Hamsters, gerbils and their ilk have an obvious appeal to busy adults and children desperate for a little furry thing of their own. They appear to be low-maintenance and self-contained, needing only regular feeding, watering and cleaning out, and so are ideal if you haven’t got time for anything more demanding.
However, this is a misconception. Keeping caged pets is hard work – harder in my opinion than keeping a cat or a dog. Their upkeep and care involves heavy lifting and physical labour. Having chosen to mollify their offspring’s demands for a puppy with the purchase of a gerbil or two, most parents will wind up having to care for the vicious little critters themselves when the child loses interest.
The work starts when you get the creatures home. Small animal cages, especially the complex and bizarre Habitrail contraptions for hamsters are usually heavy and awkward to lift, and unfortunately lifting them is necessary when the acrid smell from little Harry’s dirty corner begins to permeate around the house. Parents can usually get their children to clean the new pet out a couple of times, but the scraping, rinsing and lugging around bags of sawdust soon palls. Eventually, Mum or Dad will have to deal with the ammonia build up in the interests of animal welfare.
And what do you get in return? Affection? Not usually. Being solitary, prey animals, hamsters neither want nor require your company. Gerbils are more interested in each other, chewing and digging than human contact. Rabbits are happy to hang around nearby, but are not desperately keen on being picked up or cuddled. In the wild, being picked up usually means you have become lunch for an eagle. Guinea pigs are happy to call for food, but again, prefer one another’s company to yours. The only exception to this rule are rats, who are social, intelligent, affectionate and seem genuinely to like human company.
When it comes to the cost of their upkeep, small animals can be surprisingly expensive. Food and bedding are not particularly cheap unless you buy in bulk, which of course entails more heavy lifting. Vet’s bills can be almost as much as for a larger animal, because the amount of work involved is pretty much the same regardless of size. Removal of a benign lump from a rat or hamster can cost up to £200, not including the aftercare. My own vet tells me that he doesn’t usually recommend such a procedure for a child’s pet: partly due to the cost (I have yet to find a pet insurance policy that covers small animals) and partly because he feels that most children do not value the animals enough to look after them properly following the operation. He believes that, if the animal is not suffering, it’s better to put it down once the disease has run its course. This is in line with the RSPCA’s guidance.
In contrast, the cat or dog most parents refuse to get for their children and which busy people believe they don’t have enough time for, is far less trouble to care for and gives far more in return for your efforts.
To care for a cat, one needs a few essentials: food, a litter tray, somewhere for them to sleep and some toys. If you value your furniture, a scratching post is useful. Cleaning a litter tray is not anyone’s favourite task, but it takes about 30 seconds instead of the half-hour or so it can take to clean out a tribe of gerbils. The cat will reward your efforts with playfulness and affection. Guinea pigs do not usually sit on your lap and purr (although rats do). If the cat becomes ill, there are any number of pet insurance policies that will pay for the treatment.
Cats are also less destructive than small animals, a fact which landlords should bear in mind when they issue a blanket ban on a cat or dog in their property. From personal experience, I have had rabbits that stripped all the paint off the skirting boards and chewed the bottom of a door in their room, severed a mains cable and pulled up the carpet. I have had rats that managed to escape from the cage and chewed a hole in the door to gain access to the rest of the house. One rat in particular set up home under the fridge in the kitchen, another built a nest in the bottom of the bed (the landlord’s) by gnawing through the upholstery and pulling out heaps of wadding. Aside from scratching, which can be dealt with by use of a scratching post, cats do not destroy property. Simple to housetrain, cats are highly unlikely to foul carpets and furniture.
Unlike most cats, most dogs aren’t happy to be left on their own during the day. However, having cared for a dog I have to say that the benefits of a dog far outweigh any effort one has to expend in their care.
If walking a dog or letting the cat out appears to be unacceptably onerous, I think there is something wrong with you. Even fish (the classic no-maintenance pet) are a lot of work when it comes to cleaning them out, involving as it does lugging around buckets of water and dealing with bad-smelling slime. Perhaps you should get a cactus instead.