It’s been a long while since we’ve posted, but as many of you find, there’s just not that much time to spare these days. Rescue always gets harder when the economy is this bad. There are fewer people adopting animals, fewer people donating money, fewer people with time to foster, and many, many more animals being surrendered. The animals we do take in, stay with us longer and cost more money.
It’s unfortunate, but not surprising. With people struggling to make ends meet for themselves, they often find that they are faced with tough choices regarding their pets. People who have to work a second job find that they don’t have extra time to spend caring for their pets. People without a job don’t have money to put food on their own table, much less pay for pet food and vet bills. People are moving to smaller apartments, sometimes moving in with roomates, and their landlord either doesn’t allow pets, or they just don’t have room.
Unfortunately this also means that when an owner decides they have to rehome their pet, the prospects are not good.
Most people first try to find a new home through Craigslist or similar methods. From what we hear, this isn’t working any more – there are SO many animals available that it’s hard to find any takers, much less one you trust with a beloved pet. If your pet is older or has special needs, it’s almost impossible to find someone willing to shoulder the burden when there’s also so many babies available.
The next step is usually for the owner to contact a shelter. But most shelters are at or above capacity and are euthanizing at a higher than normal rate. The statistics are staggering: “Last year , at least 305,222 dogs and cats were dropped off at North Carolina shelters, and 214,475 were euthanized. The cost of handling all those animals is nearly $30 million. The real numbers are likely higher, because only 73 of 100 counties had reported their 2010 data to state government as of February.” (Source) Some shelters are outright refusing to accept animals, especially exotics like guinea pigs and rabbits, leaving owners seemingly without options.
So what can you do?
The first option is always to try to keep your pet. Fortunately, with a little ingenuity, it can be done! We’ve heard from scores of owners who have given up trying to rehome their pets and found many clever methods to keep them, and we wanted to share some of the ideas they’ve shared with us.
If space is an issue…
If you don’t have room for a grand 3′x7′ C&C cage anymore, that’s not necessarily a reason to give up your pets. Bigger is better, but if the choice is euthanasia, we’d rather see you keep your pets in a smaller space.
- For rabbits, use an expandable dog exercise pen as their cage. Fold it down to 2′x4′ or smaller when you’re home and need the extra space, but unfold it to give them room to exercise when you’re asleep or at work. Maybe you don’t have a rabbit-proof room that they can run around in anymore? Consider using a hallway, bathroom, or kitchen. Even though these spaces maybe aren’t as big as they were used to, as long as they can run back and forth a little, that may be enough for them. Again, just try to schedule their exercise for a time when you aren’t using that space. Jessica writes, “we hardly have any space in this apartment, but my husband lets me use his home office for the buns to run around in on Sundays while he’s watching sports. There’s tons of cords everywhere, so we just put a big fence around the edges and they can run around in the middle. It’s only once a week but they clearly benefit from it.”
- Guinea pigs can also accommodate to flexible caging that expands when you’ve got room. Sally writes: “I moved in with two roommates and one is allergic so I had to keep my guinea pigs in my bedroom, but it’s so tiny that I didn’t have anywhere to put their cage. Then I realized their C&C cage fits under the bed! When I leave for work, I pull it out, flip up the grids, and put them in it. They have to go back in a petstore cage when I get home but they get 8 hours a day in their old piggy palace.” Another owner wrote that she put her rat’s cage in a walk-in closet – “I just have to make sure I leave the door open when I leave so they get some sunlight.”
- If you can’t sleep with pets in the bedroom, we’ve heard of plenty of other creative cage locations. One adopter built a shelf above her front-loading washer & dryer for the pig cage. Another realized that they rarely use their dining room table, so the pigs are now underneath – “we almost always eat in the kitchen, anyhow. For holidays we just move the cage for a day or two.” One especially creative family assembled their kids’ old bunk-bed in the TV room above the television, and put their pigs’ C&C cage on the top bunk! “We have to use a stepstool to clean it, but it means they’re out with family and get more attention, and we enjoy watching their antics even more than watching TV.”
If time is an issue…
“I just don’t have the time to give them the attention they need” is the most common reason we hear from people needing to surrender their pets. But really, as long as you have time to feed them, clean them, and give them once-a-week health checks, they’ll still be healthy and happy without daily cuddle time.
- Most small animals are usually perfectly happy without human attention, as long as they have a same-species companion. It may seem counter-intuitive, but maybe adopting a friend for your single piggy or bunny will lessen the time you have to spend with them, rather than increase it. One adopter wrote “I had to take a job where I travel every week and although my husband was good at keeping him fed and cleaned, [my bunny] Snickers just wasn’t getting any attention. Then I adopted Hershey to be his friend and I don’t feel so bad now because they have each other.”
- You can also save time by changing your petcare routine a little. Most people find that using cage blankets or fleece as bedding requires less cleaning time than using wood shavings. If you normally feed your pets in the morning when you’re already rushed, try doing their big feeding at night instead. Using an extra big hay manger or two water bottles may give you the peace of mind to skip an extensive morning routine. Rather than making their salad every day, spend an hour on the weekend cutting up veggies, and package it in multiple single serving tupperwares so it’s quicker to distribute during the busy work week!
