Small pet spitballing
February 23, 2021 7:26 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering acquiring some flavour of small pet, most likely rats, rabbits or guinea pigs. I'm having trouble choosing between those different species, and most of the internet-at-large advice is geared towards which of those pets will be best for people with young kids, which is not and will never be a concern for me. Rat, rabbit & guinea pig owning adults of AskMe, what has your experience with these kinds of pets been like?

I've seen previous Asks on this topic where commenters immediately jump to "well, why don't you just get a real pet, i.e. a cat or a dog?". I am entirely uninterested in owning a cat or a dog at this point in my life. I like cats a lot, but as an ethical vegetarian, I feel super weird about having a pet that requires animal protein in order to survive (I know plenty of vegans etc. who have cats & square this aspect of cat ownership with their consciences, I just struggle to do so myself).

I like dogs even more, but I'm super squeamish about poop and vomit and would strongly prefer a pet that produces waste in pellet form, and frankly I don't have the energy to meet a dog's social and emotional needs right now. I also don't feel anywhere near responsible enough to own a cat or a dog at this point in my life (I am by nature a hyper-responsible person who nonetheless beanplates a ton about whether they're "responsible enough" for various milestones of adulthood that some other adults appear to jump into with what looks to me like very little forethought), and my domestic partner is on board with the idea of small pets but not cats or dogs. I'd love a dog some day, but that feels like a project for my 50s or 60s rather than my 30s.

Of the three options on the table, whichever kind of animal we acquire will live primarily indoors (we have a spare room with space either for a sizeable rat cage or a decent-sized rabbit or guinea pig enclosure), with the option for supervised outside garden nibbling in the case of rabbits or guinea pigs. I'm aware that all three species in question have social needs, and would seek to acquire at least a minimum viable group size (I've heard that pairs at minimum is best for rabbits & guinea pigs, and a trio at minimum for rats).

My main reasons for wanting pets is the mental health benefit. I'm also a very sensory-oriented person and find being able to pet a soft creature very soothing. My ideal pets would be chill enough that they'll happily hang out being petted while I'm on the sofa, preferably without trying to scramble around me or run away the whole time, but I don't know if this is actually a reasonable expectation for any of the species on the table.

Pros & cons that I've thought of so far for each option:

Rat pros: cute, sociable, smart, living space has a smaller footprint, soft coat.
Rat cons: nocturnal (given that I'm working from home full time at the moment, it would be neat to have a pet that's awake during the day, and I'm not much of a night owl); I've read that they're omnivorous and haven't been able to find a clear answer on whether they need to be fed animal protein to meet their protein needs or if other options work for them; possibly more active than I'd like (may want to climb all over me rather than sit and be petted).
Rat not sure if pro or con: they're short-lived compared to the other species on the table; I can't tell if this is a good thing (because I'm nervous about pet ownership in general and not sure I want to sign up for a ten-year responsibility) or a bad thing (because I'll bond with pets that are unlikely to live longer than two or three years).

Rabbit pros: cute, soft coat, can apparently be litter-trained, herbivorous.
Rabbit cons: significantly longer lifespan; I've heard anecdotally that some rabbits can become aggressive towards their caregivers, especially as they get older.

Guinea pig pros: cute, adorable noises, herbivorous.
Guinea pig cons: coats tend to be more wiry than super-soft (not my ideal sensory profile); adorable noises might be less adorable if I can't control when they happen; from speaking to former owners I get very strong "prey animal" vibes from guinea pigs and would worry about making them anxious by behaving like a potential predator (e.g. by looming over them when handling/feeding them); risk that if one dies, the other will too unless we can source a replacement companion pig quickly.

I don't like small pets that are too small or too frantic, which rules out mice & gerbils. I had double-digit hamsters over the course of my childhood and am extremely done with hamsters. Chinchillas are kind of intriguing, but they also live a very long time, seem to need more vertical climbing options than rabbits/guinea pigs, and I'm not sure I want a pet that requires dust baths.

Instagram is full of tiny, adorable, perfectly-socialised pets. I want to hear a more balanced perspective on owning rats, rabbits or guinea pigs from folks who've done it themselves. I'd like to adopt/rescue, but adoptable animals are incredibly thin on the ground in my area (and beyond) due to the pandemic, so I'm also open to acquiring from reputable local breeders.
posted by terretu to Pets & Animals (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I had two female pet rats (Daisy and Heidi) when I was a kid and they were excellent, wonderful pets: curious, smart, playful, and interactive. They lived in a largeish cage and we let them out, supervised, to play in a room of the house (this resulted in the occasional stray poop pellet and maybe a bit of pee, but I didn't perceive it as a problem). They were active in the daytime and I would not characterize them as solely nocturnal. We fed them Science Diet for rats (and occasionally some treats like peanuts). Heidi was a year younger. They each lived for only about two years -- that was what it was, and better to love and lose than never to love at all. I recently fantasized a little about getting another rat, but we have cats now (who are wonderful) and we didn't want to stir that pot. When we got Daisy she was an "only rat", which was fine. When Heidi joined the menagerie the two of them got along great and played together. After Daisy died, Heidi was an "only rat" but was also fine. I hadn't heard about the "3 rats minimum" thing; we played with the rats a lot outside of the cage (including outdoors, untethered, which may not have been a great idea in retrospect but worked out fine at the time). We got them at the pet store in the '80s.

