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Choosing the right cage is important to make sure your pet has the space and components it needs to create a satisfying home. It is important for creating the microenvironment small animals need for optimum comfort and health. It can also help make your regular care, handling and cleaning easier. Most importantly, it creates a safe place for you to keep an eye on your critters.
Cages come in a variety of materials, but you'll need to select one that is made from a sturdy metal or plastic. Rodents will chew through any soft materials. Aquariums are not recommended for most rodents because they limit the ventilation. Wire cages are preferred among small animal owners; heavy plastic cages are also good choices. However, be sure a thick layer of substrate material is placed completely over the bottom of wire cages for the smallest of these pets. If the rodents walk regularly on the wire at the bottom of the cage, it can hurt their feet and lead to infections or lesions. You'll need an underlayer, like a metal pan or plastic tray for the cage, which needs to be waterproof. When making your selection, look for rounded corners in plastic cages to prevent your pets from chewing on the cage. Be sure the cage allows for easy access to your pets so that it will be easy to keep clean.
Cage sizes vary depending on the species you choose. You want a cage that gives your pets enough room to stand on their hind legs. The cage also needs to be large enough to accommodate multiple areas for sleeping, eating, waste management, burrowing and playing. In the U.S., minimum cage height standards are 7 inches for larger rodents, like rats or hamsters, and 5 inches for smaller animals, like mice or gerbils. However, other countries set higher minimums to be sure all pets can stand on their hind legs, so it is advisable to add an inch or two. The footprint of the cage will also vary depending on the size of the animal and the number of pets it will contain. Small animals generally like a roomier environment. Recommended minimums are 23 square inches for one pet of the smaller species and 60 square inches for one pet of the larger species.
Because rodents are so active, some owners prefer cages that have multiple levels that allow their pets to climb and separate areas for different activities by layers. There are also cages designed specifically for some small animals with built-in tunneling systems. Your budget can be your guide for selecting one of these more sophisticated solutions.
The microenvironment you create must also accommodate air, temperature and humidity levels that are best for your pets. Fortunately, the normal tolerance levels for rodents are close to the normal levels for humans. The cage needs to offer plenty of ventilation, but should not be placed in a drafty area. Ideal temperatures for most small animals are between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but they can easily tolerate temperatures ranging from 60 to 85 degrees. Humidity levels are fairly liberal as well, with a range between 30% and 70% humidity being acceptable.
Rodents thrive on 12-hour cycles, so be sure you can control light and darkness in the room for your pets. Place the cage in a quiet location where sudden movements or noises won't frighten your pets. Do not locate the cage in direct sunlight. It is also important for you to keep the cage in a room that can be completely shut off from the rest of the house and the outdoors so that your little creature won't escape when let out of its cage.
Keeping your rodent's cage warm, dry and clean provides it with an ideal environment. As burrowers, they also need a deep layer of materials that they can burrow into and around. Your pet may exhibit its own special preferences, but generally, you want a substrate material that isn't too big or heavy for your pet to push around and one that will not be rough on its skin. Preferred substrate materials are either wood-based or paper-based. Wood-based materials include chips, shavings, peelings, wood wool and sawdust from softwoods, such as pine, aspen or straw. Do not use hardwood materials, particularly cedar, because hardwoods can be damaging. Paper-based materials include cotton, pulp fiber and recycled paper. Corn husks, corn cobs, cellulose and vermiculite are also acceptable materials, but their particles may be too large for the smaller species. Mix a few different materials together and create a thick layer of substrate that your pet can burrow into. For smaller species, you might want to create different areas with different thicknesses of substrate to give your pet variety. Just be sure that the bottom of the cage always has enough material over it for a complete covering, and that your pet has a solid surface to stand on when feeding and drinking.
Because most rodents are nocturnal, they need a place to hide safely during the day when they sleep. You need to put a hiding/sleeping box into your cage that creates a safe, enclosed environment for your pets to hide and sleep in. Be sure there is enough room in the hiding box for all your animals and that there is enough space for them to turn over. It is also a good idea to use a box with more than one entry hole if you have more than one animal. Be sure to place the box separate from feeding and waste management areas of the cage.
Your small animals will spend most of their waking hours in productive activities that exercise their bodies and stimulate their minds. A running wheel is fundamental for nearly every species of rodent. This burns off a lot of excess energy, helps keep them fit and they love it. Try to avoid a running wheel with an axle if your pet has a long tail. Tunneling tubes are important component, particularly for mice and rats. These critters will spend hours traveling around the most complex arrangements and will even nest or sleep in the tubes. You can find sturdy and safe PVC tubing at most pet stores. Chew toys are another imperative. Because rodents' teeth are always growing, they need to chew to keep their jaws and teeth strong. Giving your small animal chew toys also helps prevent it from chewing on things you don't want them to, such as the cage walls. You can use small blocks of wood or twigs as long as they have never been painted, varnished or exposed to pesticides. Doggy chew toys are also effective. Just be sure they are a small size and weight that your pet can manage.
You can be creative with a wide spectrum of items that will give your pets the stimulation they need and satisfy their curious natures. Put a coffee can or flower pot into the cage for them to explore and nest in. Give them a rubber ball, large enough that they can't fit in their mouths and watch them roll it around. Use cardboard rolls (from toilet paper or paper towels), which will allow your pets to build their own tunneling system. However, know that they will also chew and shred these paper items (another good activity) in short order and will need to be replaced. Rotate different items in and out of the cage to give your pets variety. Just be sure that you only use items that can be cleaned and disinfected if you plan to reuse them. Also try to use items your pets can move around and that don't have parts or hinges that they can catch paws or tails in. When using heavy items, be sure they are sturdy and won't fall over during play and injure your pets.
Please note: Do not use string to play a tug-of-war type game with your rodent companions. This will damage their teeth.
You will need a carrier or travel cage to take your pet(s) to the veterinarian, in case of emergency or if you move. Essentially, the carrier is a smaller version of a cage. You will need to contain the same elements as for your cage — a water bottle, food bowl, hiding box and separate area for waste. A carrier simply sacrifices space for portability when you take your pets on the move.