If food bills are an issue…
Guinea pigs and rabbits mostly eat grass, so why does it seem like their food is so expensive?! Here’s some tips to cut food costs:
- Buy hay in bulk. It doesn’t go bad as long as you keep it dry so it doesn’t mold, and keep it cool and out of sunlight so it doesn’t go brown. A 50-lb box of hay costs $50, which is a dollar per pound. A 40-oz bag (2.5lbs) costs $8, which is over $3 per pound! 50 lbs should last two pigs or rabbits about 6 months so it’s not a frequent expense – that makes it worth the hassle of a long drive or ordering online if you don’t have a supplier near you who can get the big boxes.
- Start a hay co-op. Check with your local shelter or rescue – where do they get their hay, and can you buy some from them? Some rescues buy in bulk from local growers and are willing to resell at incredible discounts. You can also search for other owners in your area and go in together on bulk purchases from online retailers like Kleenmama’s Hayloft. This can often give you huge savings on shipping charges!
- Find veggies at your local farmer’s market or community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. Veggies are much cheaper when they’re locally grown, because there’s no transport or distribution costs; your money goes right to the farmer. You might even be able to exchange litterbox compost for veggies! Search for local CSAs here.
- Check the grocery stores for discount veggies. Grocers have to sort their produce at least once a day to remove items which are going bad or are too bruised to sell. Stop in on your way home and ask the produce manager if you can have some of what they’re throwing away! You may have to do a bit of sorting to find the peppers and romaine among the onions and cabbages, but it’s definitely worth it. Bagged salad mix is an especially easy thing to find – has to be thrown away by the printed expiration date, but it’s usually still perfectly fresh. Just don’t feed the kinds that have iceberg lettuce in them.
- Reduce pellets. Because pellets are the most “processed” of pig and rabbit foods, it’s the most expensive per unit. The more hay and veggies you feed, the less pellets you need. Reducing pellets can also reduce vet bills by reducing the incidence of bladder stones and tooth problems.
If vet bills are an issue…
Speaking of vet bills – the most expensive part of owning an animal, this is also the hardest cost to control, but these tips can get you started:
- Prevention is cheaper than treatment. It’s always cheaper to provide preventative care than to provide emergency care, so don’t let health fall by the wayside, even when times are toughest. Weigh your pets EVERY week to spot illness early. Feed a good diet to prevent the leading illnesses, which are obesity, tooth malocclusion, and bladder stones. If you think your pet is sick, get treatment immediately, rather than waiting to see if it will “just get better”. It usually won’t, and the treatment costs usually triple if you wait till the animal is visibly ill.
- Start an emergency fund. Put one, five, or ten dollars a week – whatever you can possibly spare – into an emergency vet fund. Giving up just one venti frappachino per week can give you a nest egg of over $250 in one year! If you’re crafty, you might find a unique way to raise a little money – several of our friends have started selling craft items on Etsy to help build up a little extra cash for their pets’ vet needs.
- Find a vet before you need one. If you aren’t already on a first-name basis with your vet, you should be! Just talk to them. Find out which clinics extend credit or offer payment plans. Find out which emergency clinics see small exotics, and which ones are cheapest for the initial consult. Don’t hesitate to look outside your immediate area – if an hour’s drive to a distant vet saves you $200, that’s more than worth the extra gas you spend!
- Check your local shelter for vetcare options. Some shelters and rescues offer free nail trim clinics, low-cost spay or neuter, and even free wellness checks. They sometimes don’t advertise these services except for cats and dogs, so you may have to do some phone work to find which ones also provide services to pocket pets. Some even offer low-cost euthanasia and cremation services, in case your pet is very ill.
- Take advantage of your vet school. If you live near a vet school you’re living on a gold mine. They frequently offer free or dramatically reduced care services if you’ll let your pet be treated by a student doctor. You may not feel comfortable with this if your pet has a serious illness, but use this resource for preventative wellness visits, it’s like getting a free checkup!
We hope this information is helpful to you, and we’d love to hear your other suggestions or stories of how you made these ideas work for you.
We received an inquiry today that I thought I would share:
Hi I’m curious why so much money for a sick hedgehog?
I would like to get more information on Emma who I found on Petfinder.com: http://petfinder.com/petdetail/18594889
Sent from my iPod
We often receive emails like this, trying to dicker prices with us, or asking why our prices are “so expensive”. We responded to her email explaining why we charge what we do:
Hi Tammy, and thanks for your inquiry. Since you’re surfing from your iPod, you may not be able to correctly read all of Emma’s story. As noted in the first paragraph in bright red writing:
Note! Emma is currently undergoing medical treatment and won’t be available for adoption until she’s healthy. She is listed only so we can try to find her a forever home to go to when she’s well!
This means that Emma will not be available to go home until she completes her medical care. (Ie, until she is no longer “sick”.)
