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October 15, 2021

What to Expect When Your Small Pet Is Expecting

by Dianne Cook, LVT

Everyone knows it is crucial for pregnant humans to take extra good care of themselves to ensure the best possible chance of a healthy baby and safe delivery. The exact same is true of our beloved small pets. Caring for a pregnant animal requires additional time and commitment as you tailor her diet, environment, and routine to her gestational needs. Though the information throughout this article is a great starting point, working with a trusted veterinarian throughout the pregnancy is always recommended.  

At What Age Can My Baby Have Babies? 

To ensure the survival of their species, many small prey mammals are quite prolific at procreating. Most species become sexually mature at a very young age and they can be re-impregnated shortly after giving birth, leading to multiple litters every year.  

The ages listed below are the average ranges during which most female individuals will reach sexual maturity. Just because your furry friend can have babies, though, doesn’t mean they should. In most cases, the mother should be a bit older to ensure she is healthy and strong enough to care for her babies.  

Regardless of your pet’s age, it is always best to consult an exotics-savvy veterinarian before breeding your little one to ensure she gets a clean bill of health and has the best possible chance of a safe pregnancy and delivering strong babies.                         

  • Rabbits: 3.5 – 4.5 months (varies a bit depending on breed) 
  • Guinea Pigs: ~ 2 months  
    • After 8 months of age, a female guinea pig’s pubic symphysis (the joint located between the two pubic bones of the pelvis) will start to stiffen. If she hasn’t had babies before this age, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for her to safely deliver a litter. If your piggy is older than 8 months, and you think she may be pregnant with her first litter, please consult a trusted veterinarian.  
  • Chinchillas: ~ 4 – 5 months  
  • Rats: 8 – 12 weeks 
  • Hamsters: as early as 3 weeks (depending on breed) 
  • Gerbils: as early as 9 weeks 
  • Mice: 6 – 8 weeks 

How Will I Know If My Pet Is Pregnant? 

While there are many thoughtful, responsible small pet enthusiasts who breed with careful intention, many pet parents find themselves in a situation in which their furry friend’s pregnancy is completely unexpected. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for small pets to accidently be misgendered and an intact female and male will end up sharing the same enclosure – resulting in a litter of tiny surprises a few weeks later.  

If you think your little one might be expecting, watch for the following signs. If any appear, make sure to reach out to your favorite exotics-savvy veterinarian as promptly as possible to verify the pregnancy and rule out other heath conditions that can lead to similar symptoms.  

Increased thirst and appetite – As with any pregnant being, growing babies require a lot of additional energy. The easiest way to meet these energy needs is to increase caloric intake. If your little loved one’s appetite suddenly ramps up, she’s drinking more water, and you’ve ruled out all other causes, it might be a sign she’s pregnant.  

Sudden weight gain – While there are many things that can lead to an expanding waistline, a brood of rapidly growing babies will result in a steadily rising number on the scale and will generally give your little lady a rotund, avocado-like appearance. 

Nipple changes – As mammals, each species of our furry exotic companions create milk to nourish their offspring. If you notice your pet’s nipples starting to look swollen or the hair around her nipples starts to thin, it may be a sign your little one’s body is gearing up for lactation. 

Behavior Changes – Pregnant females go through a lot of changes quite quickly. Not only do their bodies expand, but they must prepare a nest in which they can safely deliver and raise their babies. That’s a lot to do in a short amount of time! If your normally mild-mannered friend starts to become unusually moody and preoccupied with nesting (gathering bedding and other soft materials to make a cozy space for babies), take note and touch base with a trusted veterinarian.  

Faux Real? 

False pregnancies (also called pseudopregnancies) happen occasionally in all species of small mammals. When this happens, afflicted pets will express common pregnancy behaviors (like nesting, moodiness, and increased hunger) and may even begin to lactate, despite not being pregnant. The best way to know for certain if your furry family member is pregnant is to visit your veterinarian.  

How Long Is Gestation? 

In mammals, gestation is the time between conception and birth, and each species is a bit different. Unless you purposefully bred your female and the conception date is confirmed, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to determine exactly when she became pregnant.  

If you believe your little lady might be expecting, a skilled exotics veterinarian may be able to give you an idea of how far along she is. If you think your little one has gone over the typical gestation ranges for her species (see below), consult your veterinarian immediately! 

