Children love pets that are tame and friendly, parents love pets that are easy to feed and care for – hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils fill both bills.
Hamsters – These small creatures are clean and almost odorless, and so are ideal for keeping indoors. They are, however, aggressive until they become used to their owner, and are always aggressive with their own kind and so should be housed separately. It is best to buy either an adult that is tame or a youngster ready to be tamed.
Rough treatment of a nervous young hamster will always result in a sharp nip, and the best time to get him used to being handled is when he is being fed. Hamsters store some of their food in cheek pouches, then eat it later, and it is while he is buy pouching that you can run a finger down his back. Increase the caresses each time until he will allow you to pick him up when he has finished eating.
The cage for a hamster should be at least 2 feet by 1 foot and should be made of hardwood, heavy plastic or metal – otherwise the hamster will quickly gnaw its way out. Cover the front of top with small-mesh wire netting and line the floor with newspaper or a thick sawdust. Hamsters tend to use the same place in their cage for droppings, so put down a small metal tray covered with sawdust, and clean it every day. Remove old stored food twice a week, and change the newspaper or sawdust once a week.
Food should consist of a mixture of rolled oats, wheat, sunflower seeds or one of the packaged foods available from pet shops. In addition, lettuce or cabbage should be given, and root vegetables such as carrot, turnip or rutabaga, or pieces of apple can be given occasionally. Make sure there is always a supply of drinking water. Provide a piece of sweet wood, such as apple, hazel or willow, to give the hamster something to gnaw on.
Hamsters are nocturnal, and are also vulnerable to extremes of hot and cold. They should be kept in a room at a constant temperature of 18C and out of draughts. The cage must be out of reach of cats and dogs, and not near windows or radiators, Make sure you have soft, natural fiber bedding. Hay is not suitable as it can wound cheek pouches.
A well-treated hamster should live for more than two years.
Guinea pigs – Sometimes called cavies, these creatures can kept indoors or outdoors, though the choice is often determined by space; a hutch for a pair should be 3ft6in by 2 feet and 2 feet high. The wire netting front should be 1 inch or ½ inch mesh and, if outdoors roofed with a roofing felt.
The hutch should contain a box about 10 inches square and 6 inches high for sleeping quarters, which should be lined with soft hay. Cover the floor of the hutch with sawdust or peat. Change the hay and floor covering at least once a week.
Feed guinea pigs with mixed cereals plus green food. It is essential to supply vitamin C everyday. A piece of sweet wood such as apple, hazel or willow will give them something to gnaw on and keep their teeth in rim, and there should always be fresh drinking water.
Gerbils – These desert creatures, a little smaller than a rat in size, are easy to handle, as they do not bite in fear, as for example hamsters do. They can be fed on the same foods as hamsters, but not too much sunflower seed. Add small quantities of lettuce, sprouts, carrot or firm fruit such as apple. Gerbils drink little, but water should always be available.
Gerbils are tunnellers, and the best way to keep them is in a large aquarium filled three-quarters full with loamy soil or soft peat. Replace the soil about three times a year. Some of the tunnels will run close to the glass, so that their activities underground, as well as above can be seen.
Gerbils are susceptible to heat exhaustion, so do not leave a cage in full sun. They have intense curiosity and can be let out of their cage under supervision.
Gerbils breed rapidly. Ask your pet shop to sex them carefully if you do not wish for a breeding pair.