January 2023

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Amy Johnson, BS, LVT, RLATG, CVJ, VETgirl Manager of Content Development, reviews small exotic mammal information for veterinary professionals. Read on as she outlines some of the more important things that all veterinary professionals need to know about these species. If you didn’t read Part 1 last week, check it out HERE.

By Amy Johnson, BS, LVT, RLATG, CVJ
VETgirl Manager of Content Development

What You need to know about Small Exotic Mammals: Part 2

It is easy to think that working in small animal medicine means you won’t be seeing small little creatures (other than puppies and kittens, of course), but there will come a time when a small exotic mammal (a better term than pocket pet) will walk through your doors needing medical attention. In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Amy Johnson, RLATG, LVT, CVJ outlines some of the more important things that all veterinary professionals need to know about these species.

Whether you are working in a small animal veterinary practice that sees some exotics, a veterinary emergency practice that may see a sick ferret or guinea pig come through your doors on occasion, or a large animal vet out on a farm call asked to look at the sick 4H rabbit these little guys will come into your life and there are some basic things you need to know about guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets, and chinchillas to help treat them and educate their owners.

Here are some of the basics:

Guinea Pigs

Guinea pigs, 3 years old, lying in front of white background
• Life span: 4-8 years
• Gestation: 59-72 days (68 days average)
• Guinea pigs (and rabbits) will have red urine if they eat alfalfa hay or anything with alfalfa. A red pigment is produced from alfalfa’s metabolic breakdown and excretion and is commonly confused with blood.   Guinea pigs will also commonly will develop uroliths, with hematuria being one of the first signs an owner will see.  If the owner reports blood in the urine or you see red urine, it is important to ask about the diet to help determine what is causing it.
• Guinea pigs also have continually growing teeth, but unlike other rodents, their problem teeth are molars and premolars. This makes trying to correct this problem a much more involved dental procedure than what you see in mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, and rabbits. Making sure they eat a hard-pelleted diet is important in keeping those teeth filed down.
• Guinea pigs must have hay, fresh fruits, and veggies in addition to their pelleted food.
• Guinea pigs are one of few species that cannot synthesize their own vitamin C, so they must get it through their diet. Giving them fresh fruits and veggies with lots of vitamin C is important as well as making sure their pelleted food is not expired (vitamin C is very unstable and will breakdown quickly) will aid in this process. Oranges and bell peppers are great sources of vitamin C that most guinea pigs love.
• Guinea pigs are coprophagic and need to reingest their feces. Owners will ask how to stop this, and you want to ensure they understand it is part of their normal digestive process.
• Antibiotics need to be used with extreme caution in guinea pigs (hindgut fermenters) – always make sure to do some research before prescribing anything for them.
• Female guinea pigs must be bred for the first time (if they are going to be bred) before the age of 7 months. Their pelvis will fuse between 8 and 9 months of age if they have not been bred before, causing life-threatening dystocia if breeding takes place after that fusion. Even with this attention to age, dystocias are common in guinea pigs due to their large fetuses – think English Bulldogs of the rodent world.
• Restraint and sexing can be found in this video HERE


A gray pet rabbit holding its ears in a half lop position
• Life span: 5-10 years
• Gestation: 28-35 days
• Although rabbits are not rodents, there are many similarities between them and guinea pigs. They are both hindgut fermenters with similar diets required.
• Their urine will be red with alfalfa in the diet, and it is important to discourage owners from feeding any alfalfa as it contains more calcium than the rabbit can handle. Rabbits cannot store calcium, they use what they need from the diet and the rest gets excreted in the urine and too much calcium can causes urinary problems. It is important to note that their urine will normally be thick, milky, and full of sediment.
• Like guinea pigs, rabbits are hindgut fermenters, and must have hay and fresh fruits and veggies in their diet along with their pelleted food. You also must use extreme caution when prescribing antibiotics.
• Rabbits also are coprophagic and need to be allowed to reingest their feces. Rabbits have two distinct types of feces and the feces seen in their cage can be a good indication of a rabbit’s health. When their food is digested and the feces passes from the GI tract the first time it is referred to as cecotropes or night feces, once the cecotrope is ingested and passed through the GI a second time it is referred to as day feces. Cecotropes are larger and have a large water content (think grape), while the day feces is the small, hard, dry pellet we are used to seeing in the bottom of a rabbits cage. If the rabbit is not ingesting most of their cecotropes, this can be an early sign of illness.
• The normal body temperature for a rabbit is 100-104 degrees F. This makes them very susceptible to heat stroke if their environment is too warm. Owners need to take measures to keep them cool! I have seen many outdoor kept rabbits die from heat stroke and none from hypothermia (although it is possible).
• Like the rodents discussed in part 1, rabbits also have continually growing incisors and need hard pellets as a part of their diet and things to chew on.
• Rabbits have a large muscle mass in comparison to their axial skeleton. One hard kick from those back legs can result in a broken back. This is imperative to think about when handling rabbit.
• Restraint and sexing can be found in this video HERE


