I say usually, because they are not all sweet and asking to be cuddled, they all might bite, and all have differences you should be aware of before embarking on a trip to the pet shop. Most don’t live long lives - a mouse lives around 2 years, but a guinea pig can live up to 8 years – so it could be a long term commitment depending on which one is selected.
Mice, gerbils and hamsters are entertaining to watch, easy to care for, and make very few demands on their owners. There are differences between them. The gerbil is larger and stronger, will stand on its back legs and has a furry tail and has bigger ears and eyes. Hamsters are stockier in build and have a short tail, but all are similar in behaviour. They are a bit skittish and harder to handle than some of the larger rodents, but some can learn to take food from your hand and, if trained from a young age, can be held, though gerbils retain some nervousness at being handled. Mice and gerbils like to explore and dig around for play, a toilet roll stuffed with paper is ideal, and hamsters enjoy running on a wheel or inside a ball outside the cage, but they need constant watching for the latter toy, and should never be left unsupervised.
The downside is that mice and gerbils are social animals and you would probably have to get more than one. Two females would be better than two males, as the males would probably fight, and one of each would have the obvious outcome! But don’t put mice and gerbils together. With hamsters, it depends on the breed - Dwarf Hamsters are happy in a group but Syrian Hamsters are territorial loners and will fight, bite or even kill any company. The Syrian Hamster or ‘teddy bear’ breed are known to be docile and enjoy being held.
They can be kept in a cage or a tank with a mesh-covered lid, but be alert that the smell of ammonia from urine will build up more in a tank. Bedding will need changing more frequently, but as they ‘mark’ their territory with pee, they will get stressed by too much disinfecting, so a handful of old bedding should be left behind after cleaning. Mice and hamsters are nocturnal, so expect some noise at night and not much activity between dawn and dusk, but gerbils take naps throughout the day and often settle into a human sleep pattern.
At the other end of the scale, guinea pigs (also known as cavies) are larger and can be kept indoors if you have the space, or outdoors in a hutch with a run, providing you can give them shade. Guinea pigs are sensitive to hot weather and can get stressed if the temperature goes too high. They are active animals, and will need a large hutch with a good area for exercise and exploring! They will also need plenty of toys, hides and tunnels to keep them healthy and happy - they love crumpled paper, tubes, tunnels – even an old sock stuffed with hay or straw will be dragged around as a favourite toy!
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Again, you might need two of them, a good combination would be a neutered male with one or more females, two females, or neutered brothers (if they’ve been reared together). They can be quite vocal too, giving high pitched squeals, squeaks and ‘wheeking’ – especially around feed time!
They need lots of clean bedding - shredded newspaper, dry hay or straw, plus sawdust or wood shavings for lining the cage or floor area. They will need attention daily, as wet and soiled shavings need to be removed, and any uneaten food removed before it gets stale or mouldy.
Once a month, the hutch should be completely cleaned out and disinfected. Any toys will need cleaning too.
All are gnawing animals and so have large, chisel-like incisors. The incisors are rootless and grow continually. If they do not have material to chew, the incisors will not wear normally. Chewable toys can be as simple as the cardboard from kitchen rolls or egg boxes, or special rawhide chews etc from the pet shop.
All rodents, including those kept as pets, should be presumed to carry organisms. Although uncommon, these infections may have serious consequences and can be fatal. The very young, the elderly, those with chronic conditions or a weak immune system, and pregnant women should be particularly careful. Hands need to be washed after handling or cleaning out.