Helping parents keep kids interested in their pets.

With the holiday season coming, many people begin thinking about getting a cute little pet for their kids. It’s certainly hard to resist those cute little faces, the guinea pigs running around, the lounging rabbits, hamsters running in their wheels. But pets should not be an impulse purchase. We know that to be a responsible pet owner requires a proper understanding and attitude, some education and work, something kids may not quite grasp yet.

 So how do we counter that impulse, and at the same time ensure that the kids will stay interested in their new pet?

            Have them do some research on the animal they want. Some parents have their kids write it up in a report. Have them find material on their origins and required upkeep. Doing this work can take the edge off the impulse and can help them understand the work needed to care for the pet. We have a great place to get started: check out our list of care sheets. And, as always, you can stop by at any time to talk about animals, their care and habitats.

            Write a contract. One of our favorite stories is of one of our young customers who wanted a fancy rat. To help convince her parents that she was ready for a pet, she wrote a contract, specifying what her chores were to be and even the penalties if she failed to do them.

            Have them do some work. Another great story we heard was of a family that wanted a dog (especially the kids). Mom and Dad didn’t think that the kids were ready, despite their protestations of “We’ll help take care of him! We promise!” Finally the parents decided to make the kids prove their claims. They told the kids that they had to spend a month taking an imaginary dog for a long walk, each day, no matter how tired they were, what else they wanted to do, no matter the weather. This was a real test, as this was in the winter. They were not allowed to miss one walk, no matter the reason. The kids proved that they could follow through, and they were there looking for a new pet.

 We see often the parents want to get rid of their pet because the kids won’t take care of it anymore. People sometimes find, in their busy lives, they don’t want to fight to make the kids care for the pet and it’s easier to get rid of it. But we feel that there’s nothing easier, and more worthwhile, than fostering that relationship. This is a good time to stop and remember you got the pet in the first place.  We find that looking at the problem from a different point of view can be helpful. After all, there are a ton of things we have to do that we don’t like. Caring for a pet is a great way to begin to teach your kids this lesson.

So how do you make an unwanted pet wanted again? Try some of these steps to keep your kids interested in their pets:

            Get the pet out of the child’s room, basement or other area that keeps it away from the whole family. Have the pet out and with you when you are doing sit down family get together such as playing board games or watching a video.

            Be a cheerleader; say only positive things about the pet and start assuming the handling and care of the family pet. Once a healthy routine is established periodically ask for some help here and there such as asking the kids to give a quick treat to the family pet. It’s a lot of fun to have your kids feed a guinea pig or rabbit fresh foods; when preparing dinner, have them feed the carrot tops or broccoli. Over time you will start seeing the personality of your pet and new found respect.

            Have them research any tricks they can teach their pet. Even the smallest of animals can learn to do something cute, and time spent by your kid teaching a pet tricks can revitalize their enthusiasm. Check out places like YouTube for some ideas.

            Get a harness or a see through carrier and have the pet just sitting there at your side. You and your pet may need to get use to it, and over time the pet will enjoy the stimulus and the family appreciation for the pet will grow. Pets can create a common connection among family members.  A wire play pen is a great way to involve the pet guinea pig or rabbit in family time.

Getting a pet for a child should be met with the understanding that the reason for doing so is to help teach the children to be better adults. Pets help teach children so many values, such as nurturing, discipline, patience, cleanliness, good nutrition, listening skills, and relationship building. They can encourage kids to learn more; researching a pet can teach them geography, biology, history, and animal conservation and husbandry. We can’t think of anything else you buy can teach your children as many values – certainly no game system or smartphone can teach them so much.

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Feeding Rabbits and Guinea Pigs

Rabbits and guinea pigs are some of the most popular pets, and for good reason: They are gentle, companionable, and easy to care for. Their diet is one of the most vital part of having a healthy and happy rabbit or guinea pig, although it can be confusing for some. Their diet has three components:

Pellets: What most people to consider the staple of a rabbit or guinea pig’s diet is, in fact, the most minor part. Pellet food was first created for breeders, to save them time. Instead of a bowl full of pellets, they only need one to two tablespoons per day. Many veterinarians are even suggesting that they only be offered as treats.

