by Dianne Cook, LVT
As the days grow longer and warmer, who can resist going outside to fill their lungs with fresh, lilac-scented air and soak up some much-needed Vitamin D? As humans emerge from our wintery cocoons, it seems only fitting to share the brilliance of spring with our furry companions. What could be more enjoyable for a small mammal than to frolic through a lawn of fresh, green grass and experience the glorious scents and sensations only spring can bring? While time outside can be wonderfully enriching for our small mammal friends, there are extra steps and considerations that need to be made to ensure the experience is both pleasant and safe.
No matter how perfect the weather is, you need to make sure to take your pet’s species-specific needs into consideration. While it is possible to spend time outside with your rat, hamster, gerbil, or mouse, these tiny kiddos are incredibly small, fast, and agile, and their humans can quickly lose sight of them if they happen to escape their outdoor enclosure. For this reason, it is generally recommended to keep these especially diminutive friends indoors and use alternate options for enrichment and exercise.
Chinchillas are another species that should generally be kept indoors. Chinchillas’ impossibly thick coats make them especially sensitive to heat and make them quite difficult to dry off if they get wet. Chinchillas should never be placed in an area that is in direct sunlight (whether inside or out), as it can quickly cause them to overheat. If a chin should find themselves in a damp environment (e.g. dew or moisture from a lawn), moisture could get trapped near the skin and increase the risk of irritation/infection. For more specific chinchilla considerations check out our Common Chinchilla Health Issues blog.
Setting the Stage
First and foremost, never leave a small mammal outside without direct adult supervision. For many of our domesticated companions, the outdoors is a brand new, bewildering experience. Having direct supervision will not only ensure their safety but will provide them with a trusted friend with whom they can brave the wild. Though appropriate, well-supervised time outside can be a great source of physical and mental enrichment, it is important to remember our small friends are prey species, and a gradual, secure introduction will help limit stress as they decide whether they approve of outside time.
To help create a safe location for your pet to explore, it is best to have a secure play area/enclosure set up so your little one can experience the wonders of nature while remaining safe from potential dangers. Using a playpen or bottomless enclosure will allow your little one to enjoy the feel of chemical-free grass between their toes, but if they are especially adept at digging, you may want to consider an enclosure with a removable bottom. The sides of the play area should be tall enough your friend cannot jump (or climb) over them and should be secure enough that they cannot squeeze through the bars/sections. It is strongly recommended to also have a wire or mesh top to allow for plenty of ventilation and airflow while ensuring maximum security. Never place your pet’s outdoor play area in direct sunlight. A portion of the enclosure should always be kept in the shade so your little one can stretch out and cool-off if needed. It is also essential to provide a hide-out, a couple of water sources, and some treats and toys in the play area. Small herbivores should also be provided with a small pile of their favorite hay to nibble on while they take in the scenery.
The outdoors can be a very enriching environment. We do our best to mimic our pet’s natural environment within our homes, but nothing comes close to actually experiencing the sights, scents, and sounds of being outside. While some small mammals immediately love spending time outdoors, others are slower to acclimate. Pets who are normally social and interactive in the home can become withdrawn and timid while outside. Be patient and understanding, and do not force your friend to interact with their environment. Start with short 5 –10 minute intervals, and slowly increase the time spent outside to 30 – 40 minutes over the course of a few weeks. This gradual introduction will help your little one grow accustomed to the great outdoors. While supervising your pet’s outdoor excursions, watch for subtle clues that will tell you how they feel about the experience. Every pet is an individual and some may find the outdoors more stressful than relaxing. If you notice your friend is overly stressed, they are likely telling you they do not want to go outside. If their appetite wanes or they’re exhibiting any abnormal behaviors after spending time outdoors, please keep them inside and consult your trusted veterinarian.
Before venturing outdoors with your little one, it is important to ensure the environment is safe for a prey animal. As domestic species, and beloved pets, our small friends have grown accustomed to the comforts of living indoors. Unlike their wild ancestors, our pets are not equipped to handle weather variances, are more susceptible to predators, and run a greater risk of ingesting something they shouldn’t. Luckily, with some forethought and close, uninterrupted supervision, most of these concerns can be circumvented.
