Delightful little critters in the family

Luna and Lotus getting ready for their bath. Photo: Melyssa Mei

Rodents are the chewers or gnawers of the animal world. They are famous for having continuously growing incisor teeth, which is why they need to chew all the time. They also have pretty fur, round eyes and come in all shapes and sizes.

The poster rodent is the capybara from South America that are all over social media thanks to their super cool attitude. Hanging out with ducks, turtles, birds, cats and even jaguars, they are over a meter long and can weigh up to 60kg – not a pet you can keep in your bedroom!

Thankfully, there are smaller rodents, with hamsters, rats and guinea pigs being particularly popular as pets. We talk to three Malaysians about their favourite rodents.

Attractive but shy hamster

Husky is a tiny little hamster with pretty white fur and striking dark eyes. He’s an energetic boy, running around in his wheel and digging down into the deep bedding in his cage.

Husky is incredibly lucky because his owner, 15-year-old Tan Yi Shuen, a student in Selangor, works hard to create a perfect natural environment for him.

Husky with his best chews and rafia hamster cave. Photo: Tan Yi ShuenHusky with his best chews and rafia hamster cave. Photo: Tan Yi Shuen

“Hamsters in the wild spend a lot of time underground,” Yi Shuen explains. “To make them feel comfortable, you need to create substrates, which means lots of bedding layers, so they can dig deep.”

Wild hamsters live in grasslands and meadows across western Asia and Europe. They typically spend most of their days asleep underground, and come up during the night.

“They’re not very friendly,” Yi Shuen giggles. “Hamsters don’t cuddle and they are also solitary. You can’t put two in a cage. They need to live alone.”

In fact, hamsters are notorious for being bad-tempered. The two most popular pet species – the gorgeous gold Syrian hamster and the Chinese hamster – act like little gangsters, beating up any other hamster they come across. They have sharp teeth, and may nip their owner too.

“Husky is a year old, he’s been with me for seven months, so most of his life, but he’s still too shy to be picked up,” Yi Shuen says. “The joy is in seeing him being very happy.”

Husky with owner Tan Yi Shuen.Husky with owner Tan Yi Shuen.

Husky is a Roborovski, a dwarf hamster whose wild ancestors lived in the sandy deserts in Tuva, Mongolia, and Xinjiang in China as well as Zaysan in Kazakhstan.

“A happy hamster needs a large cage, with 100x50x50cm being the minimum,” Yi Shuen explains. “They love to dig and they need different materials to burrow into. So you need to fill at least half to two-thirds with bedding.”

Husky has shredded paper and cocosoil to dig in, as well as aspen and spruce. Bedding must be natural and cannot have perfumes or scents. Also, wood shavings and pine are not suitable.

They need a water bottle to drink from, but curiously, they don’t bathe in it.

“Hamsters clean themselves with sand; they can’t bathe in water,” Yi Shuen shares. “So you have to provide hamster sand. Again, make sure it is unscented and chemical-free. You can buy it in pet shops.”

Feeding hamsters is a joy. They love their food, carrying it about in their cheeks, and sitting up and eating it daintily with their paws. It’s straight out of Disney.

Husky eats hamster food, a mix of seeds, essential nutrients, and minerals easily available in pet shops. This is topped up with fresh veggies.

“He loves his chews,” Yi Shuen laughs. “He packs it away, and he keeps some in his bed too.”

Seeing Husky busy is a joy. He digs in his bedding, dives into his various hidey-holes, and for fun, he runs on his hamster wheel.

Hamsters may not be cuddle buddies, but if you enjoy enriching a pet's life, creating a paradise for these adorable cuties could be just your thing.

Clever, loving rats

When local roof rats Luna and Lotus found themselves orphaned after a cobra ate their mum, their future looked dark. Thankfully, Francis Yirdaki, the shop lot owner, spotted them. He posted their plight online and found Melyssa Mei, an animal enthusiast in Subang Jaya, who was willing to take them on.

“We thought they wouldn’t make it,” Melyssa confesses. “They were half the size of my thumb and they still had their eyes closed. When Francis put them into a box and sent them to me by motorcycle messenger, we both worried that it was already too late.”

As Melyssa has rescue experience, especially of tiny kittens, she got out her kitten milk and dropper.

Thankfully, Luna and Lotus survived. Today, the two ladies are fat and happy.

“They are affectionate to me and with each other – they are adorable,” Melyssa enthuses. “They share their food, their toys, play with each other, and never ever quarrel.”

Luna playing in her toy boat.Luna playing in her toy boat.

Luna and Lotus are grateful little animals, and seem to be aware of how well they are cared for.

“Their mum was feral so they have inherited caution,” Melyssa points out. “They trust me but, if they hear one sound, they'll vanish.”

They also show deep trust in their foster mum.