My family also had a pair of rabbits when I was even younger, and they were not interactive and quite hard to relate to. (On the other hand, we have a friend with pet rabbits who loves them, so obviously your mileage may vary.)

I haven't had guinea pigs but I have a friend with some who loves them.
posted by heatherlogan at 7:42 AM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

We have skinny pigs; the hairless version of guinea pigs (I am presuming they have pretty much the same behavior profile as their hairy counterparts). They look like little hippos and are really fun pets! We have two, each with their own distinct personality. Their noises are really fun- they are quiet a lot of the time, but make noises while out exploring or snuggling. They also make the loud excited wheek noise when one of us comes near their enclosure, especially if we talk to them and say the word treat. =) They also run over excitedly to see what we have brought them.

Although they are really cute and entertaining, a few cons: 1) they are definitely prey animals; they hate sudden movements and are not keen on being scooped up although they will snuggle once they are being held and enjoy their face being petted/ears scratched; 2) they eat a ton of hay, which is messy & allergenic (obviously ymmv on that); 3) because they eat a ton of hay they poop constantly, we have to spot clean their cage & enclosure everyday. The last point is something I cannot emphasize enough, I had no idea how much work they would be in terms of cage maintenance. The bedding/hay also gets fairly expensive because of how fast they go through it.

I haven't personally had rats because of allergies, but our close family friends have had several batches. They are super fun animals, very smart and affectionate although none of theirs were cuddly per se. The rats chose a corner to do their business which made cage cleaning easier, but the cage still got pretty grotty by cleaning time (they did a full clean once a week and sometimes spot cleans in between). It was super fun taking them out to play and run around, and they would come when their names were called.

In addition to lifespan, travel might be something to consider. With rats, someone could come check on them every couple of days to give then fresh food & water and they'd be okay. The pigs on the other hand go through their entire water bottle every day and require several servings of hay, 2 large ones per day at minimum (seriously they eat SO MUCH HAY), plus a bowl of pellets. So figuring out what to do with them while you're away might be more challenging.

Feel free to memail if you have any q about the pigs, and good luck (small animals are great)!
posted by DTMFA at 7:46 AM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

We have 2 guinea pigs. The ones we have are fairly soft, but definitely not as soft as some rabbits can be. Their noises are adorable and they are quite interactive, friendly, and have some fun personality. They do, however, skitter away when you are trying to get them out of their cage. Once you catch them they are chill and will hang out for pets for a while. We have indoor and outdoor pens for them. When outside during the warm months we have to keep a close eye on them because there are lots of cats and Cooper's hawks in our neighborhood. They are around 5 years old now.

I had rabbits as a kid. Some were nice and cuddly and some were really frantic and sort of mean. It may depend on the breed.

I've heard lots of good things about pet rats but no personal experience there.
posted by Eriogonum at 7:49 AM on February 23, 2021

Response by poster: Extremely good point on the hay, I'm pretty allergic (I walked through a hay field without taking an antihistamine first a few summers back and my face started to swell up as well as the usual respiratory symptoms).
posted by terretu at 7:54 AM on February 23, 2021

**I just saw your comment about the hay - if you're that allergic, I would not recommend rabbits at all. The hay and dust is *everywhere*, and there is no alternative that we have found - that is why ours had to move into their own room, because having them in the living room was too awful on allergies.

I can't speak to rats or guinea pigs, really, but we have three rabbits, and I had one for 12 years that passed a couple of years ago.

I absolutely adore my rabbits - right now, I have a pair that was adopted from the house rabbit society, and I have a single that I took in when an acquaintance couldn't keep her. They are great company, and bring me a lot of joy, and I don't ever want to be without one.

Rabbits can mostly be litter trained, but I have only seen one rabbit that was trained not to poop outside of the litter box, and it hasn't lasted. (She was trained from a baby.) (On the plus side, most of the time, the pellets are dry balls, and easy to clean up without being a mess.)

Rabbits need to be fixed, as they are highly prone to ovarian / testicular cancer - they also do better with other rabbits without those hormones. (My original rabbit was not neutered when we got him, and at 10, developed testicular cancer, which was solved by neutering him.)

