Pocket Pet Products
A variety of products are available to complement the lifestyles of hamsters and gerbils, and enrich their environments.
The Syrian hamster, sometimes also called the golden hamster, is the most popular small pet in America. The gerbil is not nearly as popular, but these two pocket pets have a lot in common and need many of the same products. Still, each has its own particular needs and preferences when it comes to habitats and living arrangements. Understanding what these needs are is key to ensuring that pet owners are getting the right supplies for their small animals.
Among the first things to note is that Syrian hamsters and gerbils have quite similar lifestyles, with one major exception: their socialization needs. Hamsters—particularly the Syrian hamster—are generally solitary animals that must live alone. The gerbil is highly social and does best when living with at least one companion. This is an important distinction to share with shoppers, particularly new small-pet owners.
Syrian hamsters and Mongolian gerbils originally hail from desert environments, so both drink less water than other small animals. Dwarf hamsters also tend to have this trait. This is highly beneficial for pet owners, as less water intake results in less urine output—meaning that the animals’ habitats don’t need to be cleaned as often as habitats of other small animals. The fact that hamster cages can go longer without cleaning than those of other small pets has allowed manufacturers to design elaborate habitats with exotic-looking tubes and accessories. The tubes are highly suitable for a burrowing animal and provide both hamster and owner a great deal of enjoyment. Habitats specifically designed for dwarf hamsters tend to be quite similar to those for the larger hamsters, just smaller in size.
Gerbils, on the other hand, seem to prefer to make their own tunnels. Gerbil enthusiasts recommend habitats with deep trays that can be filled with several inches of bedding, to allow these animals to dig to their heart’s delight. Shredded paper-type bedding works well, as it can allow tunnels to hold their shape. Some gerbil fans say the ideal habitat is a large aquarium because the glass is impervious to chewing. Both hamsters and gerbils enjoy chewing and sometimes turn their attention to the plastic walls of their habitat. A persistent chewer can quickly create a hole large enough to escape through, so owners need to examine their pets’ habitats frequently to look for signs of chewing.
Even though gerbils are about the same size as Syrian hamsters—not counting the much longer tail—their habitats need to be larger for two reasons. First, every gerbil habitat should be large enough for at least two gerbils. Second, they are much more athletic and active than hamsters. They enjoy leaping and chasing each other, which requires more space. However, neither hamsters nor gerbils are good climbers, so their habitats should not have upper floors from which they might easily fall.
All burrowing animals need some sort of enclosed hiding and sleeping place to make them feel secure. There are a variety of products suitable for these small animals in all kinds of shapes and made of different materials. There are tubes, houses, castles, logs, nests and boxes, made of plastic, wood, ceramic, cardboard and woven grass—and new products come out every year.
Of course, no hamster or gerbil habitat would be complete without an exercise wheel or running disk. Hamsters seem to like the wheels best, while many gerbils enjoy running on a disk. Wheels for gerbils should be at least eight inches in diameter. These toys give them the opportunity to get plenty of exercise in the safety of their own habitat.
Since all of these animals love to chew, they also need constant access to chew toys. Gerbils, in particular, are big chewers and enjoy a wide variety of textures. Gerbils have been reported to get bored with chews made only of wood, and many experts recommend offering them more variety, such as toys made from loofah, calcium, sisal, cardboard and even lava rock. Putting a new toy in the cage every so often will help these pets stay active and mentally stimulated.
Finally, hamsters and gerbils are naturally clean animals that don’t need much grooming. Still, Syrian hamsters with long fur benefit from weekly brushing, and gerbils need a little help staying clean with a dust bath once or twice a week. Without this bath, many gerbils start looking greasy. The dust bath helps their coat stay fluffy. Place two to three tablespoons of chinchilla dust in a shallow dish, put it in the gerbils’ cage for about 30 minutes, and then discard the dust. Leaving the bath in the habitat any longer than this will tempt them to use it as a litter box. Some hamsters, especially dwarf hamsters, also enjoy an occasional bath with chinchilla dust or sand. Speaking of litter boxes, many hamsters will use a litter box in the corner of their cage, and special tiny litter boxes just for hamsters are available.
As the market continues to offer a wider selection of supplies and accessories for small animals, retailers that can keep up with the trends will be well-positioned to support their small-animal-owning customers and to help ensure their pets have long, healthy and happy lives.
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.