If you have any other questions or concerns after adoption, please call us on (04) 389 8044 to speak to someone in our Small Animal Team who will be happy to assist.
Wellington SPCA recommends buying pet insurance to cover the costs of unexpected illnesses or pet emergencies. When your pet is sick or injured, it’s a stressful time. Vet care can be expensive and you may face hard decisions about what treatment you can afford.
Talk to Wellington SPCA today about how you can obtain pet insurance for your small animal.
You will need some basic supplies before bringing your new pet home. Most of these items can be purchased from the Wellington SPCA Newtown Centre.
When you buy direct from Wellington SPCA, you receive quality products, expert advice and are helping to support other animals in need as all revenue directly supports us.
Hutch and exercise run (large hutch for rabbits)
Indoor crate or large cage
Food – hay, food pellets
Suitable bedding (straw, hay or shredded paper)
Brush or comb
Litter tray and litter
Scoop for litter tray
Toys, e.g. treat ball, tunnel, Slinky toy, hammock
Collapsible play pen
Getting a new pet is exciting. Please don’t be tempted to open the pet carrier on the journey home or try to play with your pet in the car. It may be scared and unpredictable in the car and may try to escape. It’s safer to wait until you get home.
Rabbits can live happily either indoors or outdoors. Most other small animals (e.g. guinea pigs) are only comfortable indoors.
Your rabbit will need a roomy hutch and an exercise run that will allow it to stand up fully on its hind legs, plus give it plenty of room to hop around. Place the hutch facing the morning sun, and ensure the rabbit has access to shade during the summer and is protected from the rain and wind during the winter.
For rabbits, the minimum dimensions for hutch size are 1.6 m (length) x 0.8 m (width) x 0.75 m (height).
Many hutches sold in shops are far too small for rabbits, but are okay for other animals such as rats or guinea pigs.
All hutches should connect to a run (as large as possible) to allow your pet to hop, run, jump and stand fully upright on their back legs.
We recommend a minimum run size of 3 m (length) x 1.5 m (wide) x 0.75 m (height).
The sleeping area should be slightly raised off the ground and must be weather-proof and draught-proof.
For rabbits, a large square mesh floor will stop them from digging a tunnel and escaping but allow them to eat the grass. Small mesh can hurt the rabbit’s paws. Mesh on the floor is not necessary for guinea pigs or rats.
Strong mesh sides will allow air and light to enter.
Your hutch must be predator-proof as dogs and cats can kill your pet.
There should be areas to hide and play.
Raised areas for your pet to sit on, sunbathe and look out.
You can litter train rabbits and rats and sometimes even guinea pigs (see information in the 'Litter training' section that follows). They can live inside with you as part of the family.
A safe place for sleep and unsupervised play with a water bowl, bedding, food dish, litter trays and toys. Guinea pigs and rats will ideally need a cage.
Supervision when loose in the house.
A pet-proof environment – tape electrical and phone cords to where they cannot be chewed (even if your pet is on its hind legs).
Consider getting cord protectors and covers for electrical outlets.
Move potted plants where they cannot be eaten as they are likely to be poisonous to them.
Remove children’s toys, clothing etc, that you don’t want chewed.
You can train your rabbit to use a cat door for easy access to a secure outside area.
Straw, hay or shredded paper atop a layer of newspaper is best.
Using treated timber and wood shavings as bedding can be fatal.
Rabbits and rats need lots of exercise.
A hutch and exercise run is not enough as they need time outside of this every day.
Provide supervised exercise time in the back yard where rabbits are free to hop around for at least 1 hour daily (this area needs to be secure and rabbit-proof) or use a large exercise pen. Rats and guinea pigs can be exercised indoors.
Your pet will also need mental stimulation.
Add ramps, tunnels, boxes, climbable objects, running wheels and plenty of toys to your pet's home.
Rabbits, rats and guinea pigs in the wild use high points to check for danger. Provide objects to jump up on and sunbathe or sleep so that they can exhibit this natural behaviour.
Rabbits naturally live underground so provide protected areas and hidey holes where they feel safe and secure. Rats and guinea pigs also need protected areas where they can feel safe and secure.
Boxes – some open on each side, some closed but with an entrance hole.
Wicker baskets (untreated ones) filled with hay.
Rabbits, guinea pigs and rats are naturally sociable animals and will enjoy lots of attention and company, but it might take them a little while to get used to you and adjust to their new home. Remember that in the wild small animals can be attacked by predators, so they are naturally fearful of a sudden approach, especially from above.
Never sneak up on your small animal.
Let them come and sniff you on their own terms, then offer a treat and a gentle pat.
Give the animal a few gentle strokes before picking it up.
Do not rush contact or force your pet to be held. Use firm but gentle handling.
Spend some time on the floor hanging out with your animal to let it get used to your presence.
The more you handle your animal the quieter and friendlier it will be.
Place one hand under the chest.
