Hamsters were living in relative obscurity until just 70 years ago, when a zoologist discovered a family of these rodents in the Syrian desert. Today, hamsters' friendly nature and adaptability have placed them among America's most popular small pets. To learn how to fulfill the special needs of these cuddly creatures, follow the suggestions below.
Set up House
When putting together a hamster's living quarters, consider the animal's natural habitat. In the wild, hamsters live underground, emerging under cover of darkness to search for food. Domestic hamsters still prefer the "night shift," so it's best to house them in a quiet, dimly lit room away from drafts, direct sunlight, and noisy animals. An aquarium that holds at least ten gallons is usually suitable for hamsters, as long as the top of the tank allows for proper ventilation. A fine-mesh screen will do the trick, but make certain it's fastened securely to keep curious hamsters from attempting an escape. (Avoid the colorful plastic rodent homes sold in pet supply stores, as they are difficult to clean and offer easy escape routes.)
Line the bottom of the tank with plain white paper, and add dry timothy hay or shredded white paper for burrowing and nest-building. Avoid using cedar shavings, which can cause respiratory problems.
Give Them Their Privacy
Although hamsters enjoy the company of humans, they are less friendly to their own kind. They are solitary creatures who must be kept in separate quarters; in their native habitats, they come together only to mate and will most likely fight if they are forced to share space. Even hamsters housed in quiet rooms still need hiding places within their tanks to feel secure in their surroundings. Empty tissue boxes and round oatmeal containers can perform double duty as both gnawing toys and hiding places. Notorious nibblers, hamsters may harm their internal systems if they ingest soft plastics, but some hamster owners provide PVC piping or hard plastic items that withstand chewing.
Stock the Pantry
Hamsters have high metabolisms and should have constant access to food and water. To avoid spills and maintain a clean drinking supply, attach a water bottle with a metal sipping tube to the side of the aquarium. Some hamsters like to sit in their food dishes, so use a heavy ceramic dish to decrease the likelihood of food spillage. Respect the hamster's need for order by placing the dish a good distance from the bathroom and sleeping areas.
Hamsters enjoy a varied diet that includes commercial grain and seed mixtures tailored for the animal as well as certain kinds of fruits and vegetables. A good commercial hamster mix should have all the necessary nutrients. Round out the diet with dandelion greens, chickweed, alfalfa pellets, spinach, lettuce, carrots, apples, and other fruits. A daily menu plan should include rations of a half-ounce of grain mixture, a small handful of greens, and tasty treats such as a slice of apple and a floret of cauliflower. Stay away from raw beans, apple seeds, sprouting potato buds, parsley, and green parts of tomatoes -- all foods that can be poisonous to hamsters.
Keep Them Occupied
In their native habitat, hamsters have to travel great distances to find food, a fact that explains domestic hamsters' need for lots of exercise. Exercise wheels can provide hamsters with a good bit of activity, but they should not be the only source of physical activity. Complement the hamster's home gym and entertainment center with chewables such as a dog biscuit or pesticide-free twigs from beech trees, maples, willows, hazelnut bushes, or fruit trees; these will also help keep the animal's incisors worn down. Cardboard boxes, toilet-paper rolls, and paper-towel rolls are also safe for hamsters to burrow in, chew on, and play with. Wooden ladders and branches fastened securely to the inside of the tank can help hamsters show off their climbing agility.
Practice Good Housekeeping
Hamsters can be cranky if disturbed during their daytime sleeping hours, so try cleaning, feeding, and handling in the late afternoon or evening. Be sure to clean out the hamster's bathroom space every day. Hamsters like to amass treasure chests of tidbits, so check for stockpiles of perishable food. Also clean the water bottle and sipper tube daily to prevent buildup of food, algae, and bacteria; check to be sure it is working properly as well.
Change all the bedding twice a week, disinfecting the tank and letting it dry before laying down fresh bedding and replacing the hamster's chewing, nesting, and climbing toys. If you must remove a hamster to clean her tank, you can hold a small box near her and she will probably run right in. When handling a hamster, always hold her over a surface such as a tabletop in case she manages to wriggle out of your hands.