“They never ever bite me,” Melyssa says. “Even when I bathe them, something they don’t like, they cry a little but they don’t bite.”

Watching Luna and Lotus grow up has been a joy.“They’re misunderstood,” Melyssa points out. “Rats are super social. You can’t keep one as they need a friend of their own kind.” While these two rats are sisters who share everything, they have different personalities.

Luna loves to climb.Luna loves to climb.

“Lotus is always in my shirt while Luna is out and about, exploring,” Melyssa giggles. “They are roof rats, not the kind you see in the storm drains, so they are very adventurous.”

Roof rats love to climb. They need a tall, large cage with three storeys and a lot of running around time in a bedroom. Also, although they were tiny when born, adult roof rats can grow to seven inches long, and their tails add another five or more inches.

“They love to climb my windows,” Melyssa shares. “They run quite fast, and they love to have a good time.”

As rats are famous for having babies, Melyssa advocates that anyone adopting a pair makes sure their vet can neuter them.

“Luna and Lotus are sisters but you never know,” she observes. “As roof rats are sexually active at two months in the wild, and my two are almost that old, it’s best to be safe. My vet spays hamsters so he will neuter them both.”

In the meantime, the two ladies are well beyond their kitten milk and enjoying adult food. As roof rats are vegan, Luna and Lotus eat hamster food from the pet shop plus extra vegetables from the fridge. And surprisingly, these two ladies also love cooked pasta.

So, everything you saw on Ratatouille was right. Well, almost. Rats may not cook like Remy but they are sweet, sensitive, intelligent pets.

If you don’t come across a roof rat in need, but want to explore these pets, be assured there are many different varieties available, including the Manx rat, Satin rat, Dumbo rat and Bristle Coat rat.

Cuddle bug guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are famous for their plump bodies, high-pitched squeals, and super-loving nature.

Curiously, their Cavia ancestors came from the Andes mountains in South America but these little rodents were originally bred as livestock. However, when European traders saw these some 400 years ago, they scooped them up and introduced them as exotic pets back in their homelands.

Today, there are several breeds of guinea pig, also nicknamed cavys – from the Abyssinian which has eight symmetrical fur swirls or rosettes and the long-haired Coronet to the Siamese from Nepal that has striking albino looks.

Fince Ooi, originally from Taiping in Perak but now living in Petaling Jaya, has a trio of smooth-haired American guinea pigs: Gigi and Lili who are sisters and Lulu their friend who lives with them.

Fince Ooi, with Lili on his shoulder and cuddling snowy-haired Gigi and golden-haired Lulu. Photo: Fince OoiFince Ooi, with Lili on his shoulder and cuddling snowy-haired Gigi and golden-haired Lulu. Photo: Fince Ooi

“Guinea pigs are loving and very friendly,” Fince enthuses. “My three girls know their names and they love to cuddle.”

Gigi, Lili and Lulu sit on Fince’s shoulders, on his lap, and they whistle a cheery wheep-wheep-wheep whenever they see him.

Guinea pigs are famous for their attachment, but what is not always understood is that they must be with a guinea pig companion. Single guinea pigs can die from loneliness if their human goes on holiday even if they are fed and cared for by someone else.

“Always have a pair of them,” Fince agrees. “But make sure they’re the same sex. If you have a mixed pair, they will breed. The problem is that keeping infant guinea pigs is difficult. If you’re not a pro, they will very likely die. You don’t want to go through that, so keep only girls or only boys.”

Being mountain animals, guinea pigs are fine in the tropics generally but they do need to be checked for issues with heat and humidity.

“With Malaysia being hot and humid, watch out for skin diseases,” Fince warns. “Use the correct bedding and keep it fresh. Old bedding will lead to mould.”

Guinea pigs are clean animals and they will groom. However, some will need bathing too. This is especially true if you have long-haired or textured-hair pets. Washing isn’t difficult but they need to be dried properly – and at the correct temperature.

“I use a professional groomer to make sure the bathing and drying is done properly,” Fince says. “Also, I deworm mine every few months.”

Guinea pigs are fairly easy to feed as long as you stick to their natural diet. As they were raised for meat, they graze – just like cows and sheep.

These little rodents need good quality hay every single day. It is their main food. They need to nibble a lot because their teeth are always growing. Eating the hay helps keep their teeth a proper length and shape.

In addition, there are pellets formulated for guinea pigs available from pet shops. These provide extra vitamin C, an important piggy nutrient.

Of course, guinea pigs also love treats, especially bok choy, cabbage, lettuce and cucumbers. They will whistle for them, and when they eat, their faces shine with joy.

“Gigi, Lili and Lulu cuddle with me,” Fince says. “We have conversations too and we listen to music together. We are having our first party soon where we have human food and piggy food for friends.”

For the social guinea pig, a party is a chance to live their best life to the fullest.

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