Place one hand supporting the back legs.
Hold gently but securely against your chest.
Rabbits’ spines are fragile and can fracture easily. The hind legs need to be secure so they cannot kick out and damage their spine.
Supervise and train children to hold your rabbit properly.
First, gently talk to your guinea pig and stroke it as this will help to calm it down.
Place one hand under the guinea pig’s chest, just behind the front feet. Use your other hand to support their hindquarters.
Keep a firm grip, but do not squeeze as their bones and internal organs are fragile.
Bring it close to your chest, still supporting it by using two hands – one to place over its back and the other to support its hindquarters.
If you are new to guinea pigs, or have one that really struggles, then you can kneel down on the floor to lift it. That way, if it squirms out of your hands it won’t have far to fall.
It is important to move slowly, and quietly, when picking up a new rat. Loud noises and sudden movements will put a rat on edge and make it more scared.
If your new rat is used to being handled already they may come to you willingly. If you have a rat that is nervous, or has not been picked up before, patience and confidence are the key.
Grasp your rat around the shoulders, just behind their front legs. The other hand should support their hindquarters.
Always hold a rat close to your body – do not hold them at arm's length away from you. A rat needs to feel secure when it is picked up, so hold it close to your chest so it feels a bit enclosed. Rats like to have 'walls' around them and feel like they're huddled inside something. They generally do not like to be exposed because in the wild this would leave them vulnerable to predators.
If the rat is very scared, it can sometimes be helpful to also cover its eyes so it is in a dark enclosed space.
Always aim to sit down when handling a nervous rat. Scared rats are capable of leaping out of a person's arms far quicker than we can stop them. You want to ensure it has as little distance as possible to fall.
Start your rabbit off in a small room first. This will be its ‘base’ room where you can contain them when you have guests or if you are at work. Preferably this room should be a bathroom or laundry with vinyl, wood or tiled floors as these are easier to clean and you will avoid urine damage to carpets.
Ensure the room has been rabbit-proofed. Hide or protect any electrical cords, pot plants or valuable furniture.
Place litter trays in an area that suits you, line with thick newspaper and fill with shredded paper, straw or litter.
Place fresh hay at one end of the tray, preferably well clear of where it can be soiled. Hanging it up is best, so use your imagination or look for a hay manger at pet stores.
Key tip: Place the hay at the far end against the wall so the rabbit has to jump into the tray to reach it.
Keep the rabbit confined to this space until it is successfully using the tray, otherwise you may have unwanted 'accidents'. Your rabbit is also likely to return to any accident spot to use again, this will halt the litter tray training process. Litter trays must be changed daily or twice daily if required. If you have two rabbits it is best to provide each with their own tray.
Once the rabbit is using the tray, you can allow it into other rooms. Your rabbit may choose somewhere else to toilet once given access to other rooms. Either place another litter tray in this spot, or place a litter tray there but offer no hay. It will more likely prefer the other litter tray and abandon this one.
Remember your rabbit is not going to be perfect all the time. Don’t take it personally when it makes mistakes – just remember to praise it when it gets it right.
For litter training in an outside hutch, follow steps 3 and 4 above. If the rabbit chooses another spot, move the tray and hay to the favoured area.
You can try slowly moving the litter tray in stages, from the rabbit's spot towards your favoured spot, but it is far less frustrating to accept their choice than to get them to go where you want!
Litter box training is most effective with young rats, but even adult rats can eventually be taught. A good cage clean is the first step. Empty the cage and set aside some of the dirty bedding. Wash and dry the cage thoroughly. Keep on hand a fresh supply of the bedding you've always used, which will only go in the designated litter tray. You'll need to introduce new bedding for all areas outside of the litter tray.
Place the new bedding down and establish where the litter tray will be. If your rat normally uses one corner to toilet, place the litter tray there. Among the varieties of litter trays available, those that you can attach to the cage work best, otherwise your rat might be inclined to relocate the tray elsewhere.
Fill the tray with clean bedding, the same type you’ve previously used, and place a little bit of the dirty bedding on top. This will help your rat recognise where to do its business.
Place your rat into the litter tray when you introduce it back into the clean cage. Repeat this process often. If you take it out to play, put it into the litter area each time so it becomes familiar with the tray’s presence.
If you see your rat using the litter area then reward it with one of its favourite treats.
Clean the litter tray frequently, no less than every couple of days, until your pet has demonstrated that it’s got the hang of things. Add a little dirty bedding on top of the tray after each clean.
Both female and male guinea pigs can be territorial and like to scent mark around the cage. Often guinea pigs will choose corners in their cage to toilet in, constantly returning to the same corner. When you have seen they have chosen a corner, place the litter box in that spot. Put your normal bedding in the litter box before trying any new types of litter.
Allow your guinea pigs to scope out their perfect toilet corner before placing a litter tray in the cage.
Put the litter tray in the corner that the guinea pigs seem to toilet in the most.
