Healthy Habitats

Small pets need amply sized habitats to have long, happy, healthy lives.


Exercise has many health benefits. One of the best ways to give small pets plenty of exercise is to make sure their habitat is large enough. The small pet home should not only be big enough to provide space for eating and sleeping, but also for toys that will encourage play and exercise.

It’s common for small pet owners to buy a cage that is too small for their pet for several reasons. First, the pet is usually purchased as a baby, and the cage is selected for the pet’s current size, rather than the adult size it will become. Second, some customers don’t want a large cage to take up room in their home. Last, but not least, larger habitats are usually more expensive than smaller ones, 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 for many years.

Measuring the Real Estate
Most small pets are terrestrial and spend the majority of their time on the ground, therefore they need a ground floor level that will let them to 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 tail and multiply by three. This gives the minimum length of the habitat, though multiplying the body length by four is even better. This size is large enough to allow the animal to playfully bound across the cage. For instance, the average adult male rat is about ten inches long, therefore, his cage should be 30 to 40 inches long.

A recent trend in habitat construction is to go high rather than long, and give the cage multiple levels. This can be a good way to create more living space while still keeping the footprint of the cage fairly small. Running up and down ramps can also give animals good exercise. Each floor, however, must still provide enough surface area for the pet to move around comfortably. Levels that are too small can also make the placement of nest boxes and exercise toys difficult. There should be enough space for accessories like an exercise wheel, a hammock, a wooden house, a climbing toy, etc. Shelves and floors that can be moved and adjusted can help make the space more flexible.

Comfort and Hygiene

Another important factor in the selection of a healthy habitat is whether it’s easy to clean. A cage that is too hard to take apart and clean will discourage proper hygiene and may contribute to disease. The accumulation of dirty bedding can lead to a build-up of ammonia, a gas that can damage the respiratory tract. Manufacturers seem to be doing a good job in this area. They are designing habitats with rounded corners, which are easier to clean, and most cages now have deep trays that help prevent bedding from being tossed out. They have also added wire sides to plastic habitats designed for hamsters and other tiny pets, as all-plastic habitats had a tendency to become stuffy and humid inside, a condition that encourages mold growth.

Another current trend–upper levels and shelves made of plastic rather than wire mesh–is certainly a great step toward comfort and healthy living. The solid floors are much less likely to cause wrenched legs and feett. These floors are also easy to wipe clean.

Elevated shelves can be dangerous for some animals. Hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rabbits and ferrets are not natural climbers and have a tendency to fall off of shelves. In habitats for these animals, any upper shelves should be arranged so there are no long drops, and the ramps should be at a comfortable slope. Hammocks can be used as safety nets to help protect pets from injury.

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 the book Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.

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