I didn't realise, until I started to write this, just how many different small animals I have had. This is just my opinion of these different pets, based on the animals I've kept myself. I realise that the temperament of a small pet can vary drastically depending on its early treatment in life, and on the temperament of its parents.
My idea here is to give you an idea which animal might suit you and your family. Please don't just take my word about any of these creatures - do your own research and reach your own conclusions. If you want to let me know about your experience, get in touch - I may revise my opinions.
I've kept gerbils on several occasions, and feel they make an almost ideal small pet. If they're handled regularly, they are friendly and active pets which enjoy coming out to play. My only reservation is that they can be a little too hyperactive for younger children to keep hold of safely. I remember one of my first gerbils running in faster and faster circuits around my bed until he couldn't make the corner and shot of the edge into the wall.
Although they are often kept singly, gerbils are really social animals which prefer to live in pairs or groups. Gerbils are the only animal that I've tried breeding, which was a fascinating experience - the male helps to look after the babies, which are so cute when they're exploring the cage before their eyes have opened. I've read that the pair can be kept together for life, but this means that you have to find homes for all of the offspring, so I ended up separating them into single sex groups.
The big advantage of gerbils is that, because they are desert animals, they don't use much water. This means that they don't make much smell so don't need cleaning out nearly as often as some other small pets.
Golden or Syrian Hamsters have a reputation for being likely to nip, although I've always had fairly soppy ones. These are solitary animals, which need to be kept singly in their own cages. Maybe I'm doing them an injustice, but they seem to bumble around in their own little world, tolerating being picked up and loved, but just as happy to be left to themselves. Warning - make sure the lid on their tank or door on their cage is fixed firmly. Some hamsters are master escape artists.
These tiny little hamsters are fantastic animals to watch, but those I've had have always been rather nippy. You also need to watch the bar gauge of your cage - they can squeeze out through tiny gaps! I've been told that if they're handled from a very young age, they can become very tame. Again, they're social animals so are best kept in pairs or groups. They are very busy little creatures. I remember having to take the wheel out of their cage as they could fit on two at a time, so when one started to run the centrifugal force would fling the other into the cage wall at high speed.
Update: We now have a whole family of Campbells Dwarf Hamsters. Usual story - we got two females and one of them wasn't female. We had two litters before we got the males and females separated. The upshot is that we've realised that when raised from day one they can become extremely hand-tame and friendly. Downside - diabetes seems to have been bred into them. Visit the Honeyhams Yahoo Group We've lost six out of fifteen (father and five youngsters) to it, and some of the others have glaucoma.
I've had different experiences with different rats. My first rats came from a pet shop, and were almost full-grown by the time I bought them. These were timid creatures at first, although they improved with time. They had a tendency to nip occasionally, although I don't remember them ever doing any major damage to my fingers.
At the moment I have ratty boys who came as youngsters from people who breed for good temperament and who handle their babies right from the beginning. These boys beg to come out of their cage, and love to ride around on your shoulder or doze on your lap. I can't tell you how pleased I am that we got them. (By the way, don't worry about their tails - they do have hair on them, and you'll soon stop thinking about them once you meet the ratties).
Rats are social animals which need to be kept in groups of two or more - single sex groups unless you want to be overrun with babies. Even if you want to breed them, it's better to keep single sex groups and introduce your breeding pair for an evening when the female in on heat, and I would advise you to read this article first. They need a fairly large cage with plenty to do, and should be allowed out to play every day. If you put the cage somewhere in sight, they will remind you that they want to come out and play. They will have the occasional tussle with each other, especially while they're sorting out who is the boss of the cage, but they don't usually draw blood with rats they know.
They can be trained to come to their names, which is very useful if they get onto the floor. Males tend to be cuddly and a little lazy, while girls can be very active and entertaining, but this is only the trend - you can get very active boys and very lazy girls.
They usually live for 2 to 3 years, with their main health problems being respiratory infections and tumours.
I've never kept mice, but I have looked after a friend's for her. (OK, that doesn't make me an expert). Like rats, they are social animals and do best when they're kept with other mice, although males do sometimes get aggressive towards each other, so may need to be kept separately. They are dainty little creatures that are easy to tame, and will come to you and climb over you. Also like rats, they are prone to respiratory infections and tumours, but have a slightly shorter lifespan, living between 1 and 2 years.
The really big drawback of mice seems to be their smell, especially the males. You'll want to clean them out every day or two to avoid a mouse flavoured house.
I had a 3 foot long tank at one stage, with 10 goldfish in it. Their plus points are that they're very decorative and calming to watch. If you have a good filter system they don't need cleaning out too often. But they're not exactly interactive - you can't take them out and cuddle them. If you have a small tank, it will need cleaning out fairly often; if you have a big one, it's a mammoth task. I don't think I'd recommend them as a first pet - you get all of the responsibility without much of the fun.
These are lovely little birds who like to be kept as a pair, or in a group if you have an aviary, and sit together preening each other, hence the name. If you're going to get just one, he'll need a lot of attention. They make an engaging little pet that can be taught to sit on your arm, but they have this little habit of nibbling your ears. And hair. And the wallpaper. And curtains. And anything else that looks interesting. Much like small rodents really, except they can fly to places that other pets can't reach. They're also fairly loud once they get going, and will join in the dawn chorus every morning.
They live about 14 years, so they're a fairly long-term commitment, and when the first one of a pair dies it's difficult to get the remaining bird to accept a new partner, so you'll have a lonely bird left at the end. They also tend to bully any other types of birds if you house them together in an aviary. While I'm very fond of the lovebird we have now, I don't think we'll replace him. He's over 14 and looks old and lonely now.
We had Guinea Pigs when I was very small. I remember them making lovely little pets, although they can be injured easily if dropped. Ours were very friendly and happy to be held. Many experts advise that rabbits shouldn't be kept with or near guinea pigs, as the rabbits can kick and injure the guinea pig, and can also carry diseases which are fatal to guinea pigs. Conversely, many pet owners keep rabbits and guinea pigs together in harmony.
I've never had a rabbit as a pet, but friends' rabbits have always seemed to end up living out a lonely existence in a back garden hutch. Larger rabbits can also become very difficult to hold, having strong back legs which can hurt a small child. The idea of house rabbits appeals to me more, as you would get to spend more time with them, but I've never met one.
Annette, April 2002