Special needs for our special friends

By From page A10 | August 25, 2013

While dogs and cats are the most popular pets, tens of millions of rabbits, rodents, reptiles, and amphibians are owned by people in the United States. Caring for these pets is a lot different than caring for a dog or cat, so prospective owners should do their research about what is best for the type of animal they are acquiring. Different species may have vastly different needs, but despite these differences, there are several broad categories that all owners or potential owners should be educated about.


The term enclosure refers to a cage, crate, or other housing system. Pet stores have many different types of commercially-available enclosures, and some people create their own. Regardless, the type of enclosure used should consider the size and behavior of the animal.

There should be sufficient space for the animal to freely move around; the larger the animal, the larger the enclosure that is needed. The enclosure may need different levels for animals that like to climb, or may need different types of terrain. There should be ready access to food and water, good ventilation, a place to nest, and (for some animals) appropriate places for urination and defecation. Regular cleaning of the enclosure is needed to keep animals safe and healthy.


The substrate is the type of flooring or bedding that is used in the enclosure. There is a diverse array of substrates that mirrors the diversity of these types of pets: wood shavings, newspaper, artificial turf, sand, bark, rock, and water, to name a few. Substrate is important not only for the comfort of the animal, but also for the health of the animal. An inappropriate substrate may cause breathing problems, can cause irritation to the eyes, or may be ingested and cause digestive problems.


Lighting in an enclosure not only provides visibility, but also provides warmth. Additionally, some pets have requirements for ultraviolet light (UVA/UVB) exposure, which can be provided by specialized lamps. Care must be taken to ensure that animals do not get heat burn from too hot of a light source. A thermometer can be placed in or on the cage when pets have specific temperature requirements.


Some pets, notably reptiles and amphibians, have specific requirements for the humidity level in their enclosure. There are various ways of providing humidity as needed, and the humidity level should be constantly monitored to make sure that it stays within the recommended range.


Malnutrition is one of the more common causes of disease in these pets, and there is a large species-specific variety in nutritional needs. Some pets may be fed a commercially-available diet (such as pellets or hay), some love to eat fruits and vegetables, while others may require live food (such as crickets). Some pets require supplementation with vitamins or minerals that are not adequately supplied by food. The frequency and amount of food provided will also widely vary based on the species of pet.


Pets of all types need enriching, entertaining ways to spend their time, just like their owners do. This can take the form of play toys or chew toys, places to crawl or climb, rodent wheels for running, and (when appropriate for the type of pet) loving human interaction. Keeping pets enriched will help provide for their overall happiness and health, and will encourage normal healthy behaviors.

Further species-specific information about these categories and others can be found from a veterinarian, trusted pet store, or interest groups devoted to a particular type of pet. It can be rewarding to own a rabbit, rodent, reptile, or amphibian, and providing appropriately for their needs will help encourage a full and fulfilling life.

— Keith Rode is a veterinarian at Woodland Veterinary Hospital and a graduate of UC Davis. For more information, call 666-2461.

Keith Rode, DVM

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