On average each animal we rescue costs us approximately $250 in veterinary bills and boarding. This ranges from the smallest mouse (adopted out at $5), to the most expensive animals like parrots. We average a loss of $100 per animal for each animal that we rehome. These animals are abandoned at local shelters and directly with our rescue, typically because negligent owners buy them as pets and are unprepared or unwilling to spend money on them when they become ill.
Our adoptions fees are designed to help defray some of the cost of making sure that these exotic animals receive care and do not suffer horribly and die from neglect. Because of this, we must spend our own money out of pocket in order to afford this medical care. Of the approximate $15,000 our organization spent on veterinary care last year, over 50% came directly from our board members.
While it would be nice to offer these homeless animals “cheaply”, in the end it does them a terrible disservice as people looking for “bargains” decide that they can now afford a ‘used’ hedgehog. These types of homes typically are unaware of the expensive husbandry needs of exotic species, and we feel that it is unfair to take an already neglected and abandoned animal and place them directly back into the situation from which they escaped.
If you wish to support our cause without adoption, please feel free to donate directly to us at allcreaturesrescue.org
Thank you for your continued support!
ACR&S does make it their policy to seek veterinary care for all animals that they take in, and to be completely up front and honest about any issues an animal may have. We realize that in the case of animals with chronic behavioral or health issues that this may mean they’re with us for a long time — even for the rest of their lives. But we are committed to providing care for those animals that have been failed once already by those unwilling to provide basic husbandry.
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.
Well, I recently posted about some of my early kitten-rescue days and I’ve been asked to elaborate on that story. It was my first experience working with an organized rescue, and really helped set the stage for later opening my own rescue, so here you go:
Back in 1998, I accidentally got involved in cat rescue. I was living in a smallish apartment complex in High Point, NC; small enough that my landlord lived in the apartment across from me. She was an animal lover, and knew I was too, although at this point I didn’t have any pets apart from my birds.
One morning my landlord called and said, “Um, can you come over? I need your help!” I trooped over and found that she had rescued a litter of five tiny baby kittens. There was some construction being done in the back of the complex, and they’d been huddled in the shade under a bulldozer. She had to move them or they would have been crushed. After several hours of not seeing any sign of the momma cat, the landlady gave up and brought them home.
She wanted to know if I knew anything about cats, and could I help her raise them. I told her what little I knew (that she needed to buy KMR [kitten milk replacement] and wipe their butts to get them to defecate). She asked me to take them – I balked, having never raised kittens, and not being particularly fond of them in the first place. Well, if I couldn’t take the kittens, could I help her find a home for this older cat that she had rescued a few months earlier?
So I started calling around, looking for rescues who would take or help us place this cat and the kittens. I found a group called Feral Cat Management (now the Feral Cat Assistance Program). The weren’t a shelter, they explained, but if my landlord and I could keep the cats as their foster parents, they could provide vet care, spay/neuter, even litter and food, and of course help with placement.
With my costs covered, I had no problem being talked into fostering my landlord’s older kitten. The landlord definitely had her hands full with five infants needing to be bottle-fed and butt-wiped, so even though it wasn’t my problem, I couldn’t refuse. Enter Belle, AKA Jezebel, dually named for her beauty and for the tawdry way she would stick her bottom in your face to be petted. She was about 4 months old, another kitten from the feral colony who lived behind the apartment complex.
After about a month, Belle was old enough to be spayed and start going to adoption events. At this point, my landlord begged me to take the five younger kittens. They were eating solid food and using a litterbox, so it wasn’t as bad as it would have been a month ago. I think she used the excuse that she had her own human baby, who was learning to walk and starting to require more active supervision. For whatever reason, I agreed, and now I had six crazy furballs in my house.
FCAP was as good as their word, and covered all my costs except toys and a few supplies. They helped me get one kitten after another placed, and I found that I really enjoyed helping them. I enjoyed going to adoption events, I enjoyed meeting adopters, I enjoyed watching the kittens explore their new homes. One by one, the herd dwindled.
Now, to reiterate: I had never before, as an adult, owned a cat. I didn’t even particularly like cats. But I was a sucker. And that was clear to the good folks at FCAP. I didn’t have cats of my own, therefore, I had no personal kitties who would be at risk if I could be persuaded to foster the, um, difficult cats. As the original Gang of Six started to be adopted, FCAP asked, or rather begged, me to take one cat after another who, for various reasons, couldn’t be placed into a foster home where the foster parent had cats of their own:
There was Abbie, who had explosive diarrhea of unknown origin. It got worse due to the very known origin of eating an entire pound cake while I was away for Christmas vacation (a pound cake given to me by the FCAP petsitter, left sitting on the counter by said petsitter, while I was out of town).
There was Yoda, who taught me that tapeworm eggs look just like sesame seeds.
There was Ghost, who at eight weeks old was the most hateful, feral little monster ever. He bit and scratched whenever he was handled; I still bear the scars. After three months he was among the friendliest cat I’d ever seen.
There was Maggie, who had ringworm. For sixteen weeks I had to bathe the cat, the laundry room, all her supplies, and myself, in bleach and sulfur dip, twice a day. I STILL caught a spot of it on my arm.