Hay: Rabbits and guinea pigs absolutely must have hay. Offer unlimited amounts of hay for your pet. It is vital for their digestion; they must have the fiber to move their food through their digestive tract. Keep hay in the cage at all times, topping it up with fresh when they eat it down. Timothy hay is the main staple hay. Alfalfa hay should only be offered to young animals as it is high in the fat, protein, and minerals need for growth. For animals older than a year, it can be offered occasionally as a treat (they love the taste of it), but excessive alfalfa can cause obesity.

Greens: The bulk of a rabbit or guinea pig’s diet should be dark, leafy greens. Smaller rabbits and guinea pigs should get 1 – 2 cups per day, and larger rabbits should get 3-4 cups. Offer a wide variety, as no one vegetable has all the required nutrients. Besides, wouldn’t you get bored with the same diet day in and day out? Generally try to have 3-5 vegetables in each feeding. The basis of your mix should include: Romaine, red or green leaf lettuce, butter or Boston lettuce, or spring mix of greens. Add one or two other things: arugula, basil, beet greens—green leaves on the top, not beets themselves, carrot greens, cilantro, dandelion greens—not from the yard as it can be covered in pesticides or pollution, dill, endive, escarole, fennel, chopped finely, kale—use sparingly, if at all—high in calcium, mint, mustard or collard greens, parsley, radicchio, radish greens, sage, sorrel , and watercress. Small pieces of apple, oranges, bananas, or bell peppers are an added treat. Check out our article “Your Herbivore and You” here.

Offer spinach occasionally, as it contains compounds that inhibit the absorption of calcium into their bones. Offer carrots rarely (maybe one small peeled baby carrot a week); carrots are very high in sugar, something not easily digested by rabbits or guinea pigs (only Bugs Bunny eats carrots every day). Avoid cilantro, as it is thought to contribute to bacterial infections. Never feed your rabbit or guinea pig chocolate, cookies, crackers, bread or breadsticks, nuts, pasta or other human treats. Also don’t give them corn, potatoes or onions. And don’t feed them birdseed, yogurt or cat or dog food. These items can be poisonous or cause serious health problems
Guinea pigs have one special need that rabbits don’t: vitamin C. Most mammals, except for guinea pigs and humans, produce their own vitamin C, so we must supplement this. Vitamin C tablets are the easiest way to do this. It takes just one tablet a day, and many guinea pigs take it from their hand as if it’s a treat.

Try this recipe for homemade bunny biscuits. Offer these treats sparingly.

1 small carrot, pureed
1/2 banana, mashed until really creamy
1 tbsp honey
1/4 cup rabbit pellets, ground finely in a coffee grinder
1/4 cup ground oats, ground finely in a coffee grinder

Mix pureed carrot, banana and honey in a medium bowl. Add pellet powder and ground oats. Mix until blended. Knead in your hands for 1-2 minutes. Roll out the “dough” in 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick layers between sheets of plastic wrap. Cut into small cookies (about 3/4 inch across). Place cut shapes onto a parchment paper covered cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes (check to make sure they are not browning too much). Turn off the heat and let the cookies sit in the warm oven for an hour or so.

Providing the proper diet for your new little pet is not hard. It can take a little bit of time to get into the swing of it, but it is well worth it. Keep in mind a few things: variety is important, and feed them the healthy greens that you’d eat. As people better understand the digestion and nutritional needs of rabbits and guinea pigs, they are living longer, much healthier and happier lives.

