ChewyBehavior / Stress & Anxiety

Stress in Small Pets: Causes, Signs and How You Can Help

Small, adorable critters, affectionately known as pocket pets, might appear to live a carefree existence. However, small pets actually are quite sensitive and require a bit of effort and know-how to avoid stress in their lives.

Pocket pets include domestic rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters. While they all fall under the same category of small pets, there is a variety of species represented, so it’s important to understand your pet’s unique needs, especially when it comes to avoiding environmental stressors.

“It really starts with the basics of proper environment and diet, which is not as simple as many caregivers think,” says Micah Kohles, DVM, director of veterinary science and outreach at Oxbow Animal Health in Omaha, Nebraska.

Small Pets Gets Stressed Out, Too!

In general, small mammals have a high propensity for stress because, from an evolutionary view, they are prey animals.

“Most small mammalian pets are prey species that, by instinct, are naturally prone to stress-related behaviors when environmental and social constraints are not suited to their natural behaviors and needs,” Dr. Kohles says. “Prey animals, by nature, tend to be more anxious as they are constantly evaluating their environment and looking for potential threats.”

Perceived threats can manifest in many forms for these little guys. Even the slightest upset can stress them out, which is why Dr. Kohles recommends that small pet parents carefully consider how household changes might affect their critters.

“Things as simple a dietary change, moving to a new home or changes to their habitat can induce stress,” he says. “And, if the animal is unable to cope, it can lead to stress-related issues and potential disease.”

Particularly stressful for some pocket pets are excitement and loud noises, such as fireworks. Before fireworks begin on holidays like the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve, put small pets into a darkened room they are familiar with—preferably a room without windows.

Use this helpful guide to reduce the chances of your small pets getting stressed during fireworks:

Infographic showing how to keep small pets calm during fireworks

Which Species Are Extra Sensitive?

Some species of pocket pets stress more easily than others, and they have a tougher time adapting to human companionship. Because each animal has its own personality that influences his behavior, responses and reactions to environmental factors can vary.

“Some species—like hedgehogs, sugar gliders and, to a slightly lesser degree, chinchillas—are not as quick as others to adapt to human environments,” Dr. Kohles says. “They are more likely to be negatively affected by stressors in their captive environment.”

Small mammals not well-socialized to people when they are young can form anxiety and have a difficult time adapting to captivity, as well. Dr. Kohles says this sensitivity might become a larger issue considering some of the unique traits of certain species.

“For example, chinchillas are very sensitive to heat and can become overheated even inside homes if placed in the wrong location,” he says, adding that chinchilla parents should avoid placing their small pet’s habitat in areas of direct sunlight or near heat vents.

Signs of Stress in Small Pets

Even the best pet parents might not realize their pet is stressed; prey animals are really good at hiding their stress.

“Signs tend to be subtle,” Dr. Kohles says. “As prey animals, they’re programmed to keep ‘weaknesses’ hidden as to not appear vulnerable,” which can make it challenging to recognize issues.

Many behaviors indicate stress, but Dr. Kohles recommends watching for these particular signs of anxiety:

  • Isolation or hiding
  • Struggling while being handled, especially if your pet was used to being handled before
  • Failure to thrive
  • Hypervigilance, which might include pacing or yawning
  • Guarded posture or freezing when you enter the room
  • Decreased activity
  • Decreased appetite
  • Excessive grooming or stopping grooming
  • Aggression or fighting with cage mates
  • Lethargy or excessive sleeping, especially in hamsters

In some cases, certain species, such as hedgehogs, have unique anxiety-related behaviors that no other species exhibits.

“[The hedgehog’s] natural defense mechanism is rolling up, which is not only an excellent defense mechanism but makes physical exams difficult,” Dr. Kohles says. “Hedgehogs have another behavior, less commonly known, called anointing.”

Anointing is when a hedgehog licks at a new scent until he froths at the mouth. He then spreads the scented froth on his body, thereby “anointing” himself with the scent.

“While the exact reason for this behavior is not known, many believe it helps hedgehogs deal with stress, and it is commonly seen when they encounter a new or unusual scent,” Dr. Kohles says.

Read about other strange hedgehog behaviors here.

9 Common Stressors in Small Pets

In his practice, Dr. Kohles says these tend to be the most common causes of stress in small pets:

  • Travel
  • Other pets in the household
  • Inappropriate living environment
  • Lack of enrichment
  • Over-handling
  • Decreased stimulation
  • Too much food provided
  • Social species being kept alone
  • Less social species being kept in a group

Dr. Kohles notes that undiagnosed pain can contribute to a pet’s anxiety, as well.

How to Avoid Stress in Small Pets

The most obvious way to ensure your pocket pets are happy and carefree is a regular checkup with a veterinarian who can advise you on proper husbandry for your critter species.

There also are steps pet parents can take at home. Offer your small pets high-quality food and treats, such as Oxbow Harvest Stacks food and Oxbow Timothy Club Timothy Twists treats. In cases where your critters need a boost to their regular diet, Dr. Kohles recommends Oxbow Natural Science Digestive Support supplements.

For species that thrive on alone time, choose a habitat and even a hideaway inside the habitat, such as Oxbow Timothy Club bungalow hideout, that makes your pet feel safe.

“It really starts with the basics, such as proper handling, environment, diet and enrichment,” Dr. Kohles says. “Provide enrichment that matches your species’ natural activities and foraging opportunities, decrease handling of more easily stressed species and provide an outside habitat or activity time when appropriate.”


By: Somyr Perry

Feature Image: via Chewy Studios

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