Ferret (Mustela putorius furo) on a white background
• Life span: 5-10 years
• Gestation: 39-42 days
• Ferrets are not legal as pets in all of the US (they are considered an invasive species), so owners need to do their research before getting one to make sure they are legal in their location.
• Most states (where they are legal) will require ferrets to be vaccinated for rabies. They can also be vaccinated for canine distemper. There is much talk about vaccination reactions in ferrets, but if using a vaccine labeled for ferret and giving an antihistamine before the vaccines can minimize reactions.
• Ferrets are susceptible to human flu and other human viruses. So the sick humans in the house should isolate themselves from the ferret until they are no longer contagious.
• Ferrets legally have to be altered before the sale of them in pet stores. Due to this it is very rare to find an intact ferret. They will also be descented at this time (descented ferrets still stink!).
• If a female goes into heat and is not spayed or bred, estrogen toxicity will kill her.
• Most ferrets in the North America come from several large breeding farms, small private breeders are rare.
• They are little troublemakers and must be closely monitored to keep them out of trouble. Foreign bodies and electrocution are common. And they will steal your stuff and hide it from you! Think Labrador puppies of the small exotic mammal world.
• Restraint and sexing can be found in this video HERE


Grey chinchilla on white background

• Life span: 8-10 years (although some can live as long as 20 years)
• Gestation: 110-112 days
• Fur chewing is a common occurrence in chinchillas where you will see them chew/pull out the fur on the lower half of their body. It is caused by boredom, poor nutrition, poor husbandry, and stress.
• Fur slip is also common in chinchillas and is caused by mishandling, fighting, or agitation (it is a self defense mechanism)> It is characterized by hair loss in patches with the skin underneath intact.
• Dust baths are a necessity to keep their fur and skin healthy. Fun fact – they are native to the high altitudes of south america and this originated from them rolling in volcanic ash!
• Gastric Typany (bloat) is common in chinchillas with sudden diet changes, overeating, or hypocalcemia (in lactating females). Because of this chinchillas need to be limited to measured meals with limited treats, and sudden diet or feeding schedule changes should be avoided.
• Like all of the other rodents we discussed the incisors continually grow and hard pelleted food and environmental enrichment (to chew on) are necessary.
• Like rabbits and guinea pigs chinchillas need hay and fresh veggies, but calcium levels need to be watched as it can cause uroliths (no alfalfa unless it is a lactating female).
• Due to their thick fur coat chinchillas are very susceptible to heatstroke like rabbits. The temperatures they are housed in need to be monitored closely.
• Chinchillas are shy and require a lot of care as a pet making them better pets for adults than children.
• Chinchillas like many rodents, are very social and do much better in pairs than by themselves.

This is by no means a full list of what veterinary professionals need to know about these species, but this will give you the basics to help when they start coming through your doors.

What do you wish you knew about these species before encountering them in practice? Tell us below in the comments!

*Life spans and gestation periods will vary slightly from source to source. 


Laboratory Animal and Exotic Pet Medicine, 3rd Edition by Margi Sirois, EdD, MS, RVT, CVT, LAT, VTES

Small Animal Pathology for Veterinary Technicians by Amy Johnson. BS, LVT, RLATG, CVJ


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