 

Download the care sheet (pdf)

Properly feeding rabbits and guinea pigs

Rabbits and guinea pigs are some of the most popular pets, and for good reason: They are gentle, companionable, and easy to care for. Their diet is one of the most vital part of having a healthy and happy rabbit or guinea pig, although it can be confusing for some. Their diet has three components:

Pellets: What most people to consider the staple of a rabbit or guinea pig’s diet is, in fact, the most minor part. Pellet food was first created for breeders, to save them time. Instead of a bowl full of pellets, they only need one to two tablespoons per day. Many veterinarians are even suggesting that they only be offered as treats.

Hay: Rabbits and guinea pigs absolutely must have hay. Offer unlimited amounts of hay for your pet. It is vital for their digestion; they must have the fiber to move their food through their digestive tract. Keep hay in the cage at all times, topping it up with fresh when they eat it down. Timothy hay is the main staple hay. Alfalfa hay should only be offered to young animals as it is high in the fat, protein, and minerals need for growth. For animals older than a year, it can be offered occasionally as a treat (they love the taste of it), but excessive alfalfa can cause obesity.

Greens: The bulk of a rabbit or guinea pig’s diet should be dark, leafy greens. Smaller rabbits and guinea pigs should get 1 – 2 cups per day, and larger rabbits should get 3-4 cups. Offer a wide variety, as no one vegetable has all the required nutrients. Besides, wouldn’t you get bored with the same diet day in and day out? Generally try to have 3-5 vegetables in each feeding. The basis of your mix should include: Romaine, red or green leaf lettuce, butter or Boston lettuce, or spring mix of greens.  Add one or two other things: arugula, basil, beet greens—green leaves on the top, not beets themselves, carrot greens, cilantro, dandelion greens—not from the yard as it can be covered in pesticides or pollution, dill, endive, escarole, fennel, chopped finely, kale—use sparingly, if at all—high in calcium, mint, mustard or collard greens, parsley, radicchio, radish greens, sage, sorrel , and watercress. Small pieces of apple, oranges, bananas, or bell peppers are an added treat. Check out our article “Your Herbivore and You” here.

Offer spinach occasionally, as it contains compounds that inhibit the absorption of calcium into their bones. Offer carrots rarely (maybe one small peeled baby carrot a week); carrots are very high in sugar, something not easily digested by rabbits or guinea pigs (only Bugs Bunny eats carrots every day). Avoid cilantro, as it is thought to contribute to bacterial infections. Never feed your rabbit or guinea pig chocolate, cookies, crackers, bread or breadsticks, nuts, pasta or other human treats. Also don’t give them corn, potatoes or onions. And don’t feed them birdseed, yogurt or cat or dog food. These items can be poisonous or cause serious health problems

Guinea pigs have one special need that rabbits don’t: vitamin C. Most mammals, except for guinea pigs and humans, produce their own vitamin C, so we must supplement this. Vitamin C tablets are the easiest way to do this. It takes just one tablet a day, and many guinea pigs take it from their hand as if it’s a treat.

Try this recipe for homemade bunny biscuits. Offer these treats sparingly.

1 small carrot, pureed
1/2 banana, mashed until really creamy
1 tbsp honey
1/4 cup rabbit pellets, ground finely in a coffee grinder
1/4 cup ground oats, ground finely in a coffee grinder

Mix pureed carrot, banana and honey in a medium bowl. Add pellet powder and ground oats. Mix until blended. Knead in your hands for 1-2 minutes. Roll out the “dough” in 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick layers between sheets of plastic wrap. Cut into small cookies (about 3/4 inch across). Place cut shapes onto a parchment paper covered cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes (check to make sure they are not browning too much). Turn off the heat and let the cookies sit in the warm oven for an hour or so.

Providing the proper diet for your new little pet is not hard. It can take a little bit of time to get into the swing of it, but it is well worth it. Keep in mind a few things: variety is important, and feed them the healthy greens that you’d eat. As people better understand the digestion and nutritional needs of rabbits and guinea pigs, they are living longer, much healthier and happier lives.