Fill the litter box with a familiar smelling and looking litter to the one the guinea pigs are currently on.
Wait to ensure the guinea pigs are content using the same corner before changing the litter.
Change the litter box every 3 days as needed and wash it every other week. This ensures that the guinea pigs’ scent is still strong on it, so they will more willingly go back to use the litter box and ‘re-scent’ it.
If all succeeds, your pet should still be happy to go in their chosen corner; but now you can more easily clean it by simply emptying and refilling the litter box.
Hay and grass should form the basis of your rabbit’s diet. Rabbits also need a variety of fresh vegetable-based foods. Rabbit pellets can form a part of their diet.
Hay is a vital part of a rabbit’s diet (do not confuse with straw which is for bedding only).
Provide a good-sized handful of fresh hay every day.
Hay provides fibre and helps wear down their teeth.
Purchase fresh hay from feed stores or some pet shops.
Make sure it is not damp, dusty or mouldy as this can cause respiratory illness.
Rabbits love grass, dandelion leaves, thistle / puha, plantain leaves and dock leaves.
Ensure they haven’t been sprayed by poison or repellents.
Rabbits love fresh herbs which provide health benefits.
Feeding a variety of fresh vegetables provides essential nutrients.
Introduce vegetables slowly, one at a time. If they cause diarrhoea stop feeding them immediately.
Rabbits under 12 weeks have sensitive stomachs so introduce greens very gradually at 12 weeks. This prevents diarrhoea which can be fatal at a young age.
Avoid pellets with dried fruits, nuts, grains and coloured pieces which are high in fat, sugar and salt.
Choose pellets with high fibre content (>15%) and less protein than fibre.
The SPCA or your vet can recommend a good pellet food.
Refer to feeding instructions on the bag.
Over-feeding of pellets is a common cause of obesity in older rabbits.
If you don’t know what it is, or whether it is safe, don’t feed it to your pet!
Fruits and special rabbit treats are high in sugar and/or salt. Feed as an occasional treat only.
While most fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit are suitable for your rabbit there are some foods you need to avoid altogether or use sparingly:
Use kale, spinach and silverbeet sparingly
Some fruit tree branches and leaves are suitable to eat, but not all, so check first
Give carrots sparingly – as treats
Celery must be cut into small 1 cm pieces as it can get caught in their intestines
Never feed your rabbit processed human foods such as chocolate, cookies, crackers, cereal, yoghurt, milk, pasta or bread
Corn on the cob
Leaves from evergreen trees
Wheat or grains
Fresh water must always be available and replaced daily. Use heavy containers for food and water to avoid spillage, or use a pet sipper bottle or container that clips to the cage.
Only introduce a new food or change to your rabbit’s diet gradually to avoid digestive problems.
A proper diet is essential for your rat’s good health. Rats are omnivorous, which means they eat both plant and animal material. Do not try to convert your rats into vegetarians. They need animal protein and can’t live on plant protein alone.
Rats love food and will eat almost anything. They seem to eat when bored, sick or just for something to do. Rats also love junk food so try to keep their diet as healthy as possible. Stay away from sugar. There are many healthy treats that you can offer your rats instead. Eating the same thing every day can also become boring for rats, just as it does for people.
Most commercial rat foods are unhealthy and should not be fed to rats. Many contain harmful additives, waste foods and chemical preservatives. Some contain kernels of corn that may even contain fungus and mould, tiny seeds and alfalfa pellets, which are hard for rats to digest.
Do NOT feed
Too much cheese (use a tiny bit as a treat).
Too much peanut butter can cause a rat to choke and they cannot vomit. They lack the necessary muscles that would allow them to do so.
Dried corn (can cause liver cancer).
Iceberg lettuce (full of water and has no nutritional value).
Orange juice or orange peel (causes cancer in male rats, although it protects against mammary tumours in females).
Blue cheese dressing – it's toxic!
Red cabbage (causes gas).
Artichokes (causes gas).
Raw banana, potato skins, green or starchy potatoes (not ripe all the way).
Poppy seeds can cause neurological damage and sometimes death.
Junk foods (chips and fast food products). Also beware of buffet foods with preservatives in them.
Excessive candy and/or chocolate. One chocolate chip, for instance, is fine and often acts as a bronchodilator which helps rats with respiratory problems.
Hay and grass should form the basis of your guinea pig's diet. They also need a variety of fresh vegetable-based foods. Guinea pig pellets can form a part of their diet.
Hay is a vital part of a guinea pig’s diet (do not confuse with straw which is for bedding only).
Provide a good-sized handful of fresh hay every day.
Hay provides fibre, which they need for their digestive system. It also helps wear down a guinea pig’s teeth.
Purchase fresh hay from feed stores or some pet shops.
Make sure it is not damp, dusty or mouldy as this could cause respiratory illness.