Rabbits can get stasis (a gut shutdown, usually caused by pain of some sort, I think), and if it's not caught quickly, they can die from it - it's a matter of days. They recommend that you don't leave them alone for the weekend, because if they get sick Saturday AM and you don't catch it until Sunday PM, that's not idea - the faster you catch it the better. They also have other potential issues - their teeth can get overgrown, any sort of pain can cause them to shut down.

I think you would have to be very specific to get what you are looking for - my adopted pair will only now, after two years, come up on a chair with me, and one of them will allow me to reach out and pet him, sometimes. They are very shy - I don't know what their experience was previously. When we got them, I would spend a couple hours a day sitting in the floor with them, and did that for several months. Now, I spend probably an hour a day with them, sitting, hanging out, doing care. If I spent more time with them, it's possible they would be friendlier. It's also possible that because they are a bonded pair, they are less affectionate with me. (one is a non-distinguishable bunny breed, and the other is a lionhead, which apparently are known for being stand-offish)

My last bunny, Mr. Munchausen, would hang out with me on the couch, and let me pet him - not pick him up, though. and he would chew every button off the remote and through any cables he could reach - I think that is a very common bunny thing (I had to soap the baseboards in the hallway to keep my other rabbit from chewing them). They need something to chew all the time - a constant supply of hay, plus assorted chew toys, to keep their teeth worn down. He was very social. He was a Rex, and had the softest fur ever.

They do need fresh greens as well - the type can vary, but right now, we are doing a "salad" nightly of romaine, green leaf lettuce, basil and mint. Other than that, we feed unlimited hay (and oh, the hay gets everywhere) and a minimal amount of pellets, because they have been having weight issues, and the vet has instructed me to eliminate them. I do give them some assorted dried herb blends as well, and of course, there are a ton of treats out there- but keep in mind that the treats at the pet store marketed to rabbits aren't always good for them!

Our third bunny was acquired as a baby by an acquaintance, and was socialized with people - she hates being picked up with a fiery passion and will draw blood (lops have crazy strong back legs), but she will come and see me if I go in there, will come and hang out with me outside of the cage, and will let me scratch her ears and pet her, but won't hang out in my lap or anything. We got her when she was about 5 months old, and she has half of the "bunny room", but doesn't get along with the other two.

I would recommend seeing if there is a House Rabbit Society near you - they probably have some intro classes, and also have some for adoption. If you decided to go that route, you could potentially foster some and see what you thought of them. The breed makes a difference for sure - I was surprised at how different the rabbit breeds are in terms of behavior.

For space, they really need an x-pen with some room to run around - also, our lop will jump out of a five foot enclosure (we had to put a top on it) but our other two don't hop over a 36" fence. They all have little hidey boxes (or wooden castles, in our case), but they have space to run around - about half of a bedroom.

I clean out their litter boxes every two days (and I used compressed pine pellets that are horse stall pellets, normal pine shavings are bad for them), and we order hay by the 50lb box when we can store it.
posted by needlegrrl at 7:56 AM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

So we're a rabbit family but after seeing your preferences I think adopting a larger rabbit might hit the right balance for you. Giant breeds (or even larger mixes like our Sophie) tend to be less skittery and calmer. One that has been handled enough will probably enjoy some petting/cuddling, though honestly Jasper keeps me company while I'm working while not actively being on me or even within reach. He'll flop down near my feet (and sometimes want me to pet him with my foot since hands scare him a bit) and just hang out.

Be prepared to have to secure EVERY WIRE out of their reach and also expect them to nibble every inch of baseboard unless you do wire walls in front of your walls.

All our rabbits are litter trained though they do still manage to kick poop pellets out sometimes.

Just saw your addition about hay - I don't know if rabbits are a good option in that case because it really gets everywhere.
posted by brilliantine at 7:57 AM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'll be honest - with all your requirements, I'm not sure a pet is right for you right now. One thing I've learned from years of pet ownership (and pet ownership mistakes!) is you can have all the ideals you want, but in the end this is mother nature, animals have personalities and tendancies, and there's going to be aspect of variablility (and poop!) regardless of what animal you bring into your home and all the research you do. What will you do if the animal you get doesn't actually check off the boxes you've listed? (Even my super sweet lazy cats i'd move heaven and earth for rarely want to chill on the couch in the way you've described, for example, but there's no way to know that until you know them!) Are you prepared to deal with the unpredicability that comes with pet ownership?