A descendant of the wild guinea pigs of South America, today's domesticated guinea pig is viewed by many as an "easy" pet for children. Many parents select a guinea pig as a first pet for their child, believing a small pet needs only a small amount of care. It is important to understand that these little guys have lots of requirements, including a roomy cage, specialized diet, daily cleanup, and gentle handling, and that an adult should be the primary caretaker.
1. Make Room at the Inn
They may be small, but guinea pigs require ample space to move about. Make sure their living quarters are at least 18 inches wide, 14 inches high, and 25 inches deep. Guinea pigs housed in larger cages are more likely to be active. Do not use aquariums, as they provide poor ventilation, and mesh or wire-floor cages hurt guinea pigs' tender feet.
When choosing floor linings and cage furnishings, keep in mind that guinea pigs will chew on just about anything to wear down their constantly growing teeth, so everything placed in the cage must be nontoxic. Use plenty of lining material -- shredded ink-free paper or commercial nesting materials available at pet-supply stores, for example -- because guinea pigs will use the material as both bedding and bathroom.
Remember also to provide plenty of high-quality hay, which these rodents use for nesting and snacking. Do not use materials such as sawdust, cedar chips, or fabrics that may cause respiratory or other health problems. Finally, provide your guinea pig with a gnawing log (such as an untreated fruit tree branch), tunnels to crawl through, and platforms to climb on. Add a heavy food bowl resistant to tipping and gnawing and a water bottle with a sipper tube.
2. Get a Little Closer
Guinea pigs are easily stressed, so they require careful handling. To pick up a guinea pig, slowly place one hand under his chest just behind the front legs, and gently cup your other hand under his hindquarters. Once you have a firm but gentle grip on the animal, lift him. Then immediately pull him close to your chest or lap so he feels safe and doesn't thrash around.
3. Give 'Em Their Greens
Feed your guinea pig a commercial guinea pig food, formulated especially for the species. These herbivores require a lot of vitamin C, so provide veggies such as kale and cabbage and ask your veterinarian about vitamin supplements. Treat guinea pigs to fruits, including melon slices and apples (but remove the seeds, which are toxic).
4. Help with the Cleanup
Guinea pigs try their best to keep clean, fastidiously grooming themselves with their front teeth, tongue, and back claws. But pigs -- particularly the long-haired breeds -- require frequent brushing and combing to stay clean and tangle-free.
Also, because their cage lining doubles as bedding and toilet, guinea pigs require daily housekeeping assistance. Scrub and disinfect the cage, then let it dry before lining the floor with fresh bedding and replacing the cage furnishings. Also clean the water bottle and sipper tube daily to prevent buildup of food, algae, and bacteria.
5. Pair Them Off
Guinea pigs are happiest when with other guinea pigs, so many pet care books urge owners to keep two or more together. Choose pairs that are the same sex and compatible. (For example, more than two male pigs together are likely to fight.)
Rabbits may be easy to love, but they're not quite as easy to care for. These lovable, social animals are wonderful companions for people who take the time to learn about their needs. Though providing care for these adorable creatures isn't difficult, rabbits have a long lifespan -- more than 10 years -- and many specific care requirements. Anyone considering adding a rabbit to their family should carefully research books and web sites on rabbit care before making a decision. Here are some quick tips to get you started:
Home Sweet Home
Indoors or Outdoors?
Every rabbit owner should know that the safest place for a rabbit to live is indoors. Rabbits should never be kept outdoors! Domestic rabbits are different from their wild relatives¿they do not tolerate extreme temperatures well, especially in the hot summer months. Even in a safe enclosure, rabbits are at risk from predators. Merely the sight or sound of a nearby wild animal can cause rabbits so much stress that they can suffer a heart attack and literally die of fear.
Caged or Free to Roam?
Whether you decide to let your rabbit roam free in your entire home or just a limited area, it is important that you make everything rabbit-safe. One little bunny can easily find a whole lot of trouble in an average home. Because rabbits like to chew, make sure that all electrical cords are out of reach and outlets are covered. Chewing through a plugged-in cord can result in severe injury or even death. Their chewing can also result in poisoning if the wrong objects are left in the open or in unlocked low cabinets. Aside from obvious toxins like insecticides, rodenticides, and cleaning supplies, be aware that common plants such as aloe, azalea, Calla lily, Lily of the Valley, philodendron, and assorted plant bulbs can be poisonous to rabbits.
If kept in a cage, rabbits need a lot of room to easily move around. A rabbit's cage should be a minimum of five times the size of the rabbit. Your rabbit should be able to completely stretch out in his cage and stand up on his hind legs without bumping his head on the top of the cage. Additionally, cages with wire flooring are hard on rabbits' feet, which do not have protective pads like those of dogs and cats. If you place your rabbit in a wire cage, be sure to layer the floor with cardboard or other material. Place a cardboard box or "rabbit condo" in the cage so the bunny has a comfortable place to hide, and respect your animal's need for quiet time (rabbits usually sleep during the day and night, becoming playful at dawn and dusk).
When rabbits are kept in a cage, they need to be let out for several hours each day for exercise. Aside from running and jumping, rabbits also enjoy exploring their surroundings. This is an ideal time to play and interact with your rabbit. Make sure that he has a safe area to play and explore.
Just like cats, rabbits can easily learn to use a litter box. Place a litter box in the cage to encourage this behavior. If your rabbit roams freely through multiple rooms of your home, it's a good idea to have litter boxes in several places. Many rabbits enjoy spending time relaxing in their litter box, so make sure that it is of ample size. For bedding (litter), stay away from cedar or other wood shavings, which may cause liver damage or trigger allergic reactions in rabbits. Also avoid clumping or dusty kitty litters, which can cause serious health problems if eaten. Instead, stick with organic litters made of paper, wood pulp, or citrus. Newspaper can work too, but may not be as absorbent. Be sure to put fresh hay in the litter box daily, as many rabbits like to have a snack while sitting in their litter box.
A Balanced Diet
Rabbits have complex digestive systems, so it's very important that they receive a proper diet. Many health problems in rabbits are caused by foods that are incompatible with their digestive physiology. A basic rabbit diet should consist of the following foods:
Rabbits need hay -- specifically, Timothy grass hay. Rabbits should have access to a constant supply of this hay, which aids their digestive systems and provides the necessary fiber to help prevent health problems such as hair balls, diarrhea, and obesity. Alfalfa hay, on the other hand, should only be given to adult rabbits in very limited quantities, if at all, because it's high in protein, calcium, and calories.
In addition to hay, the basic diet of an adult rabbit should consist of leafy, dark green vegetables such as romaine and leaf lettuces, parsley, cilantro, collard greens, arugula, escarole, endive, dandelion greens, and others. Variety is important, so feed your rabbit three different vegetables at a time. When introducing new veggies to a rabbit's diet, try just one at a time and keep quantities limited.
Fruits and Treats
While hay and vegetables are the basis of a healthy diet, rabbits also enjoy treats. Cartoons and other fictional portrayals of rabbits would lead us to believe that carrots are the basis of a healthy rabbit diet. Many rabbits enjoy carrots, but they are a starchy vegetable and should only be given sparingly as a treat. Other treats your rabbit might enjoy are apples (without stems or seeds), blueberries, papaya, strawberries, pears, peaches, plums, or melon. Extra-sugary fruits like bananas, grapes, and raisins are good too, but should be given on a more limited basis.
Foods to Avoid
With such sensitive digestive systems, there are a number of foods that rabbits should avoid eating. These include iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, corn, beans, peas, potatoes, beets, onions, rhubarb, bamboo, seeds, grains, and many others. Also, don't feed your rabbit chocolate, candy, anything moldy, or most human foods. If you are not sure about a certain food, ask your rabbit's veterinarian.
