Safe and Sound

Retailers need to be knowledgeable about the different features of small animal habitats to provide the safest and healthiest homes for their customers’ pets.




It’s not just people that need to get their workouts in—exercise is an important factor in long-term health for small animals as well. One of the best ways to give small pets plenty of exercise is to make sure their habitat is large enough. The more time a pet spends in its cage, the larger it must be to facilitate exercise. A small pet habitat should not only be large enough to provide space for toys to encourage play and exercise, but also include some open space for frolicking.


A common way for manufacturers to expand the total floor area of a cage is by adding multiple levels. This can be attractive to pet owners because a tall cage takes up less counter space. Tall, narrow cages are good for climbing species, such as sugar gliders or flying squirrels, but not as good for species that like to scamper and play, like gerbils, mice, rats and guinea pigs. Most small pets are terrestrial and spend the majority of their time on the ground, so they need a ground floor level that will let them move around freely. A good rule of thumb for selecting the size of a habitat is to take the adult body length from nose to rump and multiply by three. This amount of space will allow the animal to playfully bound across the cage. For example, guinea pigs are eight to 12 inches long. Therefore, their habitat should have at least 24 to 36 inches of open space between the feeding area and sleeping quarters.


It’s common for the owner of a small animal to buy a cage that is too small for their pet. This can happen for several reasons. The pet is usually purchased as a baby, so the cage might be selected for the pet’s current size, rather than the adult size it will become. Some customers don’t want a large cage to take up room in their home. But one of the key reasons for selecting a smaller cage is price. Larger habitats are usually more expensive, and some customers don’t want to spend the extra money. For customers who object to the higher price tag, retailers should instruct staff to make sure the customer understands that a larger habitat will promote the long-term health of their pet through an increased opportunity to exercise. Once they have a justification for the higher price, most customers will be willing to pay it. It can also help to point out that a habitat is a long-term investment, and that a well-made habitat will last many years.


Most cages are designed with a particular type of animal in mind. But some cages marketed for a certain species may include features that can be inappropriate or even dangerous to that animal, so retailers must use their own judgment to assess a cage’s actual suitability for each species. For example, ferret cages are commonly sold with shelves and ramps to expand the area of the cage and give the animals exercise running up and down the ramps. The only problem with this is the danger of a ferret falling off a shelf. When ferrets play, they can get so rambunctious that they don’t pay attention to the world around them, and they can easily forget they are above the ground and fall. It is safer for a ferret cage to have a full second floor rather than shelves. To make a cage with shelves safer, hammocks can be hung below the edges of the shelves so if a ferret does fall off the shelf, it will land safely in a hammock.


Wire Warnings

With wire cages, retailers must be ensure that the bar spacing or mesh size is safe for the customer’s animal. Customers who are frustrated with the limited size of cages being sold often buy cages meant for a larger animal, such as buying a ferret or rabbit cage for rats, but this may not be a safe option with all wire cages. While the desire for a larger cage is good, a cage can be dangerous if the bar spacing is too large and allows an animal to get its head caught between the bars or even escape the cage. The danger is greatest for baby animals. In some cases, retailers should recommend that a customer buy two cages, a smaller one with narrower bar spacing to start, and then a larger cage when the pet reaches adult size. The smaller cage can then be used as a travel cage.


Another common danger is the hay rack that comes with many cages for rabbits and guinea pigs. A baby rabbit or guinea pig can get their head caught in between the bars of a hay rack. Retailers should recommend that customers remove the rack until the baby’s head can no longer fit between the bars.


Most habitats on the market today have solid floors and shelves, rather than wire floors, because they are safer and more comfortable for the animals. However, there are still designs that include wire shelves. These can be suitable as long as the mesh or bar spacing is small enough so an animal’s foot cannot slip between the wires, which could cause injury to the foot or leg.


By keeping these safety considerations in mind when selling small animal habitats, retailers can help ensure the long-term health of their customers’ pets.  PB


Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of three books about rat care, health, and training, and was a consultant on the movie Ratatouille.


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