Do you have a shy rat or a nippy hamster? All hope is not lost! There are very few domestic small animals that will not come around to handling and learn to enjoy spending time with their human buddies. Here, we’ve collected a few basic tips on how to work with an animal while you are letting them acclimate to you and learn more about their new family.
Don’t think like a human, think like the species you are working with
This means putting yourself in the mindset of a prey animal and understanding that you may feel cornered, and that our animal companions will respond with a fight or flight instinct when they feel threatened. Don’t corner an animal, do not grab and restrain them, and give them time if they are too stressed out to continue working with you. Be sure to keep your voice calm and at a reasonable volume, your small pet has a very good hearing and raising your voice will likely scare them off instead of getting their attention.
You are REALLY tall. Remember this
Try not to stand over a cage when reaching over your animal, seat yourself on the floor or elevate the cage so that you aren’t quite as big and imposing.
Be consistent. Commit to at least ten minutes for small animals and at least twenty for the larger ones.
It is generally believed that rats, in particular, can’t maintain a fear reaction for longer than twenty minutes. By handling your animal, through the fear, squeaking, fussing and panic that may be there in the beginning, you teach them that there was nothing to fear in the end after all. Work with your animal at least every other day so that they don’t forget what you are trying to teach them.
If you have an animal that is afraid of humans or associates humans with a bad experience, try a little bribe to convince them that you might be a welcome guest after all. Bring a special treat for your pet each time you visit their cage, and they will begin to look forward to your visits. When feeding your pet, be sure that you don’t feed them through the cage bars, as this may increase their likelihood of nipping a finger stuck through the bars later on.
Physical punishment doesn’t work
If your pet bites you, scratches you, or reacts with aggression, NEVER physically punish your animal. Use a stern ‘No’ and try offering alternative chew toys, or blow a gentle puff of air on an animal that is actively biting you to distract them temporarily. This shouldn’t be stronger then blowing out a candle. It is, again, a DISTRACTION, not a punishment.
End on a good note
If your animal bites, pees, poops, scratches, or is actively flipping out…now is not the time to end the handling session. You will only reinforce that the negative behavior gets them what they want, which is to be back in a safe place. Instead, wait until your animal has been calm before rewarding them with treats or going home. If you can’t get your pet to be completely calm, shoot for a “best point” to end the handling session.
Time your sessions according to the age and species of the animal.
Handling sessions should be a bit briefer for younger animals to give them the opportunity to go to the bathroom in the right place, which is not on you. It is also important that they have breaks where they can have a snack, re-hydrate, and recoup from what is initially a stressful experience.
Don’t invade their turf unless they know you
You can limit a lot of possible aggression by not retrieving an animal out of it’s home with your hand. Use a cup or other safety device to scoop your animal out, and either gently tip them out into your hand/lap or let them (preferably) walk onto you. Dwarf hamsters, in particular, can be very defensive of their home territory, but by showing your pet that you are respectful of their space, they are more likely to have a positive interaction with you.
With a little bit of work, almost every animal will come around and be a fantastic pet to handle. There are the rare (and we stress, RARE) cases that will simply not accept human handling, but this is usually the result of an outstanding negative experience. Even animals that have been through a lot of trauma can eventually come around and love the company of humans with patience and understanding.