If you've thought of all this and have a reasonable plan, cool - i just felt someone had to be the downer in thread. I've only ever owned cats, dogs, hamsters, gerbils and for a brief period ducks, so I cant comment on the viability of other small animals, although I've always thought about chinchillas. Have you looked into them? (although on edit, not really a cuddly pet)
posted by cgg at 7:59 AM on February 23, 2021 [19 favorites]

I had guinea pigs for several years. They are sweet and adorable but I found them to be significantly more work to care for than a cat. You have to make sure you carve out time each day to spend with them. Also they poop everywhere, If you are a busy person I wouldn't recommend them but if you are looking to fill some space in your day and heart and they could be great.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:59 AM on February 23, 2021

Oh yes if you're super allergic to hay I would recommend against both rabbits and pigs, sadly. But rats are great!! Another potential option might be ferrets? I don't know too much about them, but the ones I've met have been pretty sweet. They are still cage animals so might fit your needs. Maybe other mefites can give you more info on them if they're a consideration?
posted by DTMFA at 8:02 AM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I agree that the hay consumption of guinea pigs is pretty huge. You can somewhat contain the hay in a feeder type contraption, and there is a range of hay at different quality, cleanliness, and price points, but that can be hard to find a consistent brand or source. Its hard to avoid contact with lots of hay if you have guinea pigs and allergies. Same goes for rabbits I guess.
posted by Eriogonum at 8:03 AM on February 23, 2021

I miss having rats so much! I had a pair some years ago, and they were just the best little pals. I fed them nuts and fruit and veggies, but mostly some kind of rat kibble -- I'm sorry, I don't know if there was animal product in it. (My apologies if I'm telling you something you already know, but the phrase you're looking for is 'obligate carnivore' -- I don't know if rats are one, though I suspect not.) The only specific animal product I fed them was hard-boiled eggs but that was for the hilarity of watching a rat try to eat a hard-boiled egg rather than any deep and abiding need on their part, and is certainly fine to skip.

They were more like cats than true nocturnal animals -- lots of naps, but they were definitely up and active during the day. They're deeply cuddly creatures; mine would hang out in a kangaroo pocket in a hoodie or up my sleeve. (Or, ah, not to be tacky, but down my shirt in my cleavage!) They are pretty active -- I wouldn't let them out unsupervised, but they were fine hanging out physically on me. They do tend to want to climb rather than be still and be calmly petted, although if they were sleepy, they'd just chill out on me/in my clothes. Be aware that in their cage they have a little waste corner, but out in the world they're a bit incontinent, so you might get a little rat wee or a tiny pellet left on you. I never noticed any smell or was bothered by this, but ymmv. I had boy rats, in case that affects anything; they're supposed to be a bit calmer.

I don't know if it would be an issue, but they do need a ton of enrichment; like, far more than my cats do now, for an example. There are nine hundred billion rat toys to buy and make, though -- I had tons of fun making little treat-filled toys they had to undo, or braiding them climbing ropes or whatever. It's something you have to do, but it's really fun, too.
posted by kalimac at 8:06 AM on February 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

There are different types of hay (Timothy versus alfalfa for example), so you could try ordering a few different kinds beforehand to check for allergies. I’ve had guinea pigs and petsit for a few house rabbits, (and also have had double digit hamsters), and despite only having limited exposure to rats, I would also vote rats. A lot of my friends who have dogs now had rats growing up, and they all get misty-eyed about their rats and talk about how wonderful they were and how they would love to have some again except for the short lifespans.
posted by umwhat at 8:12 AM on February 23, 2021

Response by poster: Couple of clarifiers before I step out:

I'm fine with rodent poop & pee, much less so with the waste of larger mammals with more meat-heavy diets.

I'm not sure a pet is right for you right now.

Neither am I, but I'm also getting kinda bored of living in a world of puritanical self-denial just because I struggle to live up to my own deeply perfectionistic ideal standards. I know plenty of other people who seem to have no problem acquiring animals without even a hint of a plan for how they're going to meet the animal's needs or a basic understanding of what those needs are; I'm confident I can do better than that, at the very least, hence asking for perspectives from people who've lived with these kinds of animals. I care a lot about a lot of things, and tend to think deeply and seek out data before jumping in.

What will you do if the animal you get doesn't actually check off the boxes you've listed?

Care for it and meet its needs as diligently as I'm able to for its natural lifespan, and then reconsider my future position on pets depending on how the experience went for me overall. I'm not comfortable with the idea of rehoming a pet that I've made a commitment to unless profoundly unforeseen circumstances arise.

I realise that I come across as kind of picky and rigid (that's autism for you); I know that animals are gonna animal and part of my job as a pet owner is to meet any pets I end up with where they are. My list of boxes is very ideal-world and I'm very aware that this is not an ideal world and that bringing another life into my home is going to involve at least some compromise on my part.
posted by terretu at 8:19 AM on February 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

Okay I take back my ferret suggestion after googling some basic info, they are definitely carnivores (shows how little I knew about ferrets) and seem like they would be more work than a dog or cat also. I stand by "rats are awesome" though!
posted by DTMFA at 8:21 AM on February 23, 2021

I feel like someone should mention that rabbits have two kinds of poo - the pellets that are harmless and easy to deal with, and then a second, more traditional poo that they will ingest a second time. If your rabbit is not great with hygiene, this can occasionally be an issue. Also our sweet girl was fairly destructive - here's my tale of that woe.

