Pet gerbils and hamsters are popular with kids. Even in the adults in the house may have fun watching these critters in their self-contained habitats. But to keep the family and your smallest furry friends safe, be sure to follow these tips

Choosing the right place for the cage

Choose a quiet spot away from the hustle and bustle and not near a television, heat sources and air conditioning, says Jonathan Leshanski, DVM, of At Home Veterinary practice in New York City. These animals are used to warmer climates, so cold air (including open windows in cold weather) can make them uncomfortable or even sick.

Hamsters are nocturnal and extremely active at night, so think twice before putting the cage in your or your child’s bedroom.

Cleaning and feeding

Hamsters are less work than dogs, but that doesn’t mean you or your child won’t need to spend time on cage upkeep. The critters need fresh bedding, fresh chewing material (to avoid dental problems) and clean water every day. And someone needs to remove soiled bedding, droppings and uneaten food daily. Thoroughly clean the cage once a week.

As far as food goes, commercial pet food is fine. The type of food your hamster or pet needs depends on his species. A pet food store can help you select the appropriate food. Leshanski says that with some training and regular reminders, a six year old can probably handle the feeding and watering of a small pet. Keep pet food closed and stored in a clean, dry area, not subject to extreme hot or cold.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also recommends offering small amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables to gerbils and hamsters. Just make sure to remove what the pet doesn’t eat before it spoils. 

Socializing

Gerbils and hamsters are very different when it comes to socializing, says Leshanski. Hamsters will do fine as single pets, but gerbils are very social and are happiest when paired up with another gerbil. To avoid breeding, buy two gerbils of the same gender. Another difference: Hamsters like to play and eat at night; they may become startled and nip if a child disturbs them during the day. Gerbils, on the other hand, have a schedule that fits in well with children’s since they’re active during the day, says the ASPCA.

Hygiene, health and safety

You and your kids should always wash your hands after and before handling your gerbil or hamster. Leshanski says the risk of becoming sick from these animals is very low. You make the risk even lower when you practice good hand hygiene. Young children are at greater risk for diseases that can be passed from animals to humans because of their immature immune systems, according to the Humane Society of the United States. 

To reduce the risk of bites, small children should never handle their pocket-sized pets — as cute as they are — without adult supervision. According the ASPCA, hamsters should not be handled at all by children under age six. Hamsters are fragile animals with a high risk of biting.

Hamsters can catch colds from their humans and are susceptible to respiratory issues. Seek veterinary care immediately if your pet is sick. Sick hamsters may lose weight, shake, have a runny nose and diarrhea. A sick gerbil may sneeze, have difficulty breathing, have diarrhea and act lethargic. Gerbils can also become infested with fleas and lice. A lice or flea infestation requires treating your pet and the house.