Behavior and Training
Online Veterinary Education Library
Our team of specialists and staff strive to improve the overall health of our clients by focusing on preventing, diagnosing and treating conditions associated with your pet's health. Please use our educational library to learn more about health problems and treatments available for your pet. If you have questions or need to schedule an appointment, contact us.
Small animals exhibit a few instinctive behaviors that are part of their genetic makeup. Understanding these will help you be more effective in managing your pet's care.
Nocturnal. Most rodents are nocturnal, which means they are active at nighttime. Mice in the wild are nocturnal, but domesticated mice have been bred so that they are active during the day as well as at night. Rodents do best when they maintain 12-hour cycles for their body rhythms, with a half-day of light and a half-day of darkness. You will not be able to train your pet to change its natural cycle. The best way to accommodate a nocturnal pet is to set up your daily routine so that you can engage with your rodent, clean the cage and take care of other chores in the evening. When you wake up in the morning, you can clean out remaining food and soiled substrates and, if needed, provide a second meal about the time your pet is ready to go to sleep.
Burrowing. Burrowing provides a safe environment away from predators in the wild for rodents. They can rest, sleep or hide without fear for their lives. Burrowing is important to your pet's health, which is why it is important to provide a thick layer of substrate in the cage and keep it clean and dry. Nesting is another important aspect of burrowing. This is the way a rodent prepares its bed for sleep, or, during reproduction, prepares for the arrival of a litter. Be sure to give your rodent soft material to shred and use to create its nests. Paper towels tend to be the least abrasive material, which is particularly good for the tiny, pocket-sized animals. For larger rodents, recycled paper can also be used.
Hiding. To survive, rodents have to have hiding places - dark corners where they cannot see, or be seen, by predators. This remains true even in the safety of a cage. Be sure to provide your pets with a hiding box that is dark, has one or two small entries, but gives your rodents privacy and a sense of safety. Many small animals will sleep in their hiding boxes as well, make sure there is enough room for the animal to lie down and turn over.
Aggressive or problematic behaviors in rodents point more to difficulties with humans than with the animals. Usually, these are normal behaviors given the animal's activity and stage in life. Here are a few common behaviors that might require special attention if exhibited by your pets:
Nipping/Biting People. Most rodents won't nip or bite people unless they are given a reason. The most common reason is that people wake these nocturnal creatures from their daytime sleep, which frightens them. Just don't do it, or, if you have to wake them, be gentle, speak softly, keep the room dark and give them time to awaken. The less surprising the effort, the more likely your pet will respond peaceably. Other causes for nipping or biting people are when rodents are handled by unfamiliar people. Give them time to get to know each person's scent and get comfortable with any individual who handles them. They adapt pretty quickly, but do need the time to feel comfortable.
Aggression with Other Rodents. Aggressive behavior in rodents, including nipping, biting and fighting, often occurs with the onset of sexual maturity when animals are not spayed or neutered. Increasing levels of hormones and natural courting behaviors can lead to territorialism, mostly among males. The best way to avoid these problems is to have your small animals spayed or neutered.
Aggression also occurs when multiple males that were not litter mates share a cage. A completely new introduction of a companion requires time. The pets should be isolated from each other, followed by an exchange of environments while they get to know each other's scents. This is followed by a period of introduction through adjacent cages where each has its own safe space and can gradually get to know the other. When all signs of aggression are gone, you can try placing them in the same cage, but watch for signs of aggression for at least one month. If they are not fully familiar or comfortable, they could begin fighting and may need to be separated for a while longer.
Apart from these two circumstances, as long as there is enough food and space for all your pets and they are kept on a routine cycle, it is unlikely that they will act aggressively toward each other.
Lethargy. Rodents are active creatures. When they don't spend a lot of their time doing, there is a problem. The first thing to do is rule out a health problem by taking your pet to the vet. If the cause isn't health related, it probably is a result of boredom, loneliness or lack of engagement. You have to provide small animals with activities that allow them the physical, mental and social stimulation they need for healthy and comfortable lives. You may need to increase the time you spend with your pet and add new toys to their environment to help them overcome this lethargy.
Barbering. Some rodents experience areas of hair loss as a result of chewing on their own coat or having another rodent chew on their coat. Sometimes this behavior is a way of demonstrating the social pecking order in a community of small animals. It may also be a sign of a health problem, so be sure to get your pet checked if you see signs of barbering.
Small animals learn new behaviors through a system of rewards and the rewards are always treats. Use treats to help your pet socialize with people, leave its cage and learn tricks. Negative reinforcement does not work with rodents. Punishing them simply leads to stress and fear and it doesn't take a lot for these levels to be fatal. To get your small animal behaving in certain ways you'll need patience, a gradual approach, consistency and lots of treats.