Our girl was litter trained, until she was older and it was a problem. (The incontinence was how we knew she was declining.) I kept her litter pans inside a larger more traditional "rabbit cage," which helped keep things contained, but she herself had free reign of the floor she lived on. She was super sweet and affectionate to me, but hated my husband and other men (would shoot out of her hiding place to draw blood). After all that is said and done, I wouldn't replace my time with her for anything. It might be harder to tell if small pets "love" you, but it's worth it when they do.
posted by librarianamy at 8:34 AM on February 23, 2021

I loved my guinea pigs but they were a ton of work. They need a much larger enclosure than most people think, so we ended up making our own custom one (google “cubes and chloroplast guinea pig” for how to do this cheaply and easily), and their bedding and hay needed to be changed out frequently. In addition to all the cleaning, they’re very social creatures and need attention every day. They don’t particularly like being caught and picked up from the cage, but if done regularly they will learn to tolerate it and not freak out. You have to be careful to support with both hands, their bodies are heavy and it’s uncomfortable for them to get scooped with one hand under their stomachs.

Once they were out of the cage, they relaxed and enjoyed running around or chilling and napping in my lap. You may already know this but they make a unique purring sound when they’re content. My guinea pigs were also smart enough to let me know when they needed to go back to their cage to pee. I didn’t train them, they just instinctively knew “I am on my friend and I don’t want to pee on her,” and would start pulling and yanking on my shirt to say they wanted to go back. The poops happen randomly though, they don’t seem all that aware... except the special poops they eat, they pay attention to those ones.

The cute noises didn’t happen at night, if that’s your concern. My pigs only did the loud “wheeking” sounds when they heard the fridge door opening because they knew fresh fruits and veggies often came from the fridge. They didn’t randomly scream in the night, they mostly slept.
posted by keep it under cover at 8:36 AM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Somewhat tangential to your question, but have you considered fostering or adopting from a foster/ rescue organization? Fostering does not intrinsically require a long term commitment (unless foster fail :)), and the foster family would have more information about the animals in question.
posted by oceano at 8:38 AM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I've owned Guinea Pigs and Rats and if you want something to interact with you and hang out with you a couple of male rats would be my choice. They are chill, the girls tend to be busier and be the ones that want to climb all over you, the boys get tired and want to snuggle more and are bigger in general, they can smell a little they are easy to give a bath too, but it's not a bad smell just an animal smell. Give them a nice big cage to burn off energy in and a bit of free roaming and they'll just want to sit and cuddle. Both are equally affectionate though. If you are looking something to snuggle then rats being nocturnal is a pro in my books as they tend to nap and wake up, then nap again like a cat, more than sleep a solid 8 hour block. They love nothing more than snuggling in a pocket or in a sleep sack on your lap while you work while you give them occasional scritches and tend to wake up early evening just as you're getting home from work.

A good brand of rat pellet will have all the proteins (vegetable) in a rat needs, and you can then supplement it with fresh vegetables, fruit and the occasional tasty treats like yogurt drops, no need to feed meat at all. Get them young, handle them a lot, save the tasty treats for only when you're handling them and they'll be your snuggly companions in no time.

I loved our guinea pigs (like rats they are happier in pairs), they're not big snugglers though, OK at being held but never seemed to enjoy it like say a rat or a cat might. Hay allergies made them a nightmare for my husbands hay allergies, which also got on their fur and made it so he couldn't even pat them without an antihistamine and they definitely need hay in their diet. One of them used to sing like a bird which was adorable. Rabbits also need hay. Both can survive without hay on just pellets, but hay helps wear down their teeth and they are really designed to be grass eaters.
posted by wwax at 9:03 AM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have LOTS TO SAY about rats (have kept them for the past 5 years, love them to bits, and am extremely invested in providing an excellent level of ethical care for them), but I am unfortunately massively busy tonight with work, so I will drop these links here for now, as they all contain excellent info.

I see you're in the UK - so am I, and these sites are all UK-based. All these sites promote rescuing/rehoming and ethical breeding, healthy and enriching husbandry of rats, and are opposed to supporting rodent mills and the pet shop trade in live animals.

Isamu Rats
- Several articles on how to consider, acquire, and care for rats, written by a well-respected ethical breeder.

Azuline Rattery
- Ditto.

Rat Care UK
- Facebook group. Excellent resource for anyone owned by rats or considering becoming so.

