For parents it is important to demonstrate positive behaviour concerning animal care. Through the example of their parents, children can learn to be responsible and respectful of their pet. It is up to the parents to explain to their children that animals are sentient creatures, that they have special needs and can experience pain and discomfort, for example, if they are mishandled. The development stage when children tend to ask the 'why' question a lot is a perfect opportunity for parents to inform children about their pet.
When children are old enough to start helping with caretaking activities on a smaller scale, they can be included in the daily care of the pet, for example:
The enclosure design is very important for the well-being of every animal. An unsuitable enclosure can lead to boredom, fear, and stress for the pet. Each small mammal species has very specific design needs, e.g., rats love to climb and are very active, rabbits need a lot of space so they can move naturally. The enclosure structure needs to made perfect for the pet. Involving children in the design of the enclosure will be very educational for them, children can explore what their pet’s needs are and how an enclosure can be made to meet these needs.
A clean enclosure is an important component for a healthy life of a pet. The daily maintenance of cleaning out the water and food bowls, removing dirt and regularly replacing hay, sawdust and bedding needs to be taken seriously, both by the parents and the children. Children can support their parents with these chores and by doing so they will learn about the responsibility of keeping a pet.
Providing the right food for your pet is paramount, the wrong type of or insufficient food can be detrimental to a pet’s health. For many small mammals, hay is the most important source of food, and needs to offered fresh daily. Rats and mice need a much more diverse menu for example. Pet owners should research their pet’s dietary and behavioural needs and ensure that they meet these needs in terms of the food that they provide and the way in which they provide it. Parents need to teach their children the importance of their pets’ diet and providing the right food.
Mouse in cosy enclosure with enrichment and food.
As prey animals, small mammals are sensitive to being handled. It is therefore of utmost importance that parents teach their children, that their pet is sensitive to being handled and must be handled with care. The natural behaviour of small mammals is fascinating, and the observation of their behaviour can be an enjoyable activity for children and parents as long as they respect the animal’s space and leave their pet alone when it wants to retreat within its enclosure.
Especially when small mammals are kept in enclosures it is important to provide enrichment to encourage natural behaviour so that they do not get bored. Enrichment can come in many different forms, depending on the animal’s needs. The key to enrichment is to make sure that it encourages natural behaviour and is not detrimental to an animal’s welfare. Enrichment through food is always a good option. Food can be used to get the animals active and performing their natural behaviour, for example searching for food is one of the main activities that keeps animals active when they are living in their natural environment. Placing food and spreading it out in the enclosure, creating enrichment activities, such as putting your pets food into toilet paper roll or building a food tree (link) can keep pets active. Please use caution when creating enrichment and ensure that you do not use any materials or put in place any activities that can be harmful to your pet.
Under the guidance of the parents, it is important that children know how to handle their pets so that they do not cause any distress. The main cause for distress in small mammals as pets is being picked up with the hands coming from above (this is how a bird of prey would catch them). The animals should always have the choice to retreat and no contact should be forced. To help small mammals become used to being handled, food is a great start. Feeding your pet from the hand shows them that there is no threat. Once the pet is accustomed to your hand being close by, soft stroking can be the next step. The more positive associations a pet has with humans, the more relaxed it will be in human company.
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