There was Tang, who had a urinary tract infection that had to be treated with antibiotic tablets. I learned that cats can have a pill shoved 8″ down their esophagus and still hork it back up without swallowing it. I also learned that a 170 lb adult male human is not stronger than a 3 lb kitten when the kitten is holding onto the underside of the couch and does not want to be pulled out to take his pill.
In just 10 months, I had fostered a total of 11 cats for FCAP. I had not had less than three foster cats in that entire time. If only I had known what I was getting into when I agreed to take that ONE, first kitten.
We started to think about moving to Chapel Hill, so I had to tell them that I needed to wind down my foster role. My last foster was in the early fall of 1999, a young adult cat with FIV. When she got adopted, it was so weird to come home and think I didn’t have a single litter box to clean, a single food bowl to fill.
Less than six months later, I met my first guinea pig…
Here’s another tale from the very early days of rescue, sometime in early 2003. WARNING: this one might be considered a bit graphic for delicate sensibilities. Please proceed at your own risk.
One of my guinea pigs died unexpectedly on Sunday the 9th. I called over to the local vet school, to a friend who is a vet pathologist, to get a necropsy done. She agreed, but since this would be done on her own time and for free, I couldn’t take him into the clinic as I usually would for a necropsy. She instructed me to take him to a walk-in cooler located the maze of alleys behind the vet school. This cooler is left unlocked 24-7 for the various clinics to drop off their unclaimed, deceased animals after business hours; the vet students can then practice their budding surgical skills on them. I was instructed to put him in a box and label it, and she would pick it up the next time she was on call.
In her directions, she warned me that “there might be a carcass or two in there”. Now, I’ve worked at a vet clinic, and seen the inside of the clinic necropsy freezer, so this didn’t bother me – usually it means the animal was too big for a box, so you see a black plastic bag with the stiffened limbs of a dead cat or dog tenting up the plastic. This can be disconcerting if you come across it unexpectedly, but it’s not particularly disturbing.
I wasn’t able to take him over that same day, so I kept him in the fridge overnight, planning to take him to the cooler the following day. The next day, Monday, my boss had a meeting with an important sponsor, so I had to dress up at work – something I never have to do. I didn’t take time to change after work, as the vet school was about 45 minutes out of my way anyhow, so I’m traipsing out there, with my dead piggy in a box, wearing skirt and hose and heels.
Now, the cooler is not exactly where she said it would be – it’s supposed to be a big metal door on the left, but instead, it’s on the right. It’s also not marked. I finally see a tiny, hand-lettered sign that says “Refuse Cooler”. Refuse? Whatever. That must be it.
I got out of the car, with the sad little box containing my dead pig in hand. I was immediately aware of a strong smell. Not quite the stink of road kill, but definitely the scent of blood and death. Hoo boy. This must be the right place.
The cooler had this big metal door latch which you lift like an old-fashioned refrigerator handle. One-handed, it took me a few seconds of struggling with it to get it open. I pulled the door ajar and headed into the dimly-lit interior of the cooler.
The next events happened in the span of just a second or two, far less time than it takes to describe:
The cooler was about 10 feet wide, and about 20 deep. I could see the shelves, way back against the opposite wall, labeled necropsy boxes and bags here and there under the single, low-watt bulb. As I stepped over the threshold I saw a gleam at floor level. Another step, and it resolved itself into a horseshoe. What struck me, in that instant before recognition dawned, was that the shoe was shiny, bright metal. The horse wearing that shoe must have been newly shod and kept in a very clean stall for that shoe to be so pristine.
My eyes started to adjust; I take another half-step, and I see that the shoe was attached in the normal way to a hoof and leg. The leg was attached in the normal way to a body. The body was attached in the normal way to a head and three other legs, but also, in a most un-normal way, to a huge pile of intestines and other organs which were stacked neatly between the four outflung limbs. In the middle of the cooler, spanning it completely, was a dead, eviscerated horse.
I took a deep, reflexive breath – a mistake as that filled my lungs with the scent of old, raw meat. I backed over the threshold and slammed the door. I didn’t depress the latch properly and it rebounded open again. It took me three tries to get it to click shut. I think I must have looked a little panicky.
I had to stand on the edge of the loading dock and concentrate on not throwing up for a few seconds. It wasn’t that I was bothered by there being a horse in the middle of the damn floor. It wasn’t the fact that it was dead. It wasn’t even the fact that it was eviscerated. It was the overwhelming triple play: THERE IS A DEAD, EVISCERATED HORSE ALL OVER THE FREAKIN’ FREEZER. It was just utterly incongruous with all those shelves of neatly labeled bags and boxes.
Eventually I steeled myself and went back in. I just forced myself not look down, and focused on holding my skirt clear of the pile of innards. I had to step around the pile, over the front legs, and over the neck to get back to the shelves. A horse is a ENORMOUS animal when it’s laying, disemboweled, across the entire width of a 10-foot-wide cooler.
