With their relatively short lifespan and minimal space requirements, cute, furry creatures in cages often seem the ideal kids’ pet. Small animals can be an excellent alternative to a dog or a cat, especially if space is at a premium. For one thing, they are relatively inexpensive to keep (once you’ve bought the super-duper rota-stack mansion cage), they’re cheap to feed, and a responsible child can be entrusted with the vast majority of the care – under adult supervision. Small animals can teach children responsibility and commitment, and they can satisfy a child’s nurturing side too, without parents incurring the costs of kenneling (friends can be called upon to look after Hammy during holidays) or the hassles of the daily walk and garden clean-up operation.
But keeping wee caged beasties (rabbits, hamsters, gerbils and the odd budgie) isn’t always as simple as it sounds. Just because an animal is small, doesn’t mean its needs are any different to a larger pet. It still requires feeding, watering and exercise on a daily basis, and the cage or hutch will have to be cleaned out thoroughly, at least once a week. Adding to the complication is Dubai’s climate. Usually, hutch-dwelling animals like rabbits and guinea pigs are quite happy living in the garden, but with our soaring summer barometers, that’s simply not an option. So, if you’re thinking about purchasing a pet, be prepared for it to be part of the household for the duration of its lifespan.
If you’re serious about taking the pet plunge, here are a few points to consider.
1 They make lousy bedroom companions Hamsters in particular are noisy at night, running on wheels, biting cage bars and generally scrabbling about. Keeping the cage in a well ventilated kitchen is a better option.
2 They’re fragile Small animals succumb to illness easily, and getting the right dose of antibiotics into a rodent or small bird isn’t always successful. Expect a high mortality rate.
3 Leaving them in their cage the entire time is cruel and detrimental to their health But exercise time is also when a lot of accidents occur, so adult supervision is required.
4 They are Houdinis Your average hamster may look podgy and unathletic – but it’s all an act. They climb with amazing skill and tenacity, and rodents, rabbits and the like move like wildfire and can squeeze themselves through impossibly small spaces. Vigilance is required.
5 They bite Especially when woken up suddenly by small, probing fingers. And it hurts. A lot.
6 Rodents breed, well, like rabbits Don’t trust the pet shop bloke when he claims you’re buying two males. Some of these guys can’t tell the difference between a chicken and an egg. Ask the vet to verify gender before you let them share a cage.
7 They need cleaning out properly at least once a week Kids often do the job badly – or not at all. Face it parents, this task will fall to you.
8 They’re messy Be it feathers, wood shavings, droppings or sunflower seed shells, debris will be deposited outside of the cage and the surrounding floor.
9 They need to be handled regularly – but always with care Kids can be cack-handed which can be devastating if a moment of butter fingers happens while they are carrying their pet.
10 Knowledge is power Buying your child a book on pet care before you take the plunge is an excellent commitment indicator. Test your child’s knowledge. If they get less than 90 per cent of your questions right, it’s likely their interest will wane – and you’ll be landed with the pet care.
Still think small, caged critters are the easy option? Then think again, says Joanna England.
I’m not a great fan of small animals – probably because my childhood was filled with them and their kamikaze tendencies. My parents (who had seven children and couldn’t bear the thought of any more mess in the house) mistakenly believed hamsters would be more manageable than the dog we kept begging them for. So, from the age of seven, our house became a veritable Victoria Station, where small pets came to reside for a short while, before journeying to their maker in increasingly creative ways.
The first hamster to cross our threshold was Twinkle – a small grey specimen. I loved her to distraction, but after three months in my care (which unwisely included an afternoon in the garden because I believed she needed fresh air) she got a chest infection and wheezed to the finish line a day later. A teary funeral ensued, and a margarine tub coffin (the first of many) was buried with dignity in the flowerbed.
Next came Buster and Horace – two boisterous males – who we later discovered, after much affectionate wrestling, were actually Buster and Horacia. A litter of little ‘uns duly arrived – and at eight, I learned that some animals, when faced with small, probing fingers, will actually eat their babies…
Buster, a long-haired, bulgy-eyed dude with daredevil tendencies, frequently scaled floor-length curtains, climbed up the backs of wardrobes and chewed impressive holes in bedroom carpets. But though he was expert at climbing upwards, he was dreadful at getting down again, and miraculously survived several considerable falls. The final one (off the top of his favourite wardrobe) happened when we’d had him about 18 months. He climbed, he saw, he leapt and expired, before we’d even had the chance to yell, ‘Catch Buster!’ We all wept at his demise, because he’d been such a cheerful little fellow.
Cannibal mum, Horatia met a more unfortunate end. She was a greedy animal – always eating, foraging for food, and stuffing things in her pouches. One evening while we were doing our homework, we let her out for a run in the kitchen. My older brother got up to make a sandwich. He opened the fridge door. He closed the fridge door. And poor Horatia (you’ve guessed it) was suddenly no more….
It was a grizzly episode, and one we children whispered about in horror for months afterwards. But it still wasn’t enough to convince my parents we required a more robust companion, so the fatalities continued. After the fridge tragedy came Hunca Munca – our only hamster to reach her expected three-year lifespan and, therefore, a success. Unfortunately, she got gangrene in old age and her feet fell off.
Ultimately, if you want your children to appreciate the fragility of life, the finality of death, the perils of loose flooring, wardrobes, wall-mounted televisions, fridge doors, mop buckets, full length curtains – and many other bizarre accidents waiting to happen – then a hamster is the perfect choice. But if you want your child to have a companion they can bond with and learn to care for over many happy years, who won’t get eaten by next door’s snake, or electrocute themselves chewing through electric wires, then grit your teeth and deal with the slipper chewing, whiney puppy. The irritating phase will surely pass – and far fewer tears (and trips to the pet shop) will be your reward. Or, better still, just get fish.
UAE pet store Pet’s Delight has created an online kids’ club bursting with fun and informative news on pets and how to look after them. Aimed at junior pet lovers aged three to 10 years, the club teaches kids about different breeds of common domestic animals and how to look after them. It’s packed with quizzes, puzzles and games and children will also be invited to upload their favourite pet photos to win prizes. The group also organises pet owner get-togethers during the cooler months.
Check it out on www.pets-delight.com/blog/.