I haven’t been updating the blog recently because of a medical crisis in one of my sanctuary piggies, Mnemosyne. Mnemie is around 3 years old, and was pulled from a local shelter. When I got back from Fozzie and Kismet’s excellent adoption 2 weeks ago, I went and cleaned all my cages, only to discover that Mnemie had lost weight and was sitting in a puddle of blood.
I got her into our vet the next day, we got x-rays, and it was confirmed that she had bladder stones. Bladder stones can form in the case of a very inappropriate diet which does not have a balanced calcium to phosphorus ratio, has way too much oxalic acid in it, or for no real discernible reason, but seemingly genetically related.
Initially, because of her rather older age, I opted to try and have her pass the stones on her own. The x-rays revealed that she had 2-3 rather smallish stones, and they seemed positioned well to pass. So we went home, with a lot of pain medication, antibiotics, a setup for subcutaneous fluids, and a lot of Pedialyte, and spent a week trying to help her pass them.
At the end of the week, the followup x-rays showed that they hadn’t moved at all, so we opted to try the surgery anyway.
Bladder stone surgery is not easy on pigs, and I was terribly worried. The morning of surgery dawned, and I dropped her off in the early AM with plenty of veggies and lots of good wishes. I received a call at my job at 9am. Dr. Munn had her open, but he couldn’t find her bladder. My initial response, I must admit, was outrage. How could a vet not find an entire organ!? But, he went on to explain, when Mnemie was spayed (at the local shelter) she had formed a intricate knotwork of adhesions. These fibrous bands of scar tissue had basically solidified all of her organs into a giant lump in the middle of her body.
I asked him to try and break them and find her bladder, but gave my blessing to euthanize her on the table if for some reason organs were damaged. It’s extremely common to do so, because adhesions are tough to get around. I fully expected to be burying Mnemie next to poor Ferdinand.
An hour later, I received the call I never expected. He had managed to find her poor bladder by breaking the adhesions as gently as possible. Nothing had been damaged, Mnemie was stitched up and sleeping and they were watching her to see if she woke up.
When I arrived to pick her up, the stones they showed me were frightening. Her whole poor bladder had been full of stones. It was very thick walled and irritated (obviously from all the stones), but the inside of the bladder was also deeply crenelated, and all of those crevices had been filled with tiny stones and stalactites of stone. The largest of the stones are pictured here.
Unfortunately, that gives her a less than promising prognosis, since it seems like her bladder is custom-made to sieve off any stone forming materials and collect them in pockets to develop bigger stones.
2 weeks of recovery followed. She was incontinent, and she leaked pee constantly and stayed filthy. She was preferential to veggies, and tended to have loose stools. We did nightly subcue fluids, which she hated and screamed at me for, and I hated because she hated. She stayed mostly on a very low heating pad because she had problems maintaining her body temperature.
And then 2 weeks later, I tried reintroducing her to Hobo and Lethe, her cagemates, because she seemed to be doing much better (although she was still very underweight). Her reintroduction caused massive weight loss within a day, and I can only imagine that she is still not feeling 100% despite her weeks of healing.
But now I am left wondering if I made the right decision. Mnemie is now living by herself, and seems overall to be happy. She begs for vegetables each morning, and seems delighted for new hay every day. But she is still underweight, and can’t live with her friends. She also is still incontinent (which Dr. Munn says may eventually go away — in dogs and cats he’s found it can take 4-6 months for those muscles to redevelop themselves). Because of her incontinence, her poor vulva is almost always irritated from urine. I powder her twice a day to help keep her dry, and change her bedding every other day, but this still remains a problem.
We have made changes to her diet, to try and make it even more balanced (though all of the pigs here in Raleigh have a relatively balanced veggie diet). Lots of water, which is all filtered or bottled, and cranberry juice as treats to help stave off UTIs are now par for the course. She gets her bottom powdered twice a day now, which stings her, and makes her cry.
It is hard for me, as a caregiver of a small animal like this to discern if I have truly made the right choice for this pig. All I know is that 3 weeks after surgery, covered in pee, and with bed sores on her tiny feet, she crawled up to my chest and lay her head next to mine. And then she licked my cheek over and over again for about half an hour. She has never done it before, and she has never done it since. I hope that it is her way of saying that she’s still “in the game” and appreciates the chance.
On Friday the Bird Lovers Only Blog posted a really exceptional comment about bird breeding, a message which I feel needs to be spread far and wide:
Because of the ease of breeding parakeets, cockatiels, quakers, lovebirds, and other small birds such as these, these birds have become grossly overpopulated. Even if I wanted to, at times I wouldn’t be able to GIVE these birds away. There are just not enough homes out there. And even fewer homes are available for such high maintenance birds such as cockatoos.
This is a sentiment that just can’t be repeated enough. People should NOT be breeding these birds right now. There are plenty already born who are in need of homes, and THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH HOMES OUT THERE.
