Safe and Humane Handling of Small Mammal Patients
Valarie V. Tynes, DVM, Diplomate ACVB
Many veterinarians and veterinary technicians are filled with trepidation when small mammal or exotic patients are presented for evaluation. However, handling these pets does not have to be difficult.
NATURE OF SMALL MAMMALS
Understanding the natural history and normal behavioral repertoire of small mammals makes handling easier.
Veterinary Hospital Environment
With the exception of the ferret, small mammals are prey animals with highly developed senses of smell and hearing. In addition, most are nocturnal, cover seeking, and thigmotaxic. Because they can smell predator odors (dogs and cats), bringing them into the veterinary hospital causes stress and defensiveness.
To counteract the small mammal’s instinct to panic or struggle, create a “safe” environment:
- Set aside an examination room that is only used for exotic patients, which minimizes their exposure to predator odors.
- Dim the examination room lights and use a clean towel or nonslip mat on the table, which helps the animal feel more secure.
- If the last patient handled was a dog or cat, wash hands thoroughly and wear a clean lab coat or scrubs to further decrease exposure to predator odors.
Examination Room Handling
Be aware that the amount and quality of human handling the animal has already experienced will affect its tractability. Rodents and rabbits are likely to be tamer and less likely to bite if they are handled regularly and gently. Animals that have been handled roughly or in ways that threaten their security may struggle more because they fear handling.
When handling small mammals in the examination room:
- Observe them first while in the cage or carrier. The animal’s degree of stress or fear may be exhibited by a high respiratory rate; low, crouching posture; attempts to hide; or freezing.
- Do not remove the animal from the cage until all equipment that you may need is assembled.
- Ask the owner how the animal is handled and restrained at home. Use the least amount of restraint necessary.
- Approach small mammals slowly and calmly, keeping your voice low. Avoid loud noises and sudden movements.
- Instruct owners to bring the pet’s favorite food items. If anesthesia is not planned, offer very small bites of these food treats to the patient during examination and handling, which keeps the animal calm and focused on something pleasant. If an animal will not eat favorite foods, it is likely very anxious, afraid, or ill.
Educate clients that frequent, gentle handling of small mammals, combined with offering very small bites of highly palatable food items, helps the animal associate people with good things. This training makes the veterinary visit less stressful for the pet and the veterinary team.
GERBILS, HAMSTERS, MICE, AND RATS
Be aware that different species of small rodents have different temperaments.
- Gerbils, while relatively docile, can be very active and wiggly.
- Hamsters are well known for being pugnacious; some species, such as the Roborovski hamster (Phodopus roborovskii), while somewhat better tempered, are very small and active, making them harder to handle.
- Mice can be challenging because of their small size.
- Rats that are tame are generally less likely to bite than other pet rodents.
General Handling Techniques
- Keep initial interactions very nonthreatening, allowing the rodent to crawl on your hands to become familiar with your odor.
- If the animal is comfortable with handling, you may only need mild restraint, such as simply holding onto the base of the tail with one hand while gently cupping the animal in the other, for a brief physical examination. However, gerbils should NOT be held by the base of the tail (see below).
- In my opinion, while most rodents can be restrained by holding the base of their tails, they should never be lifted by their tails.
- Firmer restraint may be required if the animal has had limited handling. For example, most animals can be gently scruffed by grasping the skin over the shoulders; in some species, the skin across the back can be held as well. The base of the tail may be grasped with the other hand for added security (Figure 1).
- Even when scruffed, animals can turn and bite the handler; however, this is uncommon in well-handled rodents. If a painful procedure, such as an injection, is planned, additional protection, such as heavy gloves or a towel, may be needed.
Specific Handling Techniques
- Gerbil’s tails can easily be degloved of the skin and hair if handled too tightly; avoid holding the base of the tail to prevent such sloughing.
- Hamsters are more likely to bite if awakened suddenly. I recommend gently shaking the cage to rouse them, making sure they are aware of
your approach. Also, be very careful if scruffing a hamster; doing so too tightly can result in proptosed eyes.
- Mice can be restrained by holding the base of the tail and allowing the animal to hold onto the cage or a towel with their front feet.
- Rats that are docile may be restrained by placing one hand over the dorsum, holding the base of the jaws with the thumb and forefinger. The other hand holds the base of the tail and helps control the animal’s movement (Figure 2).
Similar to tame rats, guinea pigs are less likely to bite than other pet rodents. While most of the suggestions for gerbils, hamsters, mice, and rats apply equally to guinea pigs, guinea pigs are unique because they tend to be vocal when handled. Most of the squeaks and chirps made during human interaction are perfectly normal; in fact, a very quiet guinea pig is more likely to be sick.
- Lift the guinea pig from its cage, with one hand gently grasping the thorax and shoulders and the other holding the hind end for support.
- A calm guinea pig may be gently corralled on the table, using your hands, for a brief physical examination.
- A poorly socialized guinea pig, however, may need to be wrapped in a towel for examination.
- Guinea pigs rarely tolerate or require scruffing.