Fancy Rats Forum UK
- Quieter since the Facebook group took off, but still a good source of info.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 9:14 AM on February 23, 2021 [6 favorites]

P.S. Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like. My wife and I (who are, like you, autistic) can talk about rats for days. :D
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 9:20 AM on February 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've had guinea pigs. While their poop is indeed pellets, be aware that their pee is stinky.

Guinea pigs are happiest in pairs. They will come running over making cute squeaky noises when food is offered, but they don't really bond with their humans- to me it felt like they "tolerated" being petted more than they actually liked it. They were nice enough pets though.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:31 AM on February 23, 2021

Guinea pigs are happiest in pairs.

In many places, it's illegal to have only one guinea pig; google how unhappy they are alone.

Have you considered a bird, like a parakeet etc.? They vary widely in temperament, life span, maintenance, and emotional needs (not sure if you're ruling them out for a particular reason).

also Google "chinchilla dust bath" for extreme cuteness
posted by Melismata at 9:47 AM on February 23, 2021

Additional rat cons: They will pee on you. Every second time you take them out of the cage.
posted by eotvos at 10:31 AM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

If you really are that allergic to hay, I can’t recommend a guinea pig. I have a 50 lb. box of hay right next to me and it gets everywhere.
posted by 8603 at 10:44 AM on February 23, 2021

I don't think my rats have peed on me once in the year I've had them. They do leave one or two tiny drops of urine to scent-mark, but most of the time we don't even notice. I've owned both rabbits and guinea pigs in the past, and compared to the rats, they're just boring.

Male rats do smell a bit more than females, but tend to be more relaxed. The couple of times they've nipped fingers have been when someone held food the wrong way, and when someone had food all over their fingers. Generally speaking, I find them to be very gentle.

One thing with rats is that they need a lot of enrichment. That means a large cage with multiple ropes, ladders, hammocks, places to build nests, and places to poop. It's important to have some free roam time, preferably every day. If you have a room (even a bathroom) where you can let them loose, they'll be happy, and you'll see a lot more of their inquisitive behaviour. They're pretty tidy and will mostly use the litter trays, but also tend to spread the urine about a bit for scent-marking. Cleaning the cage is a sort of compromise - they'll scent-mark everything again if you clean too thoroughly, so keeping things too pristine will tend to result in a worse odour.

Rats are omnivores. Mixing some smaller dog kibble into the standard 'rat muesli' is a good idea, as is supplementing their diet with fresh vegetables, eggs, left-over bits of meat etc.

The Isamu Rats site is absolutely wonderful, and highly recommended, especially the recipes for putting together your own foods, and the sections on illness.

Rat lifespan is fairly brutal, at around 2 years. They can also be very expensive as their health declines, although that's true of a lot of pets. They will also pine for lost friends - so if you're down to your last rat, the humane thing to do is introduce more rats, or give your rat to someone willing to rehome it with theirs.

I have allergies (cats will make my eyes swell shut, just from being in the same house). Rats trigger my allergies very slightly, but I tend to take allergy medication fairly regularly, so it's not a problem.

On the whole, despite not really being a 'pet person', I find I really enjoy spending time with my big-testicled rodent friends.
posted by pipeski at 10:54 AM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

One thing to know about rats is that it’s common to develop an allergy to them with exposure. I guess this is a significant problem for researchers who work with them. On the other hand, given their short life spans, maybe you wouldn’t have to deal with the allergy for long, should it happen to you.
posted by Comet Bug at 11:20 AM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I vote rats, mostly because of the hay issue but also in my experience guinea pigs are prone to just dying for no good reason and hate being held, and because I've read about rabbits chewing absolutely everything. Rats!
posted by Lawn Beaver at 11:28 AM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've not had rabbits so I can't speak to that, but I've had both rats and guinea pigs and I think given your criteria, rats come closer to checking more boxes than guinea pigs. I found rats to be quite easy to socialize to human contact if you get them when they're young, easier to handle in general, and genuinely seem to enjoy interacting with people. They do tend to want to spend their handling time exploring rather than sitting for long stretches getting stroked, but it's not really "scrambling" or "running away" as it is just curiosity. They can learn their names and will come when you call them during exploring time just to check in. I think they're fantastic pets and of the "small pets" category come the closest to having relationships with their caretakers in the way that cats or dogs do.
posted by drlith at 11:34 AM on February 23, 2021

Regarding a guinea pig's ability to bond with their human - I think it definitely matters how young the pig is when you get it.

My friend had an older pig who never really got used to being held, she always seemed tense and frightened. Whereas my pigs definitely showed their affection. They purred nonstop while being pet. We had two and one was more mine while the other was my sister's (they lived together though) and mine frequently fell asleep on me or beside me, which for a prey animal seems to be a sign of trust. She'd flop right over on her side and get real comfortable. She also liked licking my face, although I think that was probably just because she liked the taste, and I also put a stop to that because well... she ate her own poo.