Fresh clean drinking water continuously, checked twice daily. Without water, guinea pigs become seriously ill.
Fresh grass / vegetables as often as possible, ideally daily. Guinea pigs naturally graze, eating only grass / herbs / some plants (e.g. dandelion/groundsel) for long periods, both day and night. Their teeth grow continuously. They need to wear them down and keep them at the correct length / shape by eating grass / hay / leafy green plants. Incorrect diets can cause serious dental disease.
Fresh portion of grass-based guinea pig pellets daily, as per the manufacturer’s instructions. These provide essential vitamin C, which is destroyed over time and quickly with exposure to air. Fresh pellets must be given daily. Don’t just top up the bowl – ensure pellets are used by the best before date. Guinea pigs have special dietary needs and must have sufficient vitamin C.
Fresh grass / leafy greens, e.g. kale/broccoli (excellent vitamin C sources), daily. Don’t give citrus fruits.
Give a larger pellet portion if growing / pregnant / nursing / underweight. Vets can give give dietary advice.
Safe, washed leafy greens / weeds daily. Some plants are poisonous to guinea pigs.
To avoid sudden changes in diet, never feed lawnmower clippings as these upset their digestive system, causing illness.
Root vegetables like carrots, or fruit such as apples, should only be given in small amounts as treats, e.g. apple quarter. Don’t feed other treats as these may harm your guinea pigs. They don’t naturally eat cereals / root vegetables / fruit.
Adjust feed quantities to prevent them becoming underweight / overweight. The quantities guinea pigs need depend on age / lifestyle / general health. They become overweight and may suffer if they eat more than needed.
Monitor the amount they eat / drink. If these habits change, their droppings get less / stop or soft droppings stick to their back end / lie around the cage, consult your vet immediately as they could be seriously ill. Guinea pigs produce two dropping types – hard dry pellets, and softer moist pellets (soft green caecotropes). The soft green caecotropes they eat directly from their bottom and are dietary essentials (strange but true).
If your rabbit has a healthy diet, plenty of exercise and gets a lot of attention it should live a happy and healthy life. However, things can go wrong. If you are ever in doubt you should talk to your vet.
Rabbits are good at hiding their symptoms as a sick rabbit in the wild is easy prey. Pay close attention to your rabbit’s appearance and behaviour – sometimes a rabbit that just looks a bit down is actually a sick rabbit. Handle and check your rabbit daily. Things to look for in a healthy rabbit are:
A healthy rabbit should be slim and sleek. You should be able to feel the ribs (but not see them) just under the skin without a thick layer of fat. A monthly weigh-in is a good idea. Any sudden decrease in weight is likely to be health-related and you should take your rabbit to the vet. An overweight bunny is likely to suffer from ongoing health issues so it is important not to overfeed your rabbit.
These should be clear, clean and bright looking with no discharge. If your rabbit is shaking their head a lot and scratching around the ears this could be a sign of ear mites and it will need to see a vet.
The coat should be shiny, flat and smooth. Dandruff most likely means your rabbit has mites, which will require vet treatment. Rabbits can also get fleas – your vet or the SPCA can advise on a safe flea treatment for rabbits. You can brush your rabbit with a soft brush to keep the coat looking nice and healthy. Angora and cashmere rabbits need a lot more grooming than other breeds. Your rabbit will moult a few times a year and will require brushing – they may look quite scruffy at this time!
Rabbits have two sorts of droppings – hard fibrous pellets and soft green caecotropes. Rabbits will reingest their caecotropes but usually do this at night in private. This is a normal and important part of a rabbit’s digestion and does not indicate ill health.
Rabbits’ teeth grow throughout their lives and dental problems are common. Make sure you provide your rabbits with adequate chewing material. Branches from trees such as willow, apple, pear, poplar and citrus or other untreated wood treats will keep their teeth worn down. Avoid trees which have been chemically treated or are close to sources of pollution. Any reluctance to eat or drooling may indicate a dental problem that should be checked out by a vet.
Calici virus is now present in New Zealand and is a fatal disease if contracted. Most rabbits don’t show a lot of symptoms and can die within a few hours. A vaccine is available from vets, but ring around first as prices differ.
Rabbits’ nails need clipping regularly (about once every 6-8 weeks). Ask your vet to show you how, as you can easily cut through the blood vessel. A paving stone or a flat river stone placed in an area the rabbit regularly travels over may help reduce the need to trim nails so often.
A large number of soft green caecal pellets in the cage
Your rabbit’s head tilting or any circling or wobbling
Maggots anywhere on your rabbit
Sneezing or nasal discharge
Blood or mucus in urine or droppings
Worms in droppings
Sore or bald hocks
Overgrown teeth or nails
Anything else out of the ordinary
Rats are generally hardy animals, and plenty of them live long and happy lives without ever suffering from any major health issues or needing vet treatment. However, it's worth noting that there are a variety of potential health problems and illnesses that your pet rat may get, so it's important to be on the look-out for the early warning signs of sickness and act accordingly.