While usually docile and unlikely to bite, chinchillas can move very quickly and may try to leap from your hands. Restraint must be firm but gentle; the more firmly you hold a chinchilla, the more likely it will be to struggle. Use only the amount of restraint necessary to keep the animal safe.
- When removing the chinchilla from its cage, support the body with one hand under the thorax and use the other hand to grasp the tail base.
- Do NOT scruff chinchillas; scruffing can result in a patch of hair loss referred to as fur slip.
- Examine the chinchilla by wrapping it in a thin towel or lightweight blanket (Figure 3), which avoids any chance of fur slip. Use caution, though, as towel-wrapped chinchillas can quickly become overheated.
- Keep in mind that, if frightened, chinchillas may spray urine on the individuals restraining them.
Rabbits have powerful musculature and a delicate skeleton; a sudden leap while restrained can result in a vertebral fracture. For this reason, when the rabbit is on the examination table, at least one hand should remain on it at all times. Rabbits are likely to struggle and resist handling if they feel insecurely held, especially if lifted off the table. If a rabbit struggles, do NOT attempt to hold it more tightly; instead, put it back on the table, allowing it to calm down prior to further examination.
Pick rabbits up with one hand behind the front legs and the other underneath the hind end. Then grasp the rabbit firmly to your chest, supporting the spine in the C hold (Figure 4).
- Alternatively, lift the rabbit up by placing one hand under the ventrum, supporting the chest and hind end; place the other hand over the rabbit’s back, pulling its body to your chest like a football (Figure 5).
- Many tame rabbits will tolerate being held on their backs for examination (Figure 6); less cooperative rabbits can be wrapped in a towel. As with chinchillas, beware of overheating.
- Some rabbits remain calmer if their eyes are covered with hands or a towel.
- Return rabbits to their cage, hind end first, to prevent them from abruptly kicking to lunge into the cage (Figure 7).
What Not To Do
- Take care not to obstruct rabbits’ nares during restraint as they are obligate nasal breathers.
- Never attempt to carry or restrain a rabbit by the scruff alone.
- Never restrain rabbits by their ears; it can damage the cartilage and result in a dropped ear.
Similar to most of their prey, ferrets have an exquisite sense of smell that plays an important role in their intraspecific communication and hunting. Strong odors, such as alcohol, can result in a strong avoidance reaction, so use sparingly or not at all. Keep in mind that even the tamest ferret, when excited or frightened, can inflict a painful bite.
- A very calm ferret can be restrained by grasping the thorax with one hand, allowing the caudal part of the body to rest in the other.
- Livelier ferrets may need to be scruffed: Scruff the ferret with one hand, wrapping the other hand loosely around the inguinal area or using it to hold the feet. Keep the body slightly stretched.
- When stretching the body, be prepared to try different degrees of firmness—stretching the body too much can cause struggling; if the body is not stretched enough, the ferret will not relax.
- It is common for ferrets to yawn immediately after being scruffed and stretched properly.
- Distract ferrets during procedures by offering them strong smelling food treats. Soft food items, such as canned dog food or pastes (Nutri-Cal, nutri-cal.com by CSI Chemical Corporation; or Ferretone, eightinonepet.com) can be smeared on a tongue depressor and held in front of the ferret’s nose during restraint. Most ferrets will focus on licking the food, ignoring the procedure.
Restraint and examination of hedgehogs is challenging due to their spiny quills and tendency to curl up rapidly when startled. Numerous handling methods have been described for hedgehogs; the amount of handling the animal has received and temperament will play a large role in effectiveness of any restraint method.
- Use a large plastic spoon to lift a rolled-up hedgehog out of its cage.
- If the hedgehog remains rolled up, place it in a shallow pan of water, making sure its nose and mouth remain well above water. The hedgehog will unroll enough to allow an initial visual inspection.
- Allow the hedgehog to walk across a towel on the examination table. Grasp the hind legs, gently pulling back and lifting them slightly off the ground. As the hedgehog focuses on grasping the towel, it can be examined. Do NOT lift the hedgehog completely off the ground by its hind legs.
- Very tame hedgehogs may tolerate scruffing: Gently stroke the hedgehog’s back, front to back. After several strokes, gently grasp the skin over the dorsum (Figure 8).
- Less tame hedgehogs may need to be handled with leather gloves or a heavy towel; some will require anesthesia for proper evaluation.
- Examine a very tame sugar glider by holding it within a small towel in cupped hands. However, even the tamest sugar glider may bite if restrained too firmly.
- For a fractious sugar glider, use the thumb and middle finger to hold the head, while placing the fore finger on top of the head; the body is then supported in the hand. Use the other hand to aid in restraint of the body, if necessary.
- Leather gloves may be necessary to restrain some sugar gliders.
- Never attempt to restrain a sugar glider by holding onto its tail.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Leslie Sinn in the preparation of this manuscript.
Figures 1, 2, 4–7. Courtesy M.C. Tynes.
Figure 3. Courtesy Nathanial A. White II, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS.