These so-called "pocket pets" fall prey to various ailments.
Pocket pets -- a kinder term for rodents -- often fall into the hands of youngsters, but have the potential for health problems that adults should watch for.
Anyone thinking about getting one for a youngster is advised to keep in mind the length of commitment: Hamsters and mice live 11/2 to 2 years; rats, 2 to 3 years; guinea pigs, 5 to 6 years; chinchillas, 15 years.
"Many of these pets live poor-quality lives because owners lose interest after a few months," says Dr. Shelley Wilson with The Animal Doctor in Ventura, Calif. "By the time they act sick, they have been ill for some time."
Here are some of the potential health problems, according to Dr. Jody Milburn with Alamo Veterinary Clinic in Simi Valley, Calif.:
UMice, rats, guinea pigs and hamsters can get skin problems like mange, mites, lice or ringworm.
URats may get tumors or cancers.
UGuinea pigs may suffer scurvy without enough vitamin C daily.
URespiratory infections are common.
Wilson has treated cases of eye infection, pneumonia, heat stroke and obesity, as well.
Summer Fransen, an employee at The Pet Emporium in Newbury Park, Calif., says chinchillas have the potential for many health problems and need special care. "They can die from too much or not enough treats and have to be kept cool; don't handle them too much."
According to Wilson and Milburn, warning signs for health problems can include decreased or loss of appetite; inactivity; straining to urinate/defecate; lack of or decrease in stool or urine; diarrhea; ocular or nasal discharge; sneezing; increased respiratory rate; patches of baldness; and sores or lumps.
Veterinarians offer the following care and feeding suggestions, to help rodent owners ward off those health problems:
UKeep the temperature between 65 and 72 degrees.
UKeep cages clean and on a solid surface (no wire bottoms).
UProvide toys for exercise and play (wheels, tunnels, ramps).
UProvide a hiding place, maybe an empty tissue box.
UProvide continuous access to a sipper or dropper bottle of water, with no blockage and changed daily. Clean and rinse them good with hot, sudsy water at least twice a week.
UPine shavings make for suitable bedding. "Other woods are too aromatic and irritate nasal and respiratory passages," Wilson says, adding, "Other types don't stay as clean."
UDon't crowd a cage with too many pets or put different species together.
UDon't leave young children unsupervised with the pet.
UDon't hold pets high; drops or falls can cause paralysis.
While giving attention to a pocket pet is important, you might hear differing opinions on letting the pets out of their cages.
Fransen advises owners to take pets out once a day "or their temperament might change from sweet to timid." Take care about the pet's sleeping habits, she adds; mice and hamsters, for example, are nocturnal and could bite if picked up during the day.
Dr. Jim Gray with Ventura Veterinary Hospital warns that out-of-cage experiences "risk injury and loss of the little ones."
Some other tips, from www.hea-lthypet.com, include feeding small pets fresh veggies and fruit at least twice a week; providing chewing blocks of wood or plant fibers; and giving chinchillas large, tall cages (they can jump), diets of pellets and plant fiber and daily dust baths.