Some of the most commonly observed health problems in pet rats are given below.
General indicators of health
Pet rats will generally be more active at night than during the day. Get used to their behaviour patterns in order to identify out-of-character behaviour. If one of your rats consistently does not take part in the usual group rough and tumble, shows defensive aggression to the other rats, or is generally lethargic, this is cause for concern. Also if the rat is not eating, disinterested in treats, and not alert or interested in interacting with you, it may be a sign of illness so keep an eye on it.
Your rat's coat should be smooth and sleek, and changes in the condition of the coat can be an early indicator of the onset of illness. A 'starey' coat (the hair appears to be standing on end or is disturbed and not smooth to the touch) should always be considered indicative of a potential problem.
Wheezing, sneezing and breathing noisily
Any problems with your rat's breathing can be an indication of respiratory distress, which left untreated can lead to permanent damage of the respiratory tract.
Most pet rats carry an organism called mycoplasma, which lives in their respiratory systems. While the organism is dormant and not harmful in most cases, some rats are prone to infection from mycoplasma, which usually manifests in juvenile rats as prolonged periods of sneezing caused by bacterial infection. This can lead to potential complications and secondary infections such as bronchitis, lung abscesses and pneumonia. So treat it early.
Occasional sneezing in rats is not necessarily cause for alarm unless it is recurrent or prolonged. Rats can fall prone to irritation, colds and dust inhalation just like people. So while sneezing should always be monitored and never ignored, it is not necessarily indicative of a serious problem as a standalone symptom.
Red discharge from the eyes or nose
Your rat's eyes should always be bright, alert and free from discharge. The nose should be clean and not runny. Seeing a red discharge from your rat's eyes or nose can be very alarming, but don’t panic – it isn’t blood. The mucus membranes of rats contain a pigment known as porphyrin. While a porphyrin discharge around the eyes or mouth can be a sign of illness, it also manifests when the rat is stressed. See if you can identify any environmental factors that may be causing it before seeking veterinary advice.
If the rat is showing any other signs of sickness, or the discharge continues for longer than 3 days, see your vet.
Parasites such as mites can lead to problems such as extreme pruritus (itchiness), which can cause lesions and scabs on the skin from constant scratching.
The usual treatment for mites in rats and other pets is a veterinary prescribed pesticide, such as Ivermectin. A skin scraping and microscopic examination of the skin slide may be necessary to confirm diagnosis of mites prior to treatment.
Scabs on the skin can also be caused by a dietary problem or food allergy in your rat. It is important to find the root cause of the problem by removing any potential allergens from the diet, such as foods containing colouring agents, artificial additives or nuts.
As they age, some rats will develop tumours. Female rats are more prone to this than males. Overweight rats, and those fed on a diet high in fat, are most at risk. The tumours are often benign, and start off as a small lump under the skin that steadily grows. They most commonly occur around the area of the groin or armpit.
Unless they become sore, impede movement or ulcerate, they are often best left alone in aging rats, although surgical intervention may sometimes be needed.
Overweight rats live shorter lives than their fit companions and are more likely to suffer from associated health problems.
Your rat's diet should not be too high in fat and your rat should be fit and active. Feed a diet appropriate to its age and activity levels. Rats are notorious for enjoying sweet treats and foods that are bad for them. So it's up to you to monitor their diet and ensure they're eating appropriately and not receiving too many treats, or the wrong kind of snacks.
Rats control their temperature through their tails and the soles of their paws. When the weather heats up, it's important to protect your rats from heat stroke or heat exhaustion. Make sure there is enough air circulation in their cage, perhaps placing a fan in the room with them. You might also want to consider adding a couple of ice cubes to their water, and even providing a shallow 'paddling pool' in the cage which they can use to cool off.
Rats also enjoy frozen treats like peas and other frozen vegetables. There's no reason why they can't enjoy the summer just as much as you!
Early diagnosis and prompt treatment will give your rats the best chance of a full recovery in the event of any disease or illness. Check your rats over every time you handle them for any sign of ill health or illness, and seek veterinary advice if you have any concerns.
To ensure your guinea pig will live a long healthy life, find a knowledgeable vet (ideally an exotics veterinarian) to provide veterinary care. A wellness check will familiarise the vet with your pet and give you a chance to ask questions. The vet can check for parasites, show you how to trim the nails, ensure the teeth are in good shape, and generally see if the guinea pig is in good health. The best way to monitor your guinea pig’s health is to weigh it once a week using a kitchen scale. Keep a chart! Often the first sign of illness is weight loss. A chart will alert you to any gradual weight loss, giving you an opportunity to get medical help early, which is when many illnesses are most effectively treated.