It's definitely not on the same level as a dog though, and I suspect rats are probably a step or two more affectionate and outgoing. There was just one time when I was sitting in the middle of the living room and watching the pigs have a run around. My pig actually came back over on her own and started trying to climb into my lap. I almost cried.

Also, in my comment above, I mentioned "chloroplast" but it's actually "coroplast"!
posted by keep it under cover at 12:43 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Okay so! I currently have two guinea pigs and a hedgehog, and I have had rats.

1. I love rats so much - they are one of my favorite animals - but I don't think I will ever have them again because their short lifespan breaks my heart. They are also kind of prone to abscesses and things that might trigger your sensory squick. But they are so, so smart and sweet.

2. After having had these guinea pigs for three years, one of the things I routinely tell people is "NEVER GET GUINEA PIGS." They eat a ton, poop a ton, smell terrible, and are not especially affectionate. (Your mileage may vary with that last one. I've met people who swear they have fun, affectionate guinea pigs. Ours just sit there looking vacant and/or terrified.) They sleep in my daughter's room, and she says they are very loud at night, wheeking and tussling. They will, however, sit in your lap and let you pet them indefinitely. They'll probably pee on you while they're at it.

Note: I believe all of the eating/pooping/mess issues are endemic to herbivores. My sister had rabbits and they seemed to be the same in that respect.

3. If you weren't specifically looking for something soft to touch, I'd recommend a hedgehog. They're quiet and clean and can be affectionate in their own weird, prickly way.
posted by missrachael at 12:48 PM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh! I forgot to mention -- if you wind up going with rats, look for ones that are rex! They have curly hair, and are extra-soft and fun to pet. (It's also hilarious if you adopt them young -- the curl sometimes needs time to express, so you might go to bed with a rat that doesn't look rexy, and then wake up and your rat has got a perm in the night. Speaking from experience, it is a delight.)
posted by kalimac at 1:26 PM on February 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

My therapist's kids have a hedgehog and apparently it is very sweet and has a very cute little personality. But not soft. Just seconding missrachael because when I was looking for small pets that was one I didn't initially think of (I ended up fostering cats, and would recommend fostering whatever sort of animal you think you want as a first step).
posted by clarinet at 1:27 PM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I had two guinea pigs. One was always suspicious of us, and the other grew to enjoy our company. Both were extremely skittish when we first got them, but they got used to us after several weeks.

I would love to have guinea pigs again, but they really are a lot of work.. spot cleanings throughout the week, and a once a week cage cleaning, 2x a day of veg feeding, at least once a week of floor time (+ cleanup after). We would go to the local hay and feed store and buy mega-huge bags of timothy hay, dust-free pine shavings, and pellets. So you need space not only for the piggies, but also storage space for all their food and supplies! You also have to be aware of which vegetables to feed them to make sure they are getting their vitamin C and less of certain types of minerals that could cause bladder stones.

That said, they are super adorable and funny pets. I personally thought it was hilarious how much one of the piggies hated us. She was definitely not scared, and when we'd try to pet her, she would use her head to shove our hands away. So cute. She lived to over 6 years old. We had the other piggy till she was almost 8, and she was such a wonderful, affectionate, chubby baby. I loved her so much, and I was so sad when she passed. Part of me doesn't want a guinea pig anymore because when you bond with one, and they inevitably pass away, it hurts so bad! They are prey animals, so the trust between you and a piggy is special. Losing that is hard.

There may be some places that actually let you foster or have a pet rat/hamster/guinea pig for a week. There is a location near me that does that and I did get a guinea pig for a week! She was a sweetie baby who didn't like me but liked the food I gave her. She would get annoyed and teeth chatter at me when I brushed my hair in the bathroom -- no idea why but I thought it was funny. See if you have any places near you that have this available (might be closed due to covid though).
posted by extramundane at 1:41 PM on February 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another rat vote! We have two females. They're pretty frantic with the running around when out of the cage, but it's funny to watch, and they also LOVE us (if we don't pick them up when they're out, they climb up our pants legs for a snuggle). Being festooned with little drops of pee (to make us smell deliciously ratlike I guess?), and the hassle of cleaning the cage every week are the only downsides. They are endlessly good-tempered and patient, have silky coats and wonderful whiskers, and as someone above notes can be left for as long as 4-5 days if someone looks in once or twice to check food/water. We feed ours "rat block", plus fruit and vege scraps and nuts in the shell as treats/playthings. We weren't big pet people and find rats to be just our speed. One note re rex rats: they get cold more easily, so if you go that way you'll need to keep the cage nice and warm. But our rex rat has a great personality so it all balances out :)
posted by ogorki at 1:45 PM on February 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have had pet rabbits and meat rabbits, and honestly I wouldn't keep rabbits again. They are pretty high maintenance in the health department -- as prey animals, they will hide that they are sick or hurt for as long as they possibly can, to the point where when you figure it out, it is a RIGHT-NOW EMERGENCY. I do love how sweet they can be, but if hay is an issue, yeah, that will get everywhere too. Also, they can be social, but you have to be prepared for them to suddenly and violently attack each other, and be sure you have enough room for them to be safely separated indefinitely if this happens.

