Did the Easter Bunny hop on over and deliver more than just chocolate to your house this year? Did he leave a little furry critter behind? Spring is baby animal season, and while it can be difficult to resist adding a small pet to your Easter basket, once the initial surprise and attention wanes, there is still the responsibility of proper care of the new family pet.
Bunnies can be taught to eliminate in a litter box, and thus can live loose in the house or given some free roam time, provided you bunny-proof the room or rooms they have access to. Bunnies must chew on things to keep their ever-growing teeth worn down, and plastic-coated electric cables are a favorite, so those must be covered (think PVC tubing) or kept out of the way. Containment options include a large cage, with room to hop around, or a puppy pen. Contained bunnies should be let out daily, inside or out, for much-needed exercise. They can become bored, so offer enrichment toys and activities to keep them busy, and yourself entertained. A small cardboard box makes a great toy, as do apple sticks and small balls. They are social, mischievous and highly trainable, so it’s best to keep bunnies in areas where they can enjoy interaction with family members.
Guinea pigs have similar housing needs. They should be contained in a large space with ample room to run around. They are highly social and do best with a companion, but make sure you don’t end up with an opposite sex couple – without neutering one, you will have many guinea pigs before you know it! Unlike rabbits, guinea pigs cannot be housed in a wire-bottomed cage as this can cause bumble foot, a painful condition. They also cannot tolerate pine or cedar shavings. It’s best to provide them with a large, flat-bottomed pen with a generous amount of shredded paper bedding.
Keeping housing areas clean is a must. Frequent cleaning prevents urine from breaking down into ammonia, which can be harmful to your pet’s respiratory system. A good rule of thumb is to clean once a week; remove soiled bedding and use a little vinegar/water or bleach/water to disinfect the bottom before adding new bedding.
For digestive and dental health, choose hay over pellet diets – alfalfa for bunnies and Timothy hay for piggies. Fresh greens daily are also a must for proper nutrition, as is a constant supply of fresh, clean water.
If your small pet has a long or dense coat, brush or comb it frequently to prevent matting. And trimming toenails is a must every few weeks. Extra-long toenails make walking difficult, and can also cause injury if they get caught and torn, or grow into the footpads.
Both rabbits and guinea pigs enjoy time outdoors and can benefit from the addition of grass to their diet. Guinea pigs in particular are very temperature sensitive and cannot be left exposed to full sun. Offer shade and water when giving them time outdoors in a pen.
Both of these species are prey animals, so their natural instinct is to hide any symptoms of illness. Handle your pet often, not only for socialization and cuddling, but also for routine health checks. If your pet’s routine changes – not eating or drinking, listless, loss of weight, change in elimination habits – seek veterinary attention quickly. Not every veterinarian is willing or able to work with “pocket pets” so it’s best to check around ahead of time to find one in your area, and begin with a well-check to make sure your new pet is healthy to start with.
The average lifespan for a guinea pig is three to five years, and rabbits can live eight to 10 years. Proper care and attention goes far beyond the Easter holiday.
Lisa Moore’s pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.