This is true for almost all other pet species as well, certainly for guinea pigs and rabbits. The breeders who are contributing the problem are primarily the ones who breed to serve the pet store market, so you can make a difference by choosing not to shop at stores which sell live animals. Please spread the word about this. Speak through your pocketbook, by buying your supplies from rescue-friendly stores which do not sell live animals, or from internet suppliers.
Please visit the Bird Lovers Only Blog to read the entire post, and please donate to them to support bird rescue.
This is a series looking at some overall questions about the concept of beginner pets.
This is Part Three of a three-part series. In Part One I talked about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for kids. In Part Two I talked about how to do enough research to determine whether a certain pet is right for you, and also some considerations about figuring the costs of caring for a pet. In this part, I finally answer the questions of what animals don’t, and do, make good beginner pets.
What animals are NOT good beginner pets?
Surprisingly, most animals which are usually considered “good starter pets” are NOT.
Most of the exotics, including small birds, reptiles, and most small mammals, do not have simple basic needs. They require special, high-quality diets, which are often not available at small pet stores. The stuff sold at grocery stores will definitely kill them. All of these animals require supplementation with fresh foods (usually veggies), many reptiles require frozen, pre-killed foods (ranging from mealworms and crickets up to baby mice). This adds both expense and time to their upkeep requirements. All require much larger cages than are sold even by the major chain pet stores; the best cages usually have to be ordered off the internet.
Birds and rabbits also fail the time commitment test due to their social and exercise needs. Both species need to have plenty of out-of-cage exercise every day, as well as social interaction. In both cases, you also have to spend time and money rabbit- or bird-proofing the rooms that they will play in. Many an IPod has lost its charging cord due to a curious bird or bunny!
Due to medical expenses, all exotics fail the low cost test. A physical exam for a cat or dog, with no additional care, is in the $30-$50 range. For a guinea pig, rat, or bird to be seen at an exotics vet, you are talking a MINIMUM of $75-$100 for a basic visit with NO additional care. It’s for a reason which is exactly the same as in human medicine: a visit to a general practitioner is always cheaper than a visit to a specialist.
Surprisingly, fish and hermit crabs also don’t make the cut, because their environmental needs are not simple. Hermit crabs require carefully chosen substrates and water containers, not just the cheapest stuff you find at the pet store, and you must know how to carefully control their heat and humidity. They too require supplementation with fresh foods. You also have to treat their water and change it frequently. Some species require you to mix up special salt water (NOT using table salt!) in addition to providing treated fresh water. Goldfish are a species of carp, and are FILTHY animals; they require a pretty big tank (8-10 gallons for ONE) with a very strong filter, and frequent water changes. They are cold-water fish and their tanks must be kept below 72 degrees. Bettas (siamese fighting fish) also require a much bigger tank than people realize (5 gallon is considered a minimum), need a heater to keep their tank at a very narrow, warm, temperature range, and require frequent water changes, requiring a fairly large time commitment. Also, a mistake with a fish almost always results in death, and even if it is an animal with “more stem than brain”, that’s a pretty severe consequence for novice error.
If they are so bad, WHY are these animals all usually considered starter pets?
Simply because they much cheaper to buy/adopt than cats or dogs. A rabbit is $5 at the flea market, but a dog from the pound is nearly $50, therefore rabbits must be easier pets to care for! People equate low cost with easy, but they are considering ONLY the cost of the animal, not the cost of set up or of ongoing maintenance. Worse, to many people, these animals are considered disposable; if one dies, you just buy another. That mentality speaks for itself, and arguing with people who believe that is futile. Add to this mentality the fact that the “common knowledge” and the grocery store/pet store products for these animals are both usually completely wrong and inappropriate, and as a result, these animals typically only live to a third or less of their potential lifespan. That certainly makes them bad choices for a starter pet.
What animals don’t belong as pets at all?
Any animal for which we do not have the ability to provide a captive environment that includes everything that is needed to keep them healthy and happy.
Many people count parrots in this category; despite the fact that I own parrots, I often agree with them. Parrots, even the tiny ones like budgies/parakeets (and even some non-parrot birds, like zebra finches), can easily live over FIFTEEN years; some of the larger birds can live 50-100 years. Almost all parrots are highly social, and are happiest when housed with another bird or given huge amounts of daily interaction with their human families. They require huge cages (compared to what the pet stores sell) and high-quality, pelleted food.
Parrots are also not domesticated animals. Most birds being sold today, have parents or grandparents who were wild-caught. They have not been bred to captive life for generations, so they are terribly sensitive to environmental and social disruption. Their reaction is usually to develop behavioral problems such as screaming, biting, and destruction, or even self-mutilation. It’s often said that a parrot has the intelligence of a two-year old child, without the ability to learn consequences or grow out of that selfish, me-me-me stage.
Due to all of these problems, parrots are among the hardest pet to care for, with the lowest success rate. One source claims that only 25% of parrots are cared for correctly, and that the average parrot is re-homed 15 to 20 times in its lifetime. For this reason, not only are they bad starter pets, they are bad pets all around for probably 99% of people.