If you choose to make pellets a part of your rabbit's diet, it is best to use them as a supplement to the dark green, leafy vegetables, not as a substitute. These pellets should only be given in small quantities (1/8 -1/4 cup per five pounds of body weight per day, spread out over two daily feedings). Also, make sure to purchase Timothy-based pellets. Many brands of rabbit feed contain seeds, corn, and other foods that are too high in calories to be the basis for a healthy rabbit's diet.
Rabbits should always have an ample supply of fresh water available. Be sure to change your rabbit's water at least once each day. Water can be kept in a sipper bottle or bowl. If you use a sipper bottle, watch new rabbits to make sure they know how to use the bottles, and clean bottles daily so the tubes don't get clogged. If you use a bowl, make sure that the bowl is heavy enough to avoid tipping and spilling.
Chew on This
Chewing is part of a rabbit's natural behavior, but it doesn't have to be destructive. To keep rabbits active and amused, you may want to put untreated wood blocks or cardboard in their cages. Bowls, balls, and rings made of willow wood are big hits with many rabbits and can be purchased online or in specialty stores. You can also use paper-towel rolls, toilet-paper rolls, and other chewable cardboard materials that can be tossed in the trash once they've served their purpose. Avoid objects with sharp edges, loose parts, or soft rubber that rabbits could chew into pieces and swallow.
Handle With Care
Rabbits are fragile animals who must be handled carefully. Their bones are so delicate that the muscles in their powerful hind legs can easily overcome the strength of their skeletons. As a result, if not properly restrained, struggling rabbits can break their own spines.
To pick up your rabbit, place one hand underneath the front of the rabbit and the other hand underneath his back side, lifting him carefully with both hands and bringing him against your body. Never let a rabbit's body hang free, never lift by the stomach, and never pick a rabbit up by his ears.
Don't forget that rabbits are prey animals and many will not enjoy being picked up. Be sure to go slowly with your rabbit and practice. Let your rabbit get accustomed to being handled.
Rabbits groom each other around the eyes, ears, top of the nose, top of the head, and down the back, so they'll enjoy it if you pet them on their heads. Like any animal, each rabbit will have an individual preference about where he likes to be touched. Rabbits lack the ability to vomit or cough up hairballs like cats, so try to remove loose fur when you have the opportunity to do so. Simply petting or brushing your rabbit for a few minutes each day should remove most of the excess fur. Some rabbit breeds, such as angoras, have extra grooming needs because of their distinctive coats.
What's Up, Doc?
Just like cats and dogs, rabbits need to receive proper medical care, including annual check-ups. While there are plenty of veterinarians who are able to treat cats and dogs, the number of veterinarians able to treat rabbits is much smaller. It is extremely important that any veterinarian treating a rabbit has experience with rabbits. Many veterinarians who treat rabbits will be called "exotics" veterinarians, meaning that they treat a number of non-traditional pets. Make sure that you have a regular, rabbit-savvy veterinarian as well as a listing of emergency clinics in your area that treat rabbits.
Fix That Bunny
Spaying or neutering your rabbit is very important. Aside from preventing unwanted litters of kits, spaying or neutering has health and behavior benefits. Neutering males eliminates the risk of testicular cancer and can reduce aggression and territory-marking behaviors. Female rabbits have extremely high rates of reproductive cancers as they get older, but spaying them can eliminate those potential problems.
I Need a Friend
Rabbits are social animals and most will be much happier as a part of a pair or trio than on their own. If you don't have a rabbit yet, consider adopting a bonded pair instead of a single rabbit. Most animal shelters and rabbit rescue groups have pairs available for adoption. If you already have a rabbit, you should consider adding another one to the family. Local rabbit groups can usually find a good match for your rabbit and help with the introduction and bonding process.
When thinking about adding a rabbit to your family, please remember that rabbits are not toys and they are typically not appropriate pets for children. Rabbits are complex creatures -- socially, psychologically, and physiologically. They require a great deal of special care and supervision. If you make the decision to add rabbits to your family, please don't buy from a pet store; instead, adopt from your local animal shelter or rabbit adoption group.