Clicker Training for Small Pets

Clicker Training For Small Pets
By Joan Orr and Teresa Lewin

Rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, rats and other small pets are full of energy and mischief—but you may be surprised to discover they are also trainable. Clicker training can help develop positive behaviour, as well as a bond between human and animal.
The level of activity and problem solving required for finding food, creating homes and staying safe is not required of a pet living in a cage or a human house. Training sessions allow the animal to use its natural abilities, thus providing mental and physical stimulation. This contributes to a longer and happier life. “Clicking with small pets brightens their lives, exercises their minds and brings out their personalities,” says Karen Pryor, a clicker training specialists. “It is easy to learn and mentally and physically enriching for pets and their owners.” Clicker training can help you engage in more activities with your pet, improve its behaviour, clip its nails without a fight and teach it to come out from behind the fridge, among other results.

When it clicks
In clicker training, a sound is used to mark correct behaviour. This click is made by pressing a small handheld device and is always followed closely with a treat, so the pet comes to associate the click with something good. Soon, the animal wants to hear the sound. When the pet learns its own actions can cause a click of approval, it will actively perform positive behaviour in hope of hearing the sound. You can add a verbal cue and the pet will start coming when called. “It is very exciting to see an animal experience the moment when it suddenly realizes it can actively control the clicker ‘game,’” says Pryor.

The ‘magic’ of the click comes from its clarity, consistency and precision. The sound should occur the moment the behaviour happens, so the pet knows exactly what it did right. It is not usually possible to deliver the treat itself with such precision, especially if the pet is in a cage or across the room. For example, an owner is trying to teach her pet rat to come to the door of its cage. It does so, but by the time the owner arrives with a food treat, the rat is frustrated with waiting and is chewing on the door. The owner gives the treat because the command was obeyed, but the animal associates the reward with chewing on the door. So, the owner has inadvertently taught her pet to chew on the door to get a treat!

Positive reinforcement
A positive reinforcer is something given to a pet to make it feel happy and repeat certain behaviour. This can be petting, freedom of movement or a chance to play with a favourite toy—but the strongest reinforcer for most pets is food. In clicker training, there are only two techniques to try to influence a pet’s behaviour. One is positive reinforcement; the other is to ignore undesirable behaviour. There are no physical corrections, punishment or scolding. Reinforced behaviour will become stronger, while ignored behaviour will fade away. If a pet is behaving very badly, you simply take the clicker and treats away, leaving the animal to sit alone and ponder the consequences.

Universality
There are clicker trainers around the world working with almost every conceivable captive species. The training works on pigs, rabbits, dolphins, birds, search and rescue (SAR) dogs, elephants, tigers, turtles and fish. Anyone can perform clicker training. Sometimes it works best to train in teams, with one person clicking and the other providing the treat. This is a good way for a new trainer to learn.

All kinds of small pets can be trained. Some learn more quickly, will work longer or get bored more easily than others, but any pet can be motivated by what it wants.

It may take a long time for the animal to get used to the click sound or to associate it with the treat. Some pets catch on right away—and some will even teach others of their kind.

For example, a ferret named Gwen learned from clicker training to touch a ball with her nose on command. The next day, she taught eight other ferrets the same trick. This type of mimicry is quite common. A shy or reluctant pet may decide to participate after seeing another animal being clicker-trained.

Setting up
Many small pets feel uncomfortable outside their cage at first, but you can start training them in the cage. When you eventually do take your pet out of its cage, you need to ensure it cannot escape and should provide a box or house for it to hide in. Keep any larger pets away. Some pets are nocturnal, like chinchillas and hamsters, so the best training time will be in the evening. Observing your pet’s natural behaviour can help develop tricks. Use small pieces of treats your pet really likes. Never withhold food or water from small pets to make them hungry for training, as this could be fatal.