Another animal which I believe should not be owned as a pet is hermit crabs. They can’t be bred in captivity, so all of them are wild caught. If we cannot breed them in captivity, we obviously cannot provide a captive environment which contains all that they require. Also, hermit crabs can live over 30 years if you do it right, but that is SO difficult that only a handful of people have managed to keep their crab alive more than 10 years. Most people kill their crabs (unintentionally) within six to twelve months of purchase. I feel that an animal which can only be wild-caught, and which is so hard to care for that most die shortly after capture, should not be kept in captivity.
Look at it this way: the average owner doesn’t have the ability to care for a great white shark, but because those are harder to come by and larger than crabs, not so many people make the erroneous assumption that they are an easy pet. If hermit crabs were 8′ long and capturing them required a large boat and a 10 man diving team, most people would recognize that they make terrible pets, too.
So what animals DO make good starter pets?
Again, let’s reiterate. The criteria for being a good beginner pet is an animal which
- Has simple-to-meet basic needs
- Has a low time commitment
- Has a low average/expected cost of care
- Cannot be harmed by simple mistakes
There’s one more consideration we haven’t discussed, and that’s the suitability of the animal to being a pet. Most people who want a pet want some level of interaction from that animal. Most people prefer an animal which enjoys being handled and played with, and will respond to its owner in a positive way. So in selecting my top three beginner pets, I’ve taken this additional requirement into consideration.
The animal which meets all of these requirements the best is a cat. A second choice would be a pair of rats.
Why is a cat a good beginner pet?
Simple Basic Needs: A+
They need water. Most people can’t screw that up and it’s easy to come by.
They need food. Almost all cat foods are acceptable – while the very cheapest canned junk or grocery store brand food can lead to problems late in life (tooth decay and kidney/UTI issues), most cats do fine on any of the slightly better brands recommended by the cat’s vet. The primary consideration here is to go with something that has no grain or by-product fillers – unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores and do not need to eat plant material in any form. But they don’t need supplements, fresh foods, or a variety of food products like a guinea pig or rat does.
They need litter and a litterbox. 99.9% of cats do fine on the first box and litter brand that their owner buys; changes like adding boxes or switching litter is typically done to make the owner more comfortable, not the cat (by resolving issues like odor, tracking, or sticking-to-the-butt). They are much easier to train and better about litterbox habits than rabbits typically are.
They need toys and socialization. Cats will often make their own toys, and tell you if they are lonely, yet they are independent enough to amuse themselves. Contrast this with a rabbit, who desperately needs socialization, but cannot speak up to say so, and may confuse the owner by displaying their frustration as aggression.
They need regular medical care. Unlike most small exotic mammals, a cat can get good care from ANY vet. They do hide try to their illnesses, but not as much as prey animals do. Even a fairly inobservant owner will notice when something is wrong as long as they pay attention to the cat’s normal activity level, food intake, and poop output.
Low Time Commitment: A+
You don’t have to make extra trips to a specialty store to buy their food. You don’t have to spend hours each day supervising them at play or taking them for walkies. It takes about 15 minutes a day to plunk down food and scoop the litterbox. They sleep 11-14 hours per day, meaning they are self-sufficient for nearly all of the time you are asleep and at work. If you get one which is highly social and demanding of attention, you can get a second cat and they will keep each other entertained.
Low Average Cost of Care: A+
Food, litter, and healthcare are the primary ongoing expenses for a cat, all of which are readily available everywhere as described above, making them fairly inexpensive.
The primary over-looked costs in cat care come from two sources: destruction of property (scratching the good chair, peeing on the hall carpet, cat hairs on your good suit) and preventative healthcare (higher-end food to prevent kidney and tooth problems, regular dental cleanings, and flea/tick control). If you factor in for these items, you’re probably at about $1000 per year, which is no more expensive than caring for a guinea pig, with fewer requirements.
Little Harm from Simple Mistakes: A+
The three main illnesses to which cats are prone (dental disease, urinary tract infection/kidney disease, and parasite infestation) are all due to neglecting basic medical care. Fortunately, all are easily reversible through treatment and often just through dietary management. Compare this to guinea pigs, who can literally die of seizures from mite infestations, or birds, who can be killed by the fumes from candles, paint, or teflon cookware.
Cats display all of the most commonly desired pet traits: they are glad to see you, they like to be petted and cuddled, they can be trained to do interesting tricks, and they enjoy interactive playtime. Most small mammals only tolerate handling, but never actually come to enjoy it. Additionally, cats don’t tend to bite (like dogs or rabbits) or make too much noise (like birds or dogs) or develop severe behavioral derangements (like dogs, birds, rabbits, hamsters, and sometimes rats).
Why is a pair of rats a good beginner pet?