Guinea pigs I haven't had but they also eat a lot of hay and there will be hay everywhere.

Rats sound like they might fit the bill for you. Are you averse to feeding a lab block that may contain animal protein? Or are you just not wanting to feed an animal straight-up meat? Because if it's the former, you'll be OK. The only reason I don't keep rats is because their lifespans are so short. They are such charming, social, sweet little animals.

I was going to say ferrets too, but they are definitely omnivorous and love animal protein. But dang, they are SO cute and funny and they live a lot longer than rats.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:29 PM on February 23, 2021

We’re rabbit people for about 12 years, and I concur with the kind of advice you’ve mostly gotten upthread.

Depending on breed, ours have lived around ten years, though our sweet Ada passed at age six due to stasis. Our small animal specialist vet says ten is kind of the average in his experience. I’ve heard of them living as long as 16. They can have a range of health problems as they age (as can we all), and that can take time and money to handle.

The money thing is worth mentioning. Many people assume small pets will be cheap. Not so, at least for rabbits — greens, hay, treats, etc. Totally worth it to us, but FYI.

The hay thing... it’s true. It gets everywhere, in every part of our home, whether the buns have access to the space or not.

The aggression issue — their temperament can change for a range of reasons. Bonding rabbits is usually at least a little stressful, so if you are going to have multiple, maybe look at adopting a pair or group?

Good luck, whatever you choose!
posted by cupcakeninja at 3:58 PM on February 23, 2021

Best answer: Other half of Morfil Ffyrnig here - rats are terrific pets, very bright and sociable and extremely trainable, with a lot of personality.
FWIW, they're not really nocturnal; they're technically crepuscular (active around dawn and dusk) but ime they're a lot like cats in that they basically sleep when they feel like it, and ours seem to pretty much adjust their schedules according to when we'll be around. They seem to know when it's breakfast time, play time, mum's-getting-home-from-work time etc.

How cuddly they are varies a lot; I've had rats that want to run around all the time, and rats that love to be petted and fall asleep on you. Very broadly, males tend to be cuddlier and more chill than females, and they mellow out with age. There are few things more soothing than a warm sleepy rat melting in your hand!
I would say that in your case I'd recommend getting babies from a good breeder - if you have them from kittenhood, they're likely to be much happier being handled, and a good breeder will make sure they're well socialised and often bred for a friendly, confident temperament. Rescue rats can be very skittish and sometimes never get really comfortable being handled. We've had rescues who ended up very affectionate, but the real cuddlers have all been from breeders.

The only real downside in my opinion is that, yeah, they don't live very long, which does suck.
posted by BlueNorther at 4:33 PM on February 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

Oh, and just to add - I've had rats, rabbits and guinea pigs over the years, and I think of the three, rats are definitely the most likely to give you what you're hoping for.
posted by BlueNorther at 4:45 PM on February 23, 2021

Also also, rats are omnivores in the wild but can absolutely be healthy on a vegetarian diet as long as you keep an eye on their protein. I recommend The Scuttling Gourmet for rat diet advice!
posted by BlueNorther at 4:55 PM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Guinea pigs are adorable, but they are more work than a cat. I can leave out food and water and my cat would be ok for a weekend. When we had guinea pigs, someone would have to come over and check on them because they absolutely require fresh vegetables and they drink a lot of water. They also require a much bigger cage space than you'd think to be happy - ours took up the top of one of those plastic banquet tables and had two levels. The idea for a 2' x 2' space per pig that they still use in pet stores was originally proposed for lab animals, not pet guineas.
posted by Ostara at 5:45 PM on February 23, 2021

Another rat vote :)
They are fairly high maintenance, though. Unless you happen to have a place where they can run around outside the cage without access to anything they shouldn't nibble (electric cables etc) you have to keep a fairly close eye on them whenever they are not in the cage. And the do need to get out of the cage at least once a day.
In the short time I've had rats, I have seen quite a range of personalities, from love-bug who loves to snuggle to busy-bee who is always on the move. I have a soft robe with long sleeves and a belt, and they entertain themselves endlessly just running up and down inside my sleeves and inside the robe. They are soft and charming and bright, and have distinct personalities.
Cage cleaning is another downside - you have to stay on top of it or end up with a stinky situation.
posted by Zumbador at 10:06 PM on February 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

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