Despite keeping my eyes firmly fixed on the back wall, I did take in details peripherally. The horse had an IV line draped over its neck, needle still taped in place. It was brown (dark bay for you horsey people) and the mane and tail were neatly trimmed. The eyes were closed. There was no blood – apart from the gaping abdomen, the collapsed ribcage, and the tidy heap of entrails, it might have been asleep.
I put my pig in his box onto the shelf, and did the carefully avoidant little dance back to the door, thankfully without brushing up against any guts at all. On the way home I came to several mental conclusions:
1. It’s not everyday you get to use the word “eviscerated” to tell someone how your day went.
2. I had no desire to smell steak cooking ever again.
3. My vet-pathologist friend is a master of understatement.
Of course, after the shock wore off, I wondered about the horse and its fate. Had it been ill? Why was it disemboweled – was it a difficult birth gone horribly wrong? If there was a foal, did they save it? This was just a macabre minor chapter in my story, but it was the climax of someone else’s tragedy.
To this day, I am struck by the clean, shiny shoes; the trimmed, brushed mane and tail; the closed eyes; the incredible, bizarre neatness of the piled organs. That horse was not “refuse”; someone loved it and cared for it and treated it with dignity, right up to the moment they closed the cooler door on its body.
But sometimes, you just don’t get to find out how the story ends.
It was October of 2004 when I decided that I would really like a much larger fish tank. We currently had a 10 gallon tank, with a few little bottom feeding catfish and some guppies. I enjoyed watching the fish (as did our cat), and they were fairly rewarding pets. But my 10 gallon tank was as stocked as it was going to get without killing everything.
Our family traditionally exchanges “want” lists at Thanksgiving so we’ve got some time to shop, and so I requested gift cards to a pet shop so that I could expand my watery kingdom. I dutifully received a several gift cards from my family, and I started planning. But then I realized a major flaw in my plan. A bigger tank meant hauling a lot more water around our house. It also meant a lot more cleaning. We started to rethink the whole “bigger tank” idea. But we had a huge stack of pet store gift cards.
And so, a few fateful days after Christmas, we went in to “see what we could see”. And we met a little walking mop that
we couldn’t leave behind. I was fascinated with these weird little rodents. I knew what guinea pigs were, of course, but I’d never dreamed of owning one. I wheedled my patient boyfriend, and he conceded. We fetched the salesperson, and were told that they were really social, and two would be better. I quickly picked out a second pig, a light butterscotch colored short-haired pig. The salesperson advised me again buying that one, as he had “some sort of weird gunk all over his eyes and face”.
If only I knew then what I knew now.
But at the time I didn’t realize there were guinea pigs in rescue. I knew about dog and cat rescues (in fact, we’d adopted a dog the year earlier from the local SPCA), and even thought that people could not really abandon a 2 lb rodent. I mean, really, they weighed 2 lbs.
So I picked the “runner up” to the butterscotch pig, a dark chocolate colored pig, and walked around with the salesperson buying all the equipment I would need — a “huge” cage that was roughly 5 square feet, some delicious guinea pig mix completely with seeds, a small bag of hay (“because it was a good treat”), a bottle of vitamins for the water, some aspen shavings for bedding, bowls, water bottles, hidey houses, and tunnels. I did not buy a ball because she said they would pee it in and get messy.
The little white mop became Gizmo, and the chocolate pig became Mogwai.
So I got home, set up my pigs, and then started doing my research (in the complete opposite way of how it should be done). I realized that I hadn’t done a very good job with my poor pigs. I went out, got some coroplast and cubes to make a C&C cage, improved their food, started feeding them LOTS of hay, and started giving them vegetables.
And then I noticed that Gizmo was scratching and wheezing. I called our vet at the time, who’s specialty was dog and cat medicine, but who “saw” guinea pigs, and took home some antibiotics and treated everybody with ivermectin. It was at this point, I felt like I was really in over my head. I hit the internet, and it was there that I found ACR&S.
Susan immediately jumped in and started offering support — by recommending a more specialized exotics vet in our area, teaching me how to handfeed, and helping me cope with what turned out to be a very sick pig.
Our initial visit to the better vet was not comforting. Gizmo has serious pneumonia, and his lungs sounded terrible. The prognosis wasn’t good, but this vet was much more in the know about guinea pigs. He received subcutaneous fluids, stronger antibiotics, a probiotic to help his system handle the antibiotics, and a bag of Critical Care to help me handfeed. And at that point, is was me vs. pneumonia.
Although Gizmo was obviously very sick, his breathing sounding at times like a roaring blizzard, very limp, and rapidly losing weight, he attacked the Critical Care with gusto. He absolutely loved it! And his will to fight gave me hope. So I made a small “holding” bag, and would carry him around the house with me, feeding him almost constantly.
After a week and a half, his wheezing was better, but not gone. We went back to the vet, where she cultured some of his mucous and determined that he had bordetella. It was surprising he was alive, as bordetella often kills guinea pigs very quickly. But she warned me that it would take a lot of effort to take care of it.
