Inch by Inch

Offering the right size products to suit a variety of small rodents will make sure every customer can find an option to fit their pet.




Although the food for all small rodent pets is similar, one size does not fit all when it comes to housing and accessories. As Goldilocks found, each group needs products that are neither too big, nor too small, but “just right.”


Small rodent pets come in three different sizes. The medium-sized rodents, hamsters and gerbils, are the most popular. Syrian hamsters are about four to six inches long, while gerbils have a body about four inches long and a four-inch tail. Probably next in popularity are rats, which are the largest of the small rodents. They can range from six inches for a small female to 12 inches for a large male, not including the tail. The most diminutive members of the group include mice and dwarf hamsters, which measure two inches for the tiny Roborovski hamster, three inches for mice (minus their tail) and up to four inches for other dwarf hamsters. 


When choosing products for small rodents, size is not the only factor to consider, though. Lifestyle also makes a difference. For instance, gerbils and rats are very social animals that do best with cagemates of the same gender. Therefore, when selecting a habitat for these pets, it is best to get one that is large enough to house at least two animals. This applies to female mice as well, which are also highly social. Male mice, however, are very territorial and usually do not do well living with other male mice. The ideal situation for a male mouse is to have him neutered so he can live with a group of females. Even most dwarf hamsters seem to be happiest in a same-sex pair, or, for some species, in a small group. The Syrian hamster is the only species of small rodent pet that must live alone in its own habitat.


All the small rodent pets are natural burrowers. The habitats with tubes that are marketed for hamsters are popular with both hamsters and their owners because the tubes mimic the tunnels the animals would dig for themselves in the wild. However, tubes don’t work so well for gerbils, because instead of walking as hamsters do, gerbils hop. For gerbils, it is better to provide bedding for them to dig in so they can make their own tunnels. Because of this, gerbils seem happiest in glass tanks that can hold a deep layer of bedding. There are now several bedding products specifically designed for burrowing animals that can be packed together to create tunnels. 


Although rats and mice are burrowing animals, they also like to climb, so their habitats should allow them to do so. For this reason, large cages tend to work best for rats. Because mice are so much smaller than rats and can escape through wire bars that aren’t close enough, glass tanks with climbing toys can work well for them. The habitat for active, social animals, such as gerbils, mice and rats, should ideally be at least twice as long as the animal’s length, including its tail, to allow enough space for running, jumping and digging.


Small rodents also need water bottles, food dishes and/or food dispensers, sleeping quarters and toys. Retailers should offer all these items in three sizes to suit each group of rodents. Dwarf hamsters and mice especially need extra-small water bottles to make sure they can access the water adequately. Water bottles that are too large can be difficult for them to operate successfully. Food dishes should be small, both to prevent the animals from eliminating in them like a litter box and because dishes that are too large can allow soiled bedding to contaminate the food. 


Toys are another size-sensitive product category. Almost all small rodents enjoy running on exercise wheels, but they must be the proper size for the animal. If in doubt, go with a slightly larger size. A small animal can get a large wheel turning, but a wheel that is too small will not be comfortable and they won’t be able to use it. The diameter of a wheel should be at least one and a half times the length of the animal’s body. Many gerbils seem to like running discs better than wheels. Keep in mind  that toys should be sold to suit the adult size of the pet, not for the size they are as babies, because the animal will quickly outgrow them.


Many tube-style hamster habitats have built-in sleeping quarters, but other small pets will need sleeping accessories added to the habitat. These can include huts, houses and nests made of everything from plastic to coconut shells to woven grass. Because rats love to climb, a favorite sleeping place for many of them is a hanging cloth hammock. Although most rats will chew on their hammocks to some degree, all that means is that the owner will need to replace them periodically, just as other chewable products need to be replaced. Rats and mice both also enjoy climbing toys such as ladders, branches, jungle gyms and stairs, so these toys should be included as staples in their habitats.


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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