Normally, I would stop with cats, since I think the evidence paints them as the ideal beginner pet. However, many people are either allergic to cats, or require a pet which can be confined to one room. So I feel obliged to offer a second choice for the cat haters. Note that I score rats as FAR less suitable than a cat on nearly all of our measures. Just because I will grudgingly accord rats second place in this rating, doesn’t mean they are at all comparable to the ease of owning a cat.
Simple Basic Needs: B-
While more complex than cats, rats’ needs are easier to meet than those of most small animals.
They need water, in a bottle which is refilled daily and sanitized at least weekly.
They need food, consisting of high-quality “lab blocks” supplemented with fruits, veggies, and protein. Lab blocks either need to be bought from a larger pet store, or ordered online. Fortunately, if you yourself eat a healthy diet, your rats’ supplementation can simply be a little of your own food. If you primarily eat junk food, you’ll want to buy some fruits and veggies (even frozen peas and carrots are a good treat). And hey, maybe it’ll get you eating healthier, too!
Rats need a cage and bedding. Cages should be as large as possible to allow plenty of toys and environmental enrichment. Cages usually do have to be bought online or at specialty stores, though. This is a well-liked cage source among rat fanciers.
Bedding needs to be cleaned frequently (spot cleaning daily, with a total cage clean weekly), but the best bedding is available both online and at almost all pet supply stores.
They need toys and socialization. Rats are easy to provide toys for – boxes, tubes, paper, cloth hammocks – anything that can be gnawed, crawled through, or swung from is a good toy for a rat. Parrot toys are a great store-bought toy if you don’t want to get creative and make your own. Additionally, by getting a bonded pair of rats, you are also guaranteeing them adequate socialization.
They need regular medical care. Rats will require the services of an exotics vet, which is more expensive than for cats. Many rats develop age related health problems such as tumors and arthritis, and the treatment of these disease will need to be factored into the costs when being considered by a prospective owner. Most rats need 1-2 tumors removed during the first year or so of life, after this they are usually too old to survive the surgery.
It’s also becoming more common to perform preventative surgeries (specifically, spay and neuter) on rats in order to reduce the horribly high incidence of some types of mammary and reproductive tumors. These surgeries may be around $200, and will need to be done early in the rat’s life, so it needs to be considered part of the startup costs.
Low Time Commitment: B+
Rats do require slightly greater time than cats. Cleaning a cage takes longer than cleaning a litterbox, and providing fresh food takes longer than just dumping in some chow. There’s also a greater set-up commitment since many of their supplies may need to be bought on-line.
One factor in their advantage is that rats typically only live 2-3 years, making them among the shortest lived of all common pet animals (only hamsters have similarly short life spans). This makes pet rats an excellent choice for someone whose life is unsettled – a college student or newlywed – who may not want the burden of having a pet a few years down the road. Even if the daily time commitment becomes burdensome, it won’t last that long overall.
Low Average Cost of Care: C+
Apart from the startup cost of the cage (which can be fairly expensive), the primary cost of care for a rat is going to be vet care. Most rats do develop some sort of illness or tumor, and need more-than-usual vetcare during their lives. Unfortunately, due to their small size and short lifespan, many illnesses can only be treated by euthanasia. The plus side is that this does save money over protracted veterinary treatment.
Little Harm from Simple Mistakes: C+
Rats are less flexible to mistakes than cats. They are prone to development of respiratory illnesses. Owners need to be aware of the symptoms and plan to monitor their pets daily. Heatstroke and poisoning (due to eating toxic foods, or getting into household chemicals) are two other common problems. Awareness of your rat’s location and environment can prevent these, and fast access to a veterinarian can often help prevent death.
Rats who have been socialized appropriately while young are very interactive pets. They respond to your presence, ask to be allowed out to play, enjoy cuddling and gentle petting or sleeping in a shirt pocket, and are easily trained to do an amazing variety of party tricks (as long as food is involved). They are also very “human” acting, which makes them a great favorite with children.
However, some rats are less social than others. You may have to resign yourself to pets who dislike handling. Many who seem social as young animals develop a dislike of handling later in life (especially if they have developed chronic pain conditions like arthritis). They may bite unexpectedly and with comparatively more damage than a cat (rabbit, guinea pig, and bird bites tend to be just as bad).
If you are considering your first pet, hope this guide has been helpful to you. Animal care is NOT a commitment that should be entered into lightly. If you made it all the way through, you’re will to do a lot of reading, so that’s a good sign! If this guide has made you think twice about getting a pet, that’s even better! You are one of the rare intelligent people who is conscious of the need to do right by an animal.
This is a series looking at some overall questions about the concept of beginner pets.
In Part One I talked about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for kids. In Part Two I’ll talk about how to do enough research to determine whether a certain pet is right for you, and also some considerations about the costs of caring for a pet.
How much research should someone do before selecting a beginner pet?
The short answer is way more than you expect.
Most people, if they have never cared for a pet before, have NO idea about the amount of care involved. At the very least, they need to do enough research to be able to say whether a pet makes a good beginner pet, by answering all four of the questions we discussed in Part One:
- What are the animal’s basic needs?
- What is the time commitment?