Though spring weather is often serene, extreme weather patterns can develop quickly, so it is important to watch the forecast closely and try to choose a time when the weather will cooperate. Try to choose a warm, sunny day with minimal winds, and no rain (or worse) on the horizon. As we’ve discussed, small mammals are quite sensitive to extreme temperatures, with optimal outdoor temps ranging 65 – 75°F (16 - 24°C). Even if you are within the ideal temperature ranges, remember to keep at least a portion of your kiddo’s play area in the shade with access to a hide-out, thus ensuring your little one will have a cool, safe retreat if needed. Regardless of the temperature, watch for signs of heat exhaustion like panting, rapid breathing, drooling, and/or lethargy. Not only can your pet’s hair coat and color impact how quickly they heat up, each pet has their own unique heat tolerances, just like the humans who love them. If you notice any signs of heat exhaustion, take your pet inside immediately and contact your veterinarian.
Many of the chemicals that are used to keep lawns, flowers, and vegetable gardens looking beautiful all season are quite harmful to our little companions. Public areas, like municipal parks, are generally not safe environments for small herbivores as herbicides and/or pesticides may be used on the grounds. Even if your yard and gardens are not treated with chemicals, you should make sure your neighbors haven’t applied any chemicals to their yards, as there is potential for drift. The same is true if your yard backs up to a street or public area, as the risk of unintentional chemical contamination and/or pollution from passing motorists may make it unsafe.
Wildlife and Other Animals
Though most people think to look out for the neighbor’s dog or the local stray cats, small pets can fall victim to numerous species of predators. Raptors such as owls, hawks, and falcons are quick and can snatch an unsuspecting small mammal very quickly. Even smaller birds, such as crows, should be watched closely. Another predator pet parents don’t always consider are snakes. These silent predators seem to appear out of nowhere and often strike without warning. Familiarizing yourself with the snake species that are common in your area, and times of day in which they are most active can help you to avoid these opportunistic hunters.
The outdoors also increases the chances of your furry friend picking up a parasite or communicable disease from wildlife. If caught early, risks presented by parasites are most often treatable, but there are some viral and bacterial infections that can have a significant impact on your companion’s health. While flea and tick preventatives are a great idea for dogs and cats who make frequent visits outdoors, it is best not to treat your kiddos with these products without the direct supervision of an exotics-savvy veterinarian. It is also important to keep an eye on the native wildlife that frequents your yard. A worry that is especially true in domestic rabbits is the risk of contracting a viral or bacterial infection present in the local wild rabbit population. Before treating your little one to some fun in the sun, make sure your little one receives a clean bill of health from their favorite veterinarian. During your pet’s visit, have a serious conversation with your veterinarian regarding the risks and benefits of taking your little one outside. Veterinarians should be aware of any known threats that may be impacting the native wildlife (such as the recent RHDV2 outbreak in the Southwestern United States) and can help develop a plan should your little friend start to show signs of a potential parasitic infestation or other signs of sickness.
It is important to familiarize yourself with the plants that grow in your area, and which species could be potentially harmful to your small pet. Before you venture outside, walk the area yourself and make sure you don’t see any unusual weeds or potentially toxic vegetation. Most small mammals are quite curious and may take a nibble of a plant simply to appease their inquisitive nature. By first ensuring there is no harmful plant-life growing in the area, you can avoid any potential health risks.
Supervision, Supervision, Supervision
The world can be a big, scary place for a small prey animal. Especially if your furry friend rarely ventures beyond the safety of the home, your yard may seem like a very intimidating place. The key to ensuring a fun, safe experience is always to keep your kiddo under direct adult supervision. Prep the outdoor area and check on the above-listed items before bringing your pet outside. Always ensure you have everything you need and the area is safe to limit the temptation to run inside to grab a forgotten item or rush to remove something that shouldn’t be there. Above all, never leave your pet unattended and always be focused on the safety of your fur baby when outdoors.
Mother Nature has finally shaken off winter’s dull grays and browns and stepped into the vibrant technicolor of spring! By taking the appropriate precautions, you can share this splendid weather with your favorite furry friend. Just be sure to keep your pet’s species and individual needs and preferences in mind to ensure the experience is pleasant and safe for all involved.