  • Rabbits: 31 – 33 days 
  • Guinea Pigs: 59 – 72 days 
  • Chinchillas: ~ 111 days 
  • Rats: 21 – 23 days 
  • Hamsters: 16 – 22 days, depending on breed 
  • Gerbils: 24 days 
  • Mice: 19 – 21 days 

Pregnancy Preparations

Once your veterinarian has confirmed your furry friend truly is expecting, it is important to make sure she has all she needs to finish the pregnancy and deliver her babies as safely and comfortably as possible. To do so, the following considerations regarding her diet, environment, and handling should be made. 

Cure Those Cravings 

Small Herbivores 

  • In addition to an unlimited volume of grass hays and access to fresh water every day, it is imperative pregnant small herbivores have access to a high-quality, fortified, alfalfa-based pelleted diet, and a variety of fresh, nutrient-dense greens and veggies.  
  • It is also recommended that she has access to loose alfalfa at all times. The additional protein and calcium found in alfalfa will be prioritized for growing healthy babies and preparing the mother’s body for lactation while preventing those important nutrients from being leeched directly from her body. It is important to transition gradually to both the alfalfa-based pellets and loose alfalfa, as an abrupt switch can increase the risk of soft stools and other digestive woes. It is always best to work with an experienced veterinarian to tailor your little one’s diet to her specific and individualized needs.   
     

Small Omnivores 

  • Throughout her pregnancy, a small omnivore will require a high-energy diet filled with plenty of lean protein, calcium, and healthy fats. Along with unlimited access to fresh water and her normal diet, increasing access to healthy supplementary foods (like kale, dandelion greens, hard-boiled eggs, cooked brown rice, boiled chicken, and sunflower seeds) will keep your expecting mamma’s immune system strong, and ensure she has the best chance of birthing strong, healthy babies.  
  • It is important to note that during pregnancy, small omnivores will often stash more food than usual to have available during labor and delivery. As with small herbivores, speaking with a knowledgeable veterinarian regarding your little one’s diet throughout her pregnancy is strongly recommended. 

Make Room for Babies

Small mammals should have access to a safe, quiet, comfortable environment in which to deliver and raise their babies. Our small furry friends tend to be fans of burrowing and nesting in general, but this is especially true when they are pregnant. Placing an enclosed, easy-to-clean nesting box in your little one’s enclosure will give her a cozy, protected space to prepare as she draws closer to delivery day. 

Materials such as hay, cardboard, paper beddingnesting disks, and tissue paper should be provided to give the expectant mother a variety of options for building her nest. Many individuals will also line their nests with their own fur as she nears delivery. 

Raising a litter of exotic mammals can also take up a surprising amount of room as multiple enclosures are often necessary. If both parents have been housed in the same enclosure, it is best to move the male to another enclosure. Not only will this limit mom’s stress and territorial behavior, it will also prevent her from getting pregnant again soon after giving birth.  

Many species can also deliver a surprising number of babies who will all need a safe place to stay until they go to their new homes. While female offspring can generally remain with their mothers, male babies will need to be removed as they reach sexual maturity to prevent squabbles and additional pregnancies.  

Keep Mama Happy 

While it is always important to minimize stress in the lives of our exotic friends, it is especially true when they are expecting. It is best to handle pregnant females as little as possible.  

If your little lady is receptive, you can still bestow love and affection on her through gentle pats and nutrient-dense treats (like species-appropriate greens and veggies), but the daily playtime and cuddle sessions you previously spent together is best avoided during her gestation period.  

If you must handle mom, pick her up gently, never putting any pressure on her abdomen. Pressing on her uterus can cause physical harm to both mom and her babies and may result in spontaneous miscarriage.  

Whether your little one has been bred intentionally, or the whole experience is a big surprise, caring for a pregnant exotic mammal takes extra work and dedication (not to mention additional space). Above all else, the safety and well-being of both the mother and her babies is paramount. Following the tips and suggestions in this article will help you prepare for the upcoming arrivals, but it is always best to work with a trusted, exotics-savvy veterinarian to confirm your pet’s pregnancy and establish the best gestational care plan possible.

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