Fun With Small Animals
By Craig Sernotti
You’ve set up the best cage for your small animal, and he has been living happily with you for some time. Now how do you have fun with the little guy?
Interacting with a small animal is different than walking a dog or moving a laser pointer around for a cat to chase. He will not respond to voice commands and won’t recognize the name you no doubt will give him. If he finds a small opening, crevice, or corner, he will squeeze through it. You must always monitor your small animal whenever he is out of his cage, especially when there are children involved.
Bonding With Your Small Animal
Before any time can be devoted to playing with your small animal, you must first bond with him. This means properly handling him and doing so enough that he comes to trust you. Small animals are by nature scared of any creature larger than they are, and you will seem like a giant to your new pet. By handling him gently, calmly, and quietly, he will learn that you are not going to hurt him. Also, offering treats will teach him to associate you with food.
Eventually, your small animal will become excited whenever you are near. A guinea pig will squeak and “popcorn” when you are outside his cage. (“Popcorning” is the little animated dance guinea pigs do when all is right in their world; it can involve shivers, shakes, leaps, skips, and jumps, along with chutting vocalizations.) Your rabbit may follow you around your house and insist that you pet him. Your ferret will actively seek you out to play..
Life Outside the Cage
Would you like to spend all your time in a cage? Of course not! So what makes you think that your small animal should always be inside his cage?
Small animals need to spend time out of their enclosure. This will keep them active, stimulated, and healthy. Small animals who are always inside their cage will become listless, bored, and overweight. Do your best to have your small animal spend a little time each day—a couple hours or so—outside of his cage.
You must be prepared, though—small animals are curious explorers. If you think that an opening is too small for your pet to fit through, think again. The best way to prevent an escape is to block off any opening or portion of the house you don’t want him to access.
Some small animals are content with being wrapped in a blanket and held. Others will want to run about and explore. Whatever your pet decides to do, you must always watch him to make sure that he’s safe.
Just as you can buy various toys for your dog or cat, you can buy toys for your small animal. However, ensure that all toys are size appropriate. One that is right for a diminutive mouse is not suitable for a larger rabbit, and vice versa.
Some small animals will show great interest in store-bought toys, while others will not. One inexpensive item that is just about a surefire, can’t-miss hit is a cardboard paper towel roll. Your small animal will relish crawling through it and gnawing it. These rolls are completely safe for animals to chew, so don’t be scared when they disappear. Be sure, though, to cut it with scissors so that it is no longer a tight squeeze for an animal inclined to crawl through it. You don’t want him to get stuck!
One toy that seems to be a staple of the small animal trade is an enclosed plastic ball in which you can place your pet and let him roll about the room. This may seem like fun, but it can be very dangerous for your small animal. Block off staircases around the home to prevent nasty falls.
Some small pets should never be placed in this type of ball. Research your animal to see if this toy is appropriate, or consult your veterinarian.
Certain small animals can be trained. Rats, for example, are one of the most intelligent small animals. They can learn to navigate mazes and walk “tightropes,” as well as perform other tricks. Ferrets can be trained to use a litter box and to walk outside on a leash. Guinea pigs can be taught to sit up and beg for food. It will take time and patience, but training your small animal is possible.
Research small animal training to learn about the variety of tricks and tasks you can teach your pet. Always use positive reinforcement—reward your small animal with treats or pieces of his favorite food if he does what you want him to. (Food is the ultimate motivator.) If he enjoys being touched, praise him and provide extra cuddling and petting.