If your guinea pig shows any of these signs see a vet immediately:
Refusal to eat or drink
Labored breathing; wheezing
Crusty eyes; dull and/or receding eyes
Rough or puffed up coat
Diarrhea; blood in urine
Limping; loss of balance; head tilt
Excessive scratching or hair loss
Be observant. Unusual behavior (like sitting with its face in a corner and being slow to respond to you) could also be reason for alarm. When a guinea pig is ill, it can go downhill very quickly. Prompt, competent veterinary care can be crucial to saving the life of an ill pet. By the time a guinea pig shows signs of illness, it is often seriously ill. For this reason, an adult needs to be involved in the daily care of any guinea pig.
Most bacterial infections can be cured in the early stages with a course of guinea pig safe antibiotics. Don't be afraid to call your vet if you have any concerns.
Penicillin-based drugs (like amoxicillin) are deadly to guinea pigs. Make sure your vet does not prescribe these drugs. If you are not sure whether the prescribed drugs are safe, then ask.
A happy small animal such as a rabbit, rat or guinea pig will be a healthier pet. In the wild, a rabbit will live with other rabbits and have a home range of around 2 hectares. Guinea pigs and rats are also very social animals but have a smaller home range (guinea pigs are no longer found in the wild).
By keeping your pet in a hutch or your home you are taking away some of its natural instincts and pleasures. To compensate, spend time with them as often as possible and create a space where they can munch on grass, run around, play, or if a rabbit… dig to its heart’s content!
Rabbits, rats and guinea pigs need lots of play and enrichment to stave off boredom and for physical and mental health. Use your imagination when enriching your pet’s environment. Just ensure everything is safe, non-toxic and unable to cause injury.
Many people have great success in training their rabbit or rat to do all types of tricks from fetch, to sit, roll over, or even to jump through hoops. You can also buy a harness and lead and train them to use it, which can be useful to keep them safe when in unsecured outdoor areas.
Toys are a fantastic way for you to interact with your pet. Toss a ball and get them to toss it back before feeding (this is not recommended for guinea pigs). They will also appreciate having toys to play with purely by themselves. Rabbits and rats love to investigate, push, pull and play with toys. Alternate toys regularly to keep them interested.
Here are some toy ideas:
Fill toilet paper rolls with hay and treats
Hide a slice of fruit or vegetables in a treat ball
Hard plastic baby toys make great enrichment toss-type items
Untreated wicker baskets, wooden ‘fiddlesticks’, cartons and untreated fruit tree limbs make great shredding fun and are also important for wearing down teeth
Telephone books, boxes, cat tunnels and blocks of untreated wood are excellent for stretching up on, climbing through or sitting on
Remember to let them destroy these toys if they want to – that is part of the fun!
Rabbits are naturally outdoor animals and they will love the chance to kick up their heels in their own exercise area. Invest in an exercise pen or buy several and link them together to make a mega outdoor play area. Here are some ideas:
Add a variety of toys to the pen
Ensure they have access to fresh water
They can self-serve on the fresh grass
Sandpits filled with soil or sand make for a very spoiled rabbit, as they can push the sand or dig the soil, which encourages natural behaviour
Attacks from other animals such as cats or dogs
Escaping – rabbits may dig and they can dig fast!
Theft – keep your rabbits out of sight from pedestrians, if possible, as they make a tempting lure
Exposure – add some shelter and ensure they are not left in direct sun without shade or in wet, cold conditions, e.g. provide a tarpaulin and/or kennel
Rabbits are very sociable and often crave the companionship of their own kind. Having a bonded pair is a recipe for happiness, especially if you cannot spend much time with your rabbit.
Rabbits form powerful bonds and the loss of a companion can cause depression and illness. Bonding will take patience, time and commitment.
You will need separate housing for each animal until successfully bonded.
Both rabbits must be desexed to avoid breeding or fighting.
The best match is a desexed male and female.
Position their hutches beside each other.
After a week, swap the rabbits over to the other’s hutch.
This is best done in neutral territory where neither has been before.
Rabbits are extremely territorial and may use territorial droppings, urinating and aggressive behaviour.
An initial fight could hinder future bonding success.
Have a water bottle handy to squirt them if they begin to get aggressive.
Have a towel handy so you can use it to pick one rabbit up if a serious fight breaks out.
Consider wearing gloves and a long-sleeved shirt.
DO NOT put your hand between fighting rabbits.
Rabbits form a bond for life – they must not be separated as this will cause a great deal of emotional trauma to them both.
Work with the rabbits daily for at least 15 minutes.
The more often you work with them the faster the bonding process will be.
Rabbits that are not fully bonded need to be kept separate when you are not with them.
It can take a few weeks to a few months to combine two rabbits into a bonded pair.
If one goes to the vet, take both, to prevent stress and to aid recovery.
Get both checked as anything contagious will most likely affect both.
If they are apart and one comes back with a different smell or change in health they may reject each other and begin fighting.
Guinea pigs and rabbits
Do not get a guinea pig as company for your rabbit. Guinea pigs and rabbits are two different species and have different nutritional and living requirements. A kick from a rabbit can kill a guinea pig and a bite from a guinea pig can lead to infections.
Some good rabbit websites
These websites hold all sorts of information on caring for your new pet rabbit. Reading up as much as possible can help enrich your wealth of knowledge and the lifestyle of your pet too. We recommend you look at several websites to attain the broadest knowledge available. Some may have slightly differing information so use your discretion.
*Wellington SPCA has provided these websites as a helpful guide only. We are not contributors and take no responsibility for any of information listed on these sites.
Rats are social animals and have a social structure similar to human beings. It can be a loose hierarchy with the strongest dominating, but usually it is just a group of animals, of both sexes, sometimes greedily hoarding and fighting for their own survival and sometimes sharing and working together to meet their goals. They share parenthood responsibilities and care for their sick or injured. They stay together for warmth, for safety, and just for companionship.
Domestication never changes the basic nature of an animal. Rats still strongly bond to one another and an owner. They bond so much that when a companion dies, a rat will very often become withdrawn and uninterested, sometimes refusing to eat for a few days.
Rats that live alone often live shorter lives. They get sick more easily and take longer to recover from surgery or disease. In fact, anyone familiar with rats will always recommend not to segregate a rat after any surgery. The stress of loneliness is a greater risk than having stitches picked at.
A lonely rat will often act bored, depressed or nervous. It may be unresponsive. It may chew cage bars incessantly or dig frantically at cage corners. It may even revert to a rat version of self-mutilation by chewing its nails, plucking its own fur, or chewing on its own tail.
Rats can almost always be introduced to new companions, no matter how old they are, but some introduction situations can be easier than others.
Introducing a baby rat to another baby rat is usually the easiest, while introducing two adult males often takes the most time, especially if they haven’t been desexed. The overall introduction process could take several days or as long as a few weeks.
Rats are individuals, and sometimes they can take a dislike to a certain rat. You may find they constantly fight and can't live together. It is rare, but can occur, so be prepared to house the rats in separate cages – permanently.
If you're introducing a baby to adults, get two babies. This way they have each other during the introduction process and can comfort each other if they're being bullied by the resident rats. Don’t introduce babies to adults until the babies are at least 6 weeks old, especially when introducing them to male rats.
Look for signs of aggression during each step. It will indicate how well things are going and give you an idea about whether to continue working on the same step or if you can move onto the next. Obvious signs of aggression are huffing and hissing, walking sideways, kicking, and puffing up fur to make them appear bigger than they are.
Place the cages side by side so the rats can see and smell each other. Don't place the cages too close together or else they may nip each other through the bars resulting in bitten noses, toes and tails. Take something from each rat cage and put it in the other cage. This gives them a chance to smell the new rat close up without actually being face to face. Next switch rats to each other's cage for a short time so they can explore the cages and possessions. Do not put the new rat in the current rat's cage while the current rat is still in there, or vice versa.
Introduce them on neutral territory, somewhere neither rat usually plays, e.g. in a bathtub. Make sure you have a spray bottle filled with water and a towel handy in case you need to break up any fights.
There may be some squeaking, puffing up of fur or dominance behaviour, such as the resident rat flipping over the newcomer and aggressively grooming it. Don't worry if the rat being groomed is squeaking. This is the rat’s way of saying "you're the boss" – it is normal. If there's no blood, it's okay. However, separate the rats if a serious fight breaks out. Be very careful when separating fighting rats so you don't get bitten. Throw a towel over the offending rat and remove it using the towel.
You may have to do this step several times, depending on how well it goes. If possible, keep initial introductions short. It is better to end an introduction session on a positive note rather than having to separate upset rats.
If introductions on neutral territory appear to be going well, you can leave them together for several hours to give them more time to get used to one another. Provide food, water, and a blanket or towel to sleep in.
Next, let them interact in an area where the resident rat is used to playing outside of the cage. The resident rat will be much more aggressive. This is normal as its territory is being invaded. Once again, watch for signs of aggression and separate when needed. Feeding them treats is also a good idea, as eating together can be a bonding experience for the rats.
If all goes well, move them into the same cage. Remove all the objects from the cage and thoroughly wash and scrub it and the accessories so it no longer smells of any rats. Add new bedding to the cage, and return the clean cage accessories to the cage. Place each rat in the clean cage and watch them carefully. There may be a fair bit of scuffling and pinning of the newcomer, but don't interrupt. It is normal. As long as they're not hurting each other, let them work it out.
You may notice a bit of squeaking, dominant grooming, and an occasional squabble over the next few days as they get used to one another and determine a hierarchy. However, it shouldn't take long before they're completely used to one another and playing, grooming each other and sleeping together.
Guinea pigs are social, herd animals and thrive in the company of another guinea pig. A human cannot take the place of a guinea pig companion. If you are going to be away for a large part of the day, it is important to get a pair of guinea pigs of the same sex. You will end up with brighter and happier animals.