- What is the average/expected cost of care?
- What are the common mistakes people make (and/or what are common problems people encounter when owning these pets, either behavioral or health issues)?
You want to learn enough about each of these topics that you are certain the animal fits your own definition of “good starter pet”, don’t harm the animal through ignorance, and that you can spot behavioral or healthcare issues early enough to resolve them. For some animals it takes almost no research at all; for others it’s quite a damn bit.
Where should I do my research?
There are a number of places you can find out about pet care. Here’s my take on a few sources:
1. Your own childhood experiences, or, “Everybody knows that cats/dogs/gerbils need X Y & Z”
“Common knowledge” is almost always wrong. Whatever you learned about pet care as a child is WRONG. Whatever “everybody knows” is also WRONG.
How many of us kept our childhood gerbils on cedar shavings? How many of us had intact dogs and cats, who were allowed to roam free outside, who never went to the vet and never even had a rabies vaccine? How many people “know” that rabbits are good pets for kids (they are NOT) and that hermit crabs can be kept in birdcages (they can NOT)?
Husbandry standards have changed dramatically, even in the last 5 years, certainly in the last 10-20. It’s now well-accepted that ALL animals need vet care, and that they need preventative vet care, not just emergency care. Foods have been developed that are formulated to meet an individual animal’s nutritional requirements, rather than to be cheap and filling.
Seek information which is more up-to-date, and grounded in medical science.
2. Friends who have “always owned” this type of pet?
This type of information falls under “common knowledge”, which is almost always wrong. Anyone who has been keeping pets for 20 years is probably still keeping them according to the husbandry standards from 20 years ago. Again, there may be exceptions, but it’s best to look elsewhere.
3. Pet Stores?
Pet stores have one purpose: to make money for someone. Eventually, they will try to sell you a product that’s not good for the animal, but which has a high profit margin.
I have only found one or two stores in all my life which are exceptions to this rule. In every case, they do not sell animals in their store. However, there are many stores which do not sell animals, which still give out very bad advice, so you can’t even go by that criteria.
It’s quite simple: if you want good information, do NOT use a pet store as your first resource for pet care information.
The information in most pet care books is 10-15 years out of date. Additionally, many pet care books are written by photographers, who have lots of lovely photos of animals, but no actual experience caring for them.
Pet fancier magazines are even worse. They are almost always published by pet supply companies, and are little more than glossy, 30-page advertisements for crappy pet products.
Vets are, for the most part, a good source of basic care information for novice owners. Their care instructions are usually detailed enough that you learn how to prevent the most common health problems.
There are two cases where a vet’s advice may not be the best. First, most nutritional information taught to vets is funded by the big pet food companies like Purina. These companies PAY for the right to teach vets and vet students that their product is best, so that they can sell more products. The vet may regurgitate this information without knowing if there is other research showing Purina or whoever is NOT actually the best.
Secondly, do not accept advice from a vet on caring for an exotic pet (basically anything other than a cat or dog) unless the vet is an exotics specialist. Vet students who are dog/cat specialists may not even learn about small animal care while in school, and they are basing their recommendation on “common knowledge” (see point 1). I have had many, many experiences where otherwise excellent vets gave me very bad information about guinea pigs, for example.
6. Shelters and Rescues?
Shelters usually are not good sources of information, but rescues can be, in certain situations. Make sure the rescue is highly regarded in the rescue community and has a good relationship with a veterinary practice, or that they can provide lots of sources for why they recommend certain practices.
A rule of thumb here is that less is never more. If they tell you “well, SOME people say you need X, but I don’t feel they do” and they don’t give you a medical reason why X is not required, they probably practice husbandry according to “common knowledge”.
Generalist sites, no; specialist sites, usually yes.
There is such a wide variation in the quality of information on the internet. Some of it is utter garbage, recycled by idiots who can’t even justify their position. Some of it is amazingly well-researched and validated information based on years of experience from multiple owners.
Generalist sites like about.com, wikipedia, yahoo groups, google answers, livejournal, etc, are typically NOT good sources of information. These are sites where anyone can post advice with little sourcing or credentials required. These sites are the worst offenders for perpetuating bad information.
Sites written and maintained by specialists are usually good sources of information. These sites usually have many other sites linking to them, provide references for their information (often from scientific journals), and often provide incredibly pedantic and detailed bulleted lists explaining why their recommendations are better than other people’s.
As always, in both cases, there are exceptions to the rule. Here are a few links to get you started:
Dogs & cats: ASPCA
Rabbits: House Rabbit Society
Guinea pigs: Guinea Lynx
Rats: Rat Guide
Birds: Companion Parrot Quarterly
Hermit Crabs: HermitCrabs.com
So how do I know I’ve gotten the correct information?
Based on the points above, you should seek information from multiple specialty sites on the internet, then verify that information with a knowledgeable veterinarian.
People who fail to research correctly and completely, fail because it requires something that most people hate: you need to get involved with your own learning as an active process, rather than waiting to passively be spoon-fed the information.