Target training
All pets can touch an object—such as a ping-pong ball attached to the end of a pencil—with their nose. This trick can lead to other lessons. To teach your pet to touch a target, hold the object in front of it or place it on the ground nearby. The pet and the object should start out in a very small, enclosed area, so the animal is bound to touch the object at some point. When your pet moves to investigate, click and treat. Repeat each time it moves closer to the target, until it actually touches it—then click and treat only for actual nose touches. Next, add the command word “touch” just as its nose touches the target. After a few training sessions, try giving this cue before the pet touches, to see if it has learned the word goes with the action. Also, try moving the target to see if your pet will follow to touch it. This may take several sessions. The more often you clicker-train, the faster your pet will learn new tricks, but each session should be no longer than five minutes.

Jumping through hoops
Jumping pets—including rabbits, degus and chinchillas—can be trained to jump through a hoop. Place the hoop so part of it touches the ground and in such a way that your pet must pass through it to get to you, a touch-target, its litter box or something else it wants to reach. Then click and treat as the animal passes through the hoop.

Raise the hoop slightly each time, clicking and treating as soon as the front legs go through. As the animal begins to jump higher, click as its front legs go through the hoop and treat after it lands. If your pet goes under or around or refuses to jump, lower the hoop to a point where the animal can succeed, then end the session. Start the next session at this height.

Fives and tens
Guinea pigs and many other small pets can be taught to give ‘five’ (i.e. place one paw on your finger) or ‘ten’ (i.e. place both paws on your hand). This trick also builds upon the initial target training. First, hold a target in the air, just out of your guinea pig’s reach. As the pet strives to touch it, one paw will come off the ground. Touch that paw with your finger in a miniature ‘high-five’ and click and treat. You may need a partner to help manage the target, the clicker and the treats. Soon, your guinea pig will realize placing its paw on your finger results in a click and treat. You can then start training the vocal cue, “high five,” to get your pet to deliberately respond with a paw on your finger. A rabbit can learn “gimme 10” in a similar way. First, hold the target high enough that the animal has to stand to reach it. Move the target forward until your rabbit is off balance and needs to lean both of its paws on your waiting hand. Click and treat for contact. Variations of this trick can be used to teach a rabbit to stand on cue and then hop forward on its hind legs.

Obstacle courses
Ferrets, hamsters, mice and rats love to climb and can be taught to follow a target up the ladder or ramp that comes with many pet cages. They can also be taught to go through a tunnel and to run a maze. An obstacle course can also include ‘jumps,’ platforms or anything your pet can move over, around, into, under or through. You can buy cage accessories at a pet store and/or make your own obstacles with items around the home. Teach your pet to navigate each obstacle separately, using the same methods as for jumping through a hoop. Start with low jumps, short ladders and short tunnels, then gradually increase their scale as your pet catches on and develops the skills and confidence for each obstacle. Once your pet knows how to navigate several obstacles, you can start ‘chaining’ them together. Begin by putting the one your pet likes best at the end of the course and then another one in front of it. Then you can start your pet off with either the first obstacle’s cue or a target cue. Each obstacle becomes reinforcement for the one that came before it. You can add obstacles one at a time ‘backwards’ to the beginning of the course. This way, your pet is always moving toward something for which it has already received lots of reinforcement. And if the chain of events falls apart in the middle, you will know exactly which part needs more work.

Finding success
The key to success with clicker training is understanding your pet—what it likes to eat, what behaviour it naturally exhibits and what environment it prefers. Consulting species-specific information resources will also help, particularly with regards to how to keep the animal healthy and what kinds of treats are most suitable. Click only once at a time. Always follow a click with a treat of high value to the animal. Increase difficulty in tiny increments. Keep training sessions short and quit while your pet is successful and left wanting more.

Download this care sheet (pdf)

Hamster Care

Hamster

Hamster, Mesocricetus auratus

Download care sheet (pdf)

Adult Size
4 to 5 inches long

Life Span
2 to 3 years

Male/Female Differences
Sexing hamsters is done by eyeing the distance between the urethra and the anus; the distance is further apart in males. Both are equally handleable. Females may be more defensive while trying to nest or raise young.