It is a common myth that two male guinea pigs will fight. Compatibility between two guinea pigs is determined by the personalities of the individuals rather than their gender. Some guinea pigs will fight with any pig you try to pair them with, but most thrive on company and delight in having a cage companion. The easiest match is usually between two babies or a baby and an adult guinea pig, but adults can also be paired up successfully.
When introducing two guinea pigs, ensure you have plenty of time and that you introduce them on neutral ground where neither of them have ever been. The kitchen floor, bathroom floor and even the bathtub with a towel for grip will do. In summer, you can use a good-sized run on the lawn. Have a big flat plate of food ready – sharing food (grass, hay, fresh vegetables) is a good way for guinea pigs to bond.
Don't put anything in with them that hasn't got two exits, so a guinea pig can't be trapped in a hut and bullied. Block off all nooks and crannies in the space you are using. If you bond a baby with an older boar, have a little hidey place ready that only the baby can get into if things become too rough.
Try not to interfere unless there are bloody fights. Most biting will occur to the mouth, nose, ears and on the back end. Accidental scratches can occur in the heat of a scuffle. Be aware that guinea pigs always have to start right back at square one after you have separated them and that too many separations can severely hamper any efforts to develop a relationship. Once you have committed, you have to see it through unless there is blood.
You can keep guinea pigs in separate cages next to each other for some time before putting them together so they can get to know each other. Don't be surprised if there is some teeth chattering from territorial guinea pigs. For this reason, introductions have to be on neutral ground.
Guinea pig behaviour can look pretty rough as they have to spell everything out. Bum sniffing, teeth chattering, yawning and putting the hackles up to appear more impressive, rumbling / rumble strutting (shifting the weight from one back leg to the other), chasing, nipping, head butting, and (especially with boars) humping from all directions are all part of normal dominance behaviour. Dominance behaviour can last for days, weeks or, in some cases with boars, be a regular part of their daily social interaction.
When you put the freshly bonded guinea pigs into their cage or hutch, ensure it is thoroughly cleaned and freshly made up. If possible, rearrange the furniture and toys so it is as 'new' as possible for both parties.
The dominant guinea pig might also block out its new companion from the sleeping hut, the food bowl, water bottle, hay etc, to spell out the order of things. It is best to have alternative hides and bowls present, ideally as many as there are guinea pigs. To keep boars from fighting and falling out, provide as much space as possible and have everything in twos – huts, bowls, water bottles, hay racks etc.
Normal dominance / getting-to-know-you behaviour
Bottom wiggling, raised fur or hackles, hip swaying
Purring or quiet / low rumbling while doing the above or sometimes without the movement
'Nose offs' – not necessarily aggressive, it's just like teens squaring off to each other and swaggering a bit
Bottom sniffing and cheek-to-cheek rubbing – scent glands are situated in these areas so these behaviours will be popular!
Dragging the bottom along the ground – a bit like territory marking
Mounting (from all angles – head, side and rear!) and chasing or chasing and mounting combined
Mild teeth chattering (fairly quiet chattering, almost like they are munching loudly on dry food or hay, just with a bit more volume, but NOT the loud clatter for aggression – see below)
Warnings / getting irritated and more serious
If one or more pigs are snorting (a bit like a quiet sneeze or a puff) this can mean extreme irritation
Stressed squeaking with increased volume
Head bobbing nose-offs accompanied with very loud teeth chattering and slight raising up on back legs
Yawning to show the teeth and/or giving narky little nips, kicking out and/or wee squirting – watch very carefully and get ready to distract them as they could be about to fight
Serious aggression / fighting
If the above behaviours do not calm down fairly quickly this can escalate into:
Guinea pigs lunging or pouncing at each other
Obviously vicious bites rather than nips
A concentrated mixture of most of the above warnings (snorting, obvious rearing up on their haunches as if rearing up to fight, raised hackles, loud rumbling, yawning and loud teeth clacking – this noise is unmistakable)
This behaviour will likely result in your pets causing serious damage to each other – separate them immediately.
Never separate them bare-handed. Always have a towel handy to throw over them as your guinea pigs will not realise or care that your hands are getting in front of their teeth and this can result in really nasty bites.
Ways to avoid fall-out between your guinea pigs
Lots of space, as much as you can spare
Two of everything including dry food bowls, wet food bowls, water bottles, toys, hidey holes, tunnels etc
Bathing can often help, but ensure you use the same shampoo for both pigs!
If you have females, try and keep them a distance from the males if you think this is causing the problem – if the females are in a completely different area, try and handle the males first as the smell of females on hands, clothes, items or faces can set them off
Sometimes guinea pigs may just not be able to get along and simply don't like each other. Sadly, there is little that can be done about this. If they look constantly stressed, even if they are not seriously fighting, it's worth getting their health checked and then reconsider your options about them.