Once you think you know the animal’s basic needs, and the time commitment, etc, start asking around to see if you are right. If you read ABC three times and XYZ four times, don’t just pick the one that “looks right”, ASK someone why you are reading conflicting information.
What pets are the cheapest (to buy and care for properly)?
I’m pulling this out separately because in this economy, cost is the biggest decision point for people looking for a starter pet.
Animals that don’t require vet care are going to be the least expensive. So a fish, maybe. (But did you know that there are vets who can diagnose, treat, and even do surgery on a fish?)
Any other animal (including cats and dogs) might only need $100 or so of vetcare per year, if you get lucky; but if they develop cancer or joint issues which require surgery and you want to go all the way, they may require thousands of dollars in care.
Rather than gambling on your pet being low-end in terms of cost, you need to consider how common it is to have high-end costs. This is also where research comes into play – a little research will show that most rats get tumors, most guinea pigs end up with stones or malocclusions, etc. These so-called starter pets are actually quite expensive if you look at how likely they are to need high-end vet care.
If you aren’t prepared to face these issues, and by that I mean, to pay for their treatment, then the responsible thing to do is to get a pet which has less incidence of expensive healthcare.
Let’s take Guinea Pigs as an example. The ASPCA’s page on guinea pigs (which is surprisingly accurate otherwise) claims that yearly care will be under $600 a year.
However, after eight years of guinea pig rescue and ownership, I’d actually ballpark it at around $3,000 per year, assuming you buy the best quality products, and that nothing goes wrong medically. Yes, this is a higher-end estimate for two pigs. But it’s still very accurate. I’ve been tracking my per-pig costs since 2003, I have a fair amount of data accumulated now. At right are the breakdowns for this and two other estimates.
In all cases, I’m assuming that the owner buys high-end hay and veggies. I’m not recommending buying cheaper bulk pellets, because the vitamin C in them degrades before it can be used. In the higher estimate, I assuming the owner is paying a premium for organic veggies at a traditional grocery store, because that’s what’s most commonly available to most people.
Obviously, if you buy in bulk, go to farmer’s markets and feed stores, or don’t ever get blood work or x-rays or anesthetized molar exams, your costs can be much more towards the low end. Just don’t go into this thinking that the low end is the high end. Many people make this mistake. They can afford $500 a year, so they just tell themselves “well, he probably won’t get sick”. You CANNOT count on that.
In July, I had an adopted pig returned to me, because the adopter (a grad student) could not afford medical care. She willingly dropped $150 on an emergency vet exam when her pig became listless and had trouble breathing, but that was her entire vet care budget. After paying that much, she couldn’t afford even the simplest diagnostics (x-rays), couldn’t even afford euthanasia. I dropped $400 on a comprehensive exam, just to find out that the poor pig had multi-system organ failure (lungs, liver, and kidneys – probably metastatic cancer) and then had to spend another $100 to have her euthanized.
The vet care for pigs is more expensive than for cats and dogs, because the vets must have specialized training, use specialized diagnostic and surgical equipment, and buy specialized pharmaceuticals to use on them. And unfortunately “let’s wait and see if she gets better” is always, always a plan destined for failure with a pig.
About once a week I get an email from someone wanting to surrender a pig because it has mites, and they can’t afford treatment. They waited for a couple months, but he’s just getting worse, and now he’s having seizures! It’s only EIGHT DOLLARS to buy a month-long course of ivermectin. But dear god, they go on to say, the vet wants nearly $50 for the physical exam, that’s highway robbery on pet we got for free off Craigslist! It’s only $10 at the shelter to get the dog vaccinated!
It’s fine if you go into it knowing that you’re not going to be able to afford vet care, and have just enough money saved to euthanize your pet the moment they get sick. If we hadn’t euthanized the pig above, she may have lasted another week or so. As her lungs filled with fluid she would have slowly drowned. As her liver and kidneys failed, she would have been wracked with pain as toxins built up in her body. There’s nothing wrong with euthanasia, and it’s certainly the kindest option when you can’t afford to treat and cure. But it’s unconscionable to get a pet, knowing you can’t afford vetcare, but planning to just “hope they get better”, which ends up condemning them to a slow, painful death. You need to think about the worst-case scenario before you get the pet, not after you are faced with a $500 vet bill.
Don’t forget, you also have to build in precautions for unexpected non-medical issues, too. For example, if you live in a humid climate, a big box of hay may not last 6 months without getting moldy. You’ll have to pay more to buy it in smaller amounts. You may need to go to an emergency wedding or funeral and pay for a pet-sitter.
Tune in next time for Part Three, which will finally answer the question of what animals do and don’t make good beginner pets.
I recently participated in an interesting on-line discussion about “starter pets”. I get asked about guinea pigs and rabbits as starter pets quite often, but I usually address these questions on a species-by-species basis. However, I think it would be good to look at some overall questions about the concept of beginner pets.
