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A guide to feeding your small pet

Read our handy advice on feeding your small pet

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Getting nutrition right for our smallest pets is as important as for our biggest. Nutritional health can be overlooked for some small pets, so check below to make sure you’re providing your littlest family member with everything they need.
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Hamsters

Hamsters should be fed a good quality pelleted ration, twice daily, which will meet all of their needs. Buy the most ‘natural’ looking food as brightly coloured muesli may contain many unhealthy additives. 

Fresh vegetables and fruit can be a great addition to your hamster’s diet, but should only be fed in small quantities as they can contain a lot of sugar. Avoid grapes, citrus fruits and rhubarb as these are not good for hamsters. 

If you are planning to change your hamster’s diet at all, do this slowly over several days to a week. This will help your hamster’s digestive system slowly adjust, and help prevent tummy upsets.

Place your hamsters food in a flat dish or directly on the cage floor, as your hamster prefers to find their food this way. You hamster will likely start to transfer their food into their ‘larder’– because of this, finding out exactly how much your hamster is actually eating can be difficult! Due to their food hiding habits, keeping an eye on their larder is important – it is easy to overfeed without being aware if your hamster is hiding all the food they are offered. Stored and uneaten food can go off, and may make your hamster ill. If you think your hamster is eating less than usual, always consult your vet, as this can be an early warning sign of many conditions. 

Finally, always provide your hamster with plenty of fresh water. Drip bottles with mechanical obstructions, such as ‘ball-valve’ sippers, can be difficult to manage for hamsters so ideally use a valveless sipper bottle. If you see your hamster is drinking more or less water than usual, please contact your vet.

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Rats

As any rat owner will tell you, rats are very intelligent and curious creatures. Part of satisfying that curious streak is to provide an interesting and diverse range of food, and to make your rat have to forage in order to get it. 

Rats should be fed twice a day, and any food uneaten from the previous feed should be removed. A mainstay of your rat’s daily diet should be a commercial pelleted rat food – take care not to use foods designed for other small furries as rats need lots more protein than other species and might be deficient if not fed a proper rat diet. 

Variety is key for rats, so supplementing their basic diet with small amounts of fruit, vegetables, hard-boiled egg, grains and seeds can be a great way to enrich them. This should be done in moderation however, to prevent obesity issues. This is especially true for high fat foods, which rats love. Although variety is important, new foods should be added to your rat’s repertoire slowly, to avoid digestive upsets and give time for your rat to trust a new food. 

 Although, as omnivores, rats can eat many types of food, some foods you should avoid include:

  • Onion
  • Circus
  • Walnuts
  • Rhubarb
  • Grapes/raisins
  • Chocolate

Scatter feeding, putting the food around their cage for them to find, is a great way to stimulate your rats, making them work for their food. It can be more difficult to check how much they are eating, so careful examination of what remains at the next feed is important. 

All rats need access to fresh, clean drinking water continuously. If you have multiple rats, it is best to have multiple drinking bottles, to avoid competition and make sure if one fails to work, there is still water access.

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Gerbils

Gerbils originate in Mongolia, and are accustomed to a very dry environment. This means food might be scarce, and to compensate for this they are prolific food hoarders. Checking their environment regularly to make sure any old or stale food is removed is an important daily task. 

Your gerbil should mainly be fed on pelleted gerbil food. This is nutritionally balanced and will provide everything your gerbil needs. Pelleted foods where all the nuggets look the same is best; although the colourful, muesli-type foods may look more interesting, gerbils are prone to just eating their favourite bits, a trick that can lead to them becoming nutritionally unbalanced. 

Scattering food around the cage can increase enrichment from feeding, and help prevent squabbling between your gerbils. Enrichment can also be improved by supplementing their diet with other foods, although this should be done in moderation. Fruit and vegetables can be given, and even insects (either live or freeze-dried). Do not give your gerbil grapes or rhubarb as these are not good for them. Seeds and nuts will also be readily accepted by your gerbils – use only non-salted nuts, and give all nuts and seeds in moderation as they are very high fat. Pumpkin seeds are one of the healthier types of seed to feed.

All gerbils need access to fresh, clean drinking water continuously. Even though they are desert animals and have a low need to drink, they still need water every day. If you have multiple gerbils, it is best to have multiple drinking bottles, to avoid competition and make sure if one fails to work, there is still water access.

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Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are natural grazers, and eat grass and hay for long periods of the day. This grazing is a really important part of their diet, not just for their behavioural needs, but also for their dental and digestive health. Without the action of the fibre from grass and hay in their diet, guinea pigs can suffer from serious dental and gastrointestinal disease.

Good quality hay should always be available for your guinea pig, supplemented with fresh grass when possible. Grass should never be given as clippings, as it can ferment and cause diarrhoea and discomfort.

Vegetables should also be a regular part of your guinea pig’s diet, daily if possible. Leafy greens such as kale and broccoli are great for guinea pigs. Fruit can be a tasty treat, but both fruit and root vegetables are high in simple sugars and should only be fed in moderation – these aren’t a natural part of a guinea pig’s diet and aren’t therefore a requirement.

Guinea pig pellets are a great way to make sure your guinea pig is getting everything they need nutritionally. These should be specific guinea pig pellets, as they will contain high levels of vitamin C which guinea pigs need and may not be available in preparations made for other species. Fresh pellets must be given daily, else the vitamin C may degrade, Do not be tempted to supplement your guinea pig with citrus fruit, however – this isn’t good for them, and is not recommended.

Pellets are high energy, and should not be the main bulk of your guinea pigs diet. Your guinea pig’s need for pellets will change depending on their health status – underweight, nursing or pregnant guinea pigs will need more. Speaking with your vet and weighing your guinea pig regularly can help you find the right amount for your guinea pig.

Water is hugely important for guinea pigs, and as many guinea pigs live outside, it is important that their water supply doesn’t freeze in winter. Fresh water should be provided every day, and water bottles should be checked regularly to make sure they are functioning well. Contact your vet if your guinea pig seems to be drinking or eating more or less than usual.

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Degus

Degus need a lot of fibre in their diet to stay healthy. Both their dental health and gastrointestinal health rely on an appropriate intake of fibrous foods, such as hay. Having constant access to fresh, sweet-smelling hay is a key part of the healthy degu diet, and also keeps them from developing behavioural problems which may develop if they cannot act out their natural instinct to graze-feed. 

Hay does not meet all of a degu’s dietary requirements however, and degus also need to be fed a high-quality pelleted food twice daily alongside – on average this should be about 10g total per day. Many degus would eat more than this, but this will impact on the amount of hay they consume, which will have a knock-on effect on health. A degu-specific feed is best, but a high-quality guinea pig pellet will also suffice, or a chinchilla pellet (not mix, as these often contain high sugar fruit pieces). These contain all the vitamins and minerals your degu will need, including vitamin C, which is not present in all small animal pellets. Hamster, gerbil and rabbit feeds are all unsuitable for degus; these are often high in protein, which can damage degu kidneys. 

As well as their hay and pelleted food degu’s can have treats, such as a small portion of vegetables such as peas, beans, dandelion, leafy greens, red peppers, parsley and broccoli. Avoid cabbage, as this is unsuitable for the degu digestive system. Fruit should also be avoided; sugar is very bad for degus and high sugar foods such as fruit, or dry food with added molasses, should be avoided. 

Making any changes to your degu’s diet should be done slowly, introducing the new feed in slowly greater quantities, whilst decreasing any old foods you wish to phase out. This conversation should take 1-2 weeks. 

All degus should have fresh, clean water at all times. Water bottles are the best way to do this to keep the water clean, and these need to be regularly changed. 

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Chinchillas

Chinchillas have a complex digestive system, which can be managed well by providing the right types of food for them on a daily basis. Chinchillas need a lot of fibre in their diet to stay healthy, and actually some types of fibre will go round their digestive system twice – after the first trip through the intestines the digestible fibre is excreted as a special type of faeces called a ‘caecotroph’, which they eat so they can get maximum nutrition from their food. Both chinchilla dental health and gastrointestinal health rely on an appropriate intake of fibrous foods, such as hay. Having constant access to fresh, sweet-smelling hay is a key part of the healthy chinchilla diet, and also keeps them from developing behavioural problems which may develop if they cannot act out their natural instinct to graze-feed. 

As well as hay chinchillas need to be offered daily quantities of a chinchilla pellet. The best pellets all look the same – this can seem boring to us, but makes sure your chinchilla gets all the nutrients they need every day. In chinchilla mix, which has a range of different parts, chinchillas are liable to pick out and only eat their favourite bits. This selective feeding can lead to nutritional deficiencies. 

On top of their base diet of hay and chinchilla pellets, chinchillas can also have some vegetables as treats – this should be very small amounts, the size of your thumbnail. Overfeeding can have serious dietary consequences for your chinchilla, such as bloat. Chinchillas are also very sensitive to sugar, so high sugar options such as fruit should be avoided. 

Foods to avoid include:

  • Fruit
  • Asparagus
  • Peas
  • Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Broccoli
  • Rhubarb
  • Spinach
  • Carrot
  • Celery
  • Grass clippings

All chinchillas should have fresh, clean water at all times. Water bottles are the best way to do this to keep the water clean, and these need to be regularly changed.