And so the next 6 months was an ongoing trial of antibiotic courses, followed by the wheezing returning, followed by antibiotic courses. Finally, he stopped wheezing, and, miraculously, it didn’t return. During this time, we spent between $500-$800 on diagnostics, Critical Care, medication, and vet visits. It was like a bucket of cold water to what I thought was a low maintenance, “cheap” pet.
When Gizmo was finally healthy, he was about a year old. In honor of Gizmo, I joined ACR&S and began fostering, so that other people, and other pigs, would not have to go through what we went through!
Gizmo was truly a special pig. He wheeked the loudest, and was the most demanding. He was always hungry (though he was always a petite pig), and would climb the sides of the cage, dangling and screaming for food as though he hadn’t been fed in years.
A consummate slob, he required frequent haircuts to keep him in a somewhat livable state (although as you can see from the picture, I was not a very adept hair stylist). He would frequently wade into a pile of vegetables and lie down, so it wasn’t unusual to find a purple, blue, red, or orange stained pig wandering around seemingly very pleased with himself.
Then, in July of 2007, I found in his his pigloo, wheezing. I rushed him to the vet first thing in the morning, and we immediately started him on antibiotics and started handfeeding him. I took him into the vet on Thursday. Friday morning he was noticeably worse. Saturday we started giving him IV fluids. Sunday he was prone, his breathing rattling and strained and terrible as he struggled, panicked, every time we came near. He refused to chew food, and I truly believe he didn’t recognize me. Monday morning I was at the vet, and we helped him to leave, and be out of his pain. The vet said his lungs sounded terrible, and that she didn’t feel there was anything we could do to pull him back.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I cried the whole time, and the whole way home. What Susan had told me prior to the appointment was right — driving over a speed bump and realizing that you didn’t have to go over it as gently any more because the animal in your carrier won’t care if he’s jostled is the worst, and most terrible feeling in the world. And it still is. It never gets easier.
It was the vet’s opinion that his first, terrible bout with bordetella had permanently scarred his lungs, and perhaps had damaged his sinus tissues, maybe weakened his heart. It was like a punch in the stomach. My little sticky blueberry stained friend died at 3 years old because of the conditions that he came from.
When he was originally sick, I contacted the big box pet store I bought him from about 3 months into our ordeal. I complained, and asked why they would let the animals suffer like that. I asked why I’d been sent home with an animal who had obviously been exposed to other sick animals? (Remember the butterscotch pig?) And the manager said a phrase which I will never forget. “You signed a contract.” I hadn’t managed to complain in a 10 day window. So they didn’t care. I was told that “none of the of the other pigs had been returned as sick”. I suspect many of them probably died. I know now, working as a rescuer that we are sought out by many individuals after their pet store animals have died.
To that corporation, my little friend’s life was a matter of contract. They were legally safe, ergo it was not their problem that they had internally crippled a tiny little animal and doomed him to being euthanized in the prime of his life, wheezing and helpless and confused.
Gizmo’s legacy has been my rescue work, first as an advocate, going to events, and talking to the public, then as a foster home, and finally taking over as the local coordinator. When you volunteer with animals, you always know the number of dead. I have lost 2 gerbils, 1 hamster, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 rat since starting to rescue. I remember them all, and I relive the sadness of their passing each time I remember it.
What I don’t know is how many animals we have, directly or indirectly, saved. How many guinea pigs never had to suffer quietly through a respiratory infection, because people learned about them through us? How many guinea pigs never starved while sick, because we taught them to handfeed? How many rabbits recovered because we helped someone find a vet? How many of our adopters have reached out with the knowledge that we equipped them with, and improved the life of the classroom pet, the niece’s guinea pig, or the rabbit purchased on Easter? In the end, you can never number the living, and that was the most important thing that I learned from Gizmo.
By this time, almost everyone “knows” that cedar is a dangerous bedding choice for small animals. The strong odor (which repels insects, making it a great bedding choice for dogs or horses) is known to be harmful to the lungs of smaller animals such as rodents, rabbits, birds, and reptiles.
Pine is often lumped in with cedar – they are both softwoods, and related, and have similar odors. But there’s still an ongoing “war” about whether pine is actually as dangerous as cedar, or not. The anti-pine people don’t typically cite references, so their evidence is considered anecdotal by the pro-pine people.
Someone recently posed the question: can the anti-pine people find real, scientific, studies demonstrating pine’s harmful effects on animals?
The answer is YES.
Here’s a mostly-well-referenced article which cites several studies which found ill effects due to pine phenols:
Pine and cedar toxins affect more than the respiratory tract (4). Several studies (5,8,14,15) have shown that rodents kept on softwood beddings have elevated levels of liver enzymes. The liver is the body’s detoxification system, and elevated liver enzymes indicate that the body is working harder to eliminate toxins.
Two studies are cited as saying that heat treated pine (kiln-dried) is better than regular pine, but kiln-dried pine still may have some ill effects:
If pine or cedar shavings are heat-treated or soaked in a solvent, so that some of the phenols are removed, the effects are not as great, but still occur (14,15).