This is Part One of a three-part series. In this part, I talk about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for kids.
What defines “good beginner pet”?
Many novice owners who are seeing a good beginner pet have never cared for another organism before, and may need to be taught even the “obvious” things about an animal’s basic needs (like how often to change the animal’s water). So they want an animal who has relatively simple basic needs. This can either mean that they don’t need things like specially controlled environments (like amphibians), or just that their food and environmental needs are commonly available at any store, and don’t need to be ordered on-line or bought from a specialist.
Occasionally, a novice may have helped care for family pets in the past, but they have time constraints (college students), so they might not mind an animal having more complex basic needs, but they want to be able to provide a low time commitment to caring for the animal.
In almost all cases, money is often a concern, so cheap to care for becomes part of the definition.
Most novice owners also recognize that, by definition, a beginner will make mistakes, and they want a pet who won’t be harmed by these mistakes. This component is often the most important to non-novices: one of my vets defined a good beginner pet as, “An animal which can’t be seriously damaged by minor mistakes made through ignorance.”
So, taking all of these considerations into account, a good beginner pet is one which:
- Has simple-to-meet basic needs
- Has a low time commitment
- Has a low average/expected cost of care
- Cannot be harmed by simple mistakes
What about beginner pets for children?
The answer to this question depends very much on what the parent means by a pet “for the child”.
Do you mean a pet that the kid can do 100% of the chores, with no supervision? There is no such pet. Get them a plant or a pet brick instead. The selfish, ignorant decision by parents to use an animal to “teach responsibility” is literally the #1 reason small animals die or end up in shelters:
I think it’s unfair to both the child and the pet to make pet care a burdensome task for a child. So there’s never an appropriate age to “make” a kid “learn responsibility”, not when another being’s life is at stake.
Now, if a child WANTS a pet, and claims to understand the responsibility involved, I still think it depends on how much the parents are planning to be involved. If your kid makes a mistake in care, or gets bored and whines that they don’t want to take care of the pet anymore, the parent MUST to be willing to make it a learning experience. By this I mean they must explain the ramifications of any mistakes, and if necessary, to be willing take over all the responsibilities without going the “well then we’re getting rid of it” route. There’s hardly a worse lesson to teach a child, than the idea that animals are disposable.
When I was growing up, we had “family” pets where, rather than teaching responsibility by forcing us to practice animal care, my parents demonstrated responsibility, by teaching that commitment to care was a prerequisite to enjoying an animal. For example, we weren’t allowed to take the dogs out on unaccompanied walks unless we had helped with their care every day for 3-4 days in a row. If we got bored, or busy with other childhood commitments – well, too bad, no walkies for us that week. This form of modeling responsibility I respected, even as a kid, and I think is an excellent way to do it.
So if by “good beginner pet for a child” you mean a pet that the adult will be, in word and deed, wholly responsible for, but the child will be “told” the pet is his and will be allowed to do a lot of the care, under supervision: Any pet that the parent can care for, is fine for a child to help with.
Now there’s one exception to this. You also have to consider the age of the child when allowing them to be around any animal (supervised OR unsupervised). Before a child should be allowed to participate in the care of an animal, the child needs to understand consequences (don’t poke the cat in the eye, don’t feed the dog your chocolate bar EVEN once), needs to be able to follow instructions (the cat gets one half-cup of CAT food, not a giant pile of dog food), and also needs to be old enough to have some control of their reactions.
I mention this last item, because a fairly young child may be able to follow a supervised cleaning/feeding schedule, but how old do they have to be to not instinctively react in ways that could harm an animal? When you’re holding something and it nips you (even gently), what’s the instinctive reaction? To open your hands and drop it. A fall from as little as 12″ can break a guinea pig’s leg (it’s happened to me). I’ve also seen kids get mouthed by puppies, and react by trying to hit the puppy. The kids mostly weren’t being malicious, they were just trying to push away the noxious stimulus of the perceived bite.
So even if the parent plans to supervise closely and take ultimate responsibility for animal care, a child should STILL not handle a pet without close adult supervision, unless they are old enough to be able to withstand a surprise nip without reacting harmfully towards the animal.
Tune in next time for Part Two, where I’ll talk about how to do enough research to determine whether a certain pet is right for you, and also some considerations about the costs of caring for a pet.
On August 12, we got an email requesting us to take in a sick pig:
I’m desperate! I have a sick guinea pig and I will be leaving to go out of town on Thursday for a wedding that my daughter is in. I don’t know what to do as I had planned on leaving the pig with a neighbor but I now feel that she needs more care than an inexperinced person. I do not have the time or resources to take her to a vet. I suspect a possible jaw malocclusion as she tries to eat but cannot seem to chew. She has diarhea and is losing weight. I really just noticed today how sick she is.
Can you or do you know of anyone who can help? I don’t want to put her down.