Compatibility
Adult hamsters are solitary. Never keep more than one in the same cage. Hamsters are territorial and will aggressively stress each other out until the other leaves. This rule still applies if they are raised together from the same litter.

Origin
Europe, Asia, Australia.

Climate
Desert and arid grassy plains.

Day Cycle
Nocturnal. Hamsters play at night and sleep during the day.

Temperature
Hamsters do well at average household temperatures. Make sure the cage is well ventilated, out of direct sunlight and drafts.

Lighting
Being nocturnal, bright lights can be harsh for their eyes.

Humidity
Hamsters do well in most indoor humidity. Keep their bedding dry at all times.

Habitat/Territory
Hamsters are burrowing animals.

Substrate/Bedding
Provide a safe and soft bedding, the less dusty the better. Cedar bedding can be toxic and pine too dusty. Good litters are shredded or pelleted aspen or recycled paper products. Supply nesting materials and dry hays.

Hiding Place/Den
Offer chew safe and non-toxic hamster huts, tubes, and wooden hamster toys. Glue on empty paper towel or toilette paper rolls is toxic. Offer nesting materials that will not bind around limbs or cause intestinal damage.

Cage Type
Aquariums, plastic cages with tube accessories, or wire. All should be escape proof, ventilated, and easy to clean. Hamsters love to wander at night. Supply the largest cage that’s possible.

Diet
A few critter cubes and 1-2 tbls of high quality hamster seed mix is given as a staple. Supply a variety of leafy greens and vegetables in small quantities. Avoid spoilage. Fruits should be given to avoid diarrhea. Timothy hay should be given at all times to aid in digestion. Try not to focus on one thing, give good variety. A tiny bit of yoghurt is good for intestinal health.

Supplements
Vitamins in water help supply nutrients missing from captive diets. Hamsters are natural insect eaters. Offer occasional meal worms, crickets, cat or dog kibble, or small dog biscuits. Bland proteins like boiled egg are good.

Diet Precautions
Do not give chocolate, candy, or anything with caffeine. Giving too many greens can cause impacted pouches or
intestinal disorders.

Feeding
Placing food in a bowl will help prevent over feeding. Hamsters will move most of their food into their nest and bury it for later.

Water Source
Water bottles are best. Wash the bottle in between refills. Supply fresh filtered, non-chlorinated water at all times.

Grooming
Hamsters generally lick themselves clean. Grooming your hamster will help socialize it and prevent skin ailments. Using a cat wipe twice a week will help keep the fur healthy. Use a soft bristle brush often to stimulate the hair follicles and remove debris. Keep an eye on the teeth. If the have an overshot, they may need to be clipped. We can do that for you.

Oral and Foot Care
Hamsters have incisors that need to constantly be filed down. Keep soft wood chews, pumice stone, and treat sticks in the cage. Rotate different types to keep the hamster’s interest. Older hamsters may need to have their nails clipped. Use safe ramps and running wheels that will prevent leg injury.

Proper Handling
If the hamster is sleeping, wake gently and always let them smell your hand first. Gently shoo the hamster into one of its hiding places. Pick up the hiding place with the hamster still in it. Holding still with hiding place in hand, offer the other hand to climb out on to of its own free will. Stay close to the ground in case it falls. Offer treats for acceptance and reward.

Habitat Maintenance
Hamsters tend to eliminate in the same area of the cage. Place a litter pan in that area with a little soiled litter for scent. Spot clean the cage daily. Change the litter once a week and wash cage thoroughly with warm soapy water.

Health Concerns
Diarrhea due to poor diet, stress, and/or cage cleanliness. Respiratory distress can be due to poor ventilation, drafts, noxious odors, and dusty litter. Overgrown teeth due to poor chewing stimulation. Congenital cancers are a slight risk. Maintain a healthy environment and diet to