Now, these studies seem to lump pine and cedar together. Do any studies differentiate whether pine is less harmful than cedar? Yes, but the study found pine is the second most dangerous bedding next to cedar:
Another study goes even further. It concludes that rats and mice kept on four bedding types were affected most by red cedar, but that white pine was the next most hepatotoxic bedding…(2)
Here are the references cited in this article. I’ve linked to the abstract/free full text whenever possible:
01. Ayars, G.H., Altman, L.C., Frazier, C.E., and Chi, EY.;1989; The toxicity of constituents of cedar and pine woods to pulmonary epithelium; Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology; 83: 610-18
02. Cunliffe-Beamer, T., Freeman, L.C. and Myers, D.D.;1981; Barbituate sleeptime in mice exposed to autoclaved or unautoclaved wood beddings; Laboratory Animal Science; 31 (6): 672-675.
03. Daly, C.H. (DVM); 2002; Rats A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual; Barrons; New York.
04. Ducommun, D.; ©1999-2002; The Toxicity of Pine and Cedar Shavings; The Rat Report; http://www.ratfanclub.org/litters.html; Retrieved on 28 Apr 2007
05. Ferguson, H.C. (1966) Effect of red cedar chip bedding on hexobarbital and pentobarbital sleep time. Journal of Pharm. Science, 55 p.1142-8
06. Harkness, J.F. and Wagner, J.; 1995; The Biology and Medicine of Rabbits and Rodents, fourth edition; Lea and Febiger; Philadelphia.
07. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS); Foster Volunteer Handbook, A Reference Guide for Rabbit/Small Mammal Foster Care Volunteers; http://www.petfoster.org/Documents/Rabbit_small_mammal_manual.doc; Retrieved on 4 May 2007
08. Jori, A. et al.;1969; Effect of essential oils on drug metabolism; Biochemical Pharmacology; 18: 2081-5
09. Safe Pet Bedding (FAQ); Originally created and posted by Emily Rocke; http://www.aracnet.com/~seagull/faq/beddingfaq.shtml; Retrieved on 4 May 2007
10. reference 10 missing
11. TeSelle, E.R.; 1993; The Problem with pine: a discussion of softwood beddings; AFRMA Rat & Mouse Tales News-Magazine, July–October 1993; American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association; http://www.afrma.org/rminfo2a.htm; Retrieved 8 September 2007
12. Trees for Life; http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/tfl.aspen_entomological.html; Retrieved 9 September 2007
13. Perring, F.H. and WALTERS, S.M.; 1976; Atlas of the British Flora. Botanical Society of the British Isles. Second Edition; Wakefield
14. Vesell, Elliot S. (1967) Induction of Drug-Metabolizing Enzymes in Liver Microsomes of Mice and Rats by Softwood Bedding. Science, 157:1057-8
15. Weichbrod, Robert H. et al, (1988) Effects of cage beddings on microsomal oxidative enzymes in rat liver; Laboratory Animal Science; 38 (3): 296-8
Here’s another source, this one by a well-known and respected reptile expert. She goes so far as to recommend not using prey which has been housed on cedar. She also recently (2007) came to the conclusion that pine was not a good choice for reptiles, despite the fact that there are very few reptile-subject studies on the topic.
Here are her references (links to abstracts). Many of these are much more recent:
Ayars GH, Altman LC, Frazier CE, Chi EY. (1989) The toxicity of constituents of cedar and pine woods to pulmonary epithelium. J Allergy Clin Immunol 1989 Mar;83(3):610-8
Campagnolo ER, Trock SC, Hungerford LL, Shumaker TJ, Teclaw R, Miller RB, Nelson HA, Ross F, Reynolds DJ. Outbreak of vesicular dermatitis among horses at a midwestern horse show. J Am Vet Med Assoc 1995 Jul 15;207(2):211-3
Feron VJ, Arts JH, Kuper CF, Slootweg PJ, Woutersen RA. Health risks associated with inhaled nasal toxicants. Crit Rev Toxicol 2001 May;31(3):313-47
Kacergis JB, Jones RB, Reeb CK, Turner WA, Ohman JL, Ardman MR, Paigen B. Air quality in an animal facility: particulates, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J 1996 Jul;57(7):634-40
Thomas JC, Carlton DL, Barzak PF. An improved method for evaluating hardwood animal bedding products. Lab Anim (NY) 2001 Jun;30(6):43-6
Pelkonen KH, Hanninen OO. Cytotoxicity and biotransformation inducing activity of rodent beddings: a global survey using the Hepa-1 assay. Toxicology 1997 Sep 26;122(1-2):73-80
Potgieter FJ, Wilke PI. Laboratory animal bedding: a review of specifications and requirements. J S Afr Vet Assoc 1991 Sep;62(3):143-6
Potgieter FJ, Wilke PI, van Jaarsveld H, Alberts DW. The in vivo effect of different bedding materials on the antioxidant levels of rat heart, lung and liver tissue. J S Afr Vet Assoc 1996 Mar;67(1):27-30
Torronen R, Pelkonen K, Karenlampi S. Enzyme-inducing and cytotoxic effects of wood-based materials used as bedding for laboratory animals. Comparison by a cell culture study. Life Sci 1989;45(6):559-65. Erratum in Life Sci 1989;45(24):2381
Vandenput S, Istasse L, Nicks B, Lekeux P. Airborne dust and aeroallergen concentrations in different sources of feed and bedding for horses. Vet Q 1997 Nov;19(4):154-8