Normally, we don’t take owner surrenders, and this attitude is exactly the reason why. If your pig is sick and you cannot afford medical care, euthanasia is the only humane choice. But this person was seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility by dumping their problems on someone else. By helping them, we reinforce that this is acceptable behavior, rather than making them deal with the consequences of their choices. But my NC coordinators both badly wanted to take this poor piggy in, so I agreed.
My Charlotte coordinator Andrea went to get the piggy, named Trixie, from the owner. This horrible person was not even willing to donate even a DOLLAR to help cover vet care costs. Why? Because she had just spent $1,000 on her horse, and her daughter was in this wedding and had to buy a dress, and they both had to fly out, and it was all SO expensive.
Incidentally, she was only feeding the pig the cheapest, seed-filled, Walmart-brand pellets, and baby cereal (unacceptable under any circumstances).
Trixie seemed to have a raging upper respiratory infection. We took her to the vet on August 13th and got Baytril and a general physical exam, which showed no problems with her teeth. Andrea syringe fed her, gave her subcues, and there seemed to be improvement over the next day or so. She was even eating hay and drinking a little water on her own. Then on August 15 she took a turn for the worse. Andrea put her on the floor for playtime and Trixie completely freaked out, hobbling and trembling and doing weird little jumps. It was like a seizure but it wasn’t steady, it was like a popcorn only she squealed each time, like she was in pain. It was anywhere from a few seconds to a whole minute or two in between each one. Eventually these subsided and she seemed calm again. But Andrea knew Trixie definitely had something wrong with her joints and her shoulders/legs, and needed an X-ray to diagnose.
First thing the next morning, Andrea got Trixie in with Dr. Lauren Powers, who is one of the best exotics vets in NC. They did the X-rays and the findings were unbelievable: Trixie had almost no bones left. Every bone in her body was degraded, showing a swiss-cheese pattern similar to the calcium-leeching disease osteodystrophy. Only Trixie was not a satin. Our regular vet in Cary reviewed the X-rays and asked if she had been starved. Presumably, her condition was caused by terrible malnutrition. As is common in OD, her bones and joints were probably causing her tremendous pain, to the point where it hurt even to eat.
All of us were in shock (including both vets). Andrea dosed her up with pain meds, but we finally decided she would probably need to be euthanized. There are a few reports of OD being reversed through calcium supplementation, but given the extent of the the damage, and the amount of pain she was already displaying, we didn’t think we could give her a reasonable quality of life long enough to reverse the bone damage. We decided to wait till Monday in case our vets or anyone on GL came up with any better ideas.
On August 17, Trixie chose her own ending. Andrea found her dead in her cage around 4pm EST.
I’m so sorry, Trixie. I’m sorry your former owner was so heartless as to starve you to death because you weren’t worth spending money on. I’m sorry that three vets, $200 in diagnostics and medications, and all of our tears and anguish over the last five days weren’t enough to save you and give you a chance at a better life. I hope you find peace, comfort, and plenty of good food as the newest member of Death’s herd. You will find many new friends waiting for you there as well.
I’ve been keeping quiet, hoping to avoid attracting Death’s attention again, but it didn’t work. On August 13 we lost Chubby.
Chubby was #12 of the Jacksonville 48 rescue. He was a lovely pig, gold and agouti, and his only idiosyncrasy was that one day he randomly tried to murder the cagemate he’d been living with for over a year.
After that, we never successfully bonded him to any other pigs – he would go into full-on attack mode so quickly after starting an intro. He ended up living in a divided cage, which seemed to suit him fine. He could bully and swagger at the pigs on both sides, without having to work himself up too much. He was also incredibly lazy – his favorite game was pulling ALL the hay out of his manger, digging a nest, and eating his way out.
On the evening of the 13th we found that he had a hard lump on his belly. It was either a bowel obstruction, or a distended bladder. On the way to the e-vet he produced several lovely poops so we figured it was a bladder stone.
It was actually several stones. He had a huge, 4-5mm stone in his urethra, developing proto-stones in both of his kidneys, and an enormous 2cm calcification buried inside the lining of his bladder. The vet felt that there was almost no chance he would survive an operation to remove it, and we opted to euthanize.
Chubby was a funny, bossy pig who made up for his murderous ways by being very people-oriented. He was one of the tamest pigs we had, always ready for a nose rub or a c-tablet treat.
We’ll miss you, little guy. Say hi to all the others for us.
Piglet, our little toothless wonder, has been chosen as Sponsor A Guinea Pig’s Piggy of the Month! SAGP is run by the same wonderful person who runs the two adopt-a-guinea-pig blogs we link to (down there, on your right). This blog spotlights Sanctuary piggies all over the country and helps draw attention to their special needs and the needs (especially financial) of the rescues who care for them. We’re so grateful to SAGP for this great publicity opportunity!
Piglet is still going in every month for an anesthetized molar trim (which is where all the monthly medical costs come from) , but we did have a great breakthrough in the last month – she’s started to eat baby lettuce all by herself, not even needing it cut up! Other veggies still give her trouble, and we still haven’t seen her show any interest in hay, but at this point, any progress is good progress.