Vogelzang PF, van der Gulden JW, Folgering H, Heederik D, Tielen MJ, van Schayck CP. Longitudinal changes in bronchial responsiveness associated with swine confinement dust exposure. Chest 2000 May;117(5):1488-95
Ward PL, Wohlt JE, Katz SE. Chemical, physical, and environmental properties of pelleted newspaper compared to wheat straw and wood shavings as bedding for horses. J Anim Sci 2001 Jun;79(6):1359-69
Welker JA, Zaloga GP. Pine oil ingestion: a common cause of poisoning. Chest 1999 Dec; 116(6): 1822-6
Weichbrod RH, Cisar CF, Miller JG, Simmonds RC, Alvares AP, Ueng TH. Effects of cage beddings on microsomal oxidative enzymes in rat liver. Lab Anim Sci 1988 Jun;38(3):296-8
Whelan G. The influence of cage bedding on the metabolism of sulphobromophthalein sodium by an hepatic cytosol-located enzyme system. Aust J Biol Sci 1975 Feb;28(1):25-9
Overall, it looks like there is a good scientific basis for the common belief that pine (and of course cedar) are potentially harmful choices for bedding. As in the past, ACR&S continues to recommend that owners are conservative in their bedding choices, and use aspen (a hardwood which does not produce phenols) or recycled-paper based beddings for guinea pigs and rabbits.
Quote of the day:
I am sometimes asked ‘Why do you spend so much of your time and money talking about kindness to animals when there is so much cruelty to men?’ I answer: ‘I am working at the roots.’
- George T. Angell, 1823-1909, MSPCA founder and humane education advocate
As most of the readers of this blog know, ACR&S is based in NC, but I’m up in Wisconsin. I do the email/website/admin stuff and the Sanctuary work, but the greater burden of daily rescue work down in NC is done by the Amazing Jenn. She joined us first as a random stranger interested in pigs, then as a foster home/adopter, and is now the boss of everything in NC.
Jenn’s been flying solo for just over a year now, and recently I asked her how she was handling all of it. This is what she said:
All the traveling is kind of a pain in the ass — but on the other hand, I think it’s good to be there at the home to let the pigs settle in. It’s amazing how people can sound great on paper, and look great in pictures, and then you get there and they’re feeding a seed mix. Or they’re just doing something really stupid because they didn’t have someone to tell them any different. On the other hand, I feel we’re succeeding because 90% of our adoptive homes, even with the really stupid added in, are probably better than where the pigs would end up if left in the shelter, since we have screened these folks to a degree and educated them somewhat.
I do feel like I’ve become more cynical. I feel like what we’re aiming for is not so much perfect care, but just somebody that gives a damn and will try their best. More and more, I think we are just trying to buy a good death. Someone who doesn’t let the pig die after a week of starvation because they didn’t know pigs went to the vet, but who will let them die at the vet, or after having had a course of antibiotics and Critical Care. I haven’t lost belief that good husbandry is important, because I do think everything deserves as optimal a life as possible… but on the other hand, GL is full of people giving near optimal husbandry and still beset with bladder stones, heart problems, etc.
The worst part of the traveling is the money. Gas is expensive. I would love to get a mountain person and a beach person to anchor rescue branches in that area. I dread driving to Charlotte tomorrow to pull that sow. Three hours one way. Yeesh. But that’s about the worst of it. On the other hand, I LOVE driving to Virginia. I love the Bojangles’ restaurant that looks like a houseboat. I like meeting pig people, overall. Most are pretty nice. I really liked meeting Vicki at Cave Spring, she’s super-nice, and very unassuming. And her pigs are always ridiculously friendly. And potato shaped.
Probably the toughest part is being the only rodent person down here. People really thinks I’m silly when I insist on quarantines for animals, vet checks, or insist on helping people bond two pigs, etc. Dog and cat people just seem to have it easier. But cavy adopters are ridiculous, and flip out at the least bit of rumbling. Good thing they don’t have big pigs: Penny [head of the local pot belly pig rescue, and an ACR&S foster parent] says they just have to let them fight until they stop, and then go stitch both of them up.
Long rambling short, the work is simultaneously very rewarding (I left Popcorn and Peanut’s adoption and sat in the car and cried because it was such a good home), and the most depressing thing I’ve ever been involved with (I left the home of one surrender where the children *cheered* as their shit-caked, starving, mite-infested pigs left, and had to pull over and cry there, too).
A huge gold star
and a big hug to Jenn for shouldering this incredible burden. Anyone who wants to contribute some gas money or Bojangles’ gift certificates, it would be much appreciated!
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