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Causes of Stress in Small Animals and How to Recognize the Signs

Our pets bring us so much joy, with everything from love and companionship to laughter and, yes, even stress relief. In fact, multiple studies have shown how our pets help us deal with emotions, including reducing stressful feelings when petting an animal, lowering blood pressure when we communicate with our pets and lowering anxiety when watching birds.

That’s a heck of a lot of positive vibes we can attribute to our pets, no matter their size. The reality, though, is that for as much happiness and calm that our pets bring us, animals — and small animals, in particular — can become easily stressed themselves. “All animals can get stressed, no matter their breeding, background or environment,” said Dr. Whitney Miller, director of Veterinary Medicine at Petco. “Once we recognize that fact, we can focus on solutions, interventions and mitigation.”

Recognizing the signs of stress in our animals and understanding some of the ways to help are integral steps in keeping your pets’ anxiety down – just as they do for you.

How to recognize stress in small animals

Like humans, small animals are likely to exhibit some very telltale signs that they are stressed or in distress. Recognizing those signs is important so that you can remove the stressor from your pet’s life. On the flip side, some normal small animal behavior can often initially be perceived as signs as stress, so learning to tell the difference between the two will be key. “What we should all commit to first thing is to spend time learning about the normal, unstressed behavior of our small animals,” said Dr. Miller. “I say it all the time: You can’t know what abnormal or stressed behavior is until you know what is normal.”

Some common normal behavior that might be perceived as signs of stress in small animals might include:

  • Chewing: Keep in mind that small animals like rabbits, mice and guinea pigs love to chew and even may need to for their health, and thus they will often chew on objects to maintain the overall health of their teeth. It’s also important to know what types of chew toys to give to your small animal to keep this behavior as safe as possible.
  • Nocturnal behavior: Sleeping all day and being up all night — in humans, this would certainly be a sign of stress. In certain small animals, like hamsters, chinchillas and rats, however, this nocturnal schedule is common.
  • Digging: Most small animals like to collect and hide away items, so digging is a fairly routine and non-stressful event for them. Ferrets are especially known for their love of digging.

Once you gain a better understanding of normal behavior in your small animal, you can be on the lookout for signs that they are actually under stress. “I think we all know the most obvious signs, such as hiding and running,” said Dr. Miller, but there are some other signs you probably see often but may not place as signs of stress. For example, Dr. Miller suggests being on the lookout for:

  • Increases in respiratory rate and effort
  • Mild discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Freezing in place
  • Rats may exhibit red-colored tears from their eyes when stressed
  • Dropping or tucking away of their tails
  • Nipping

How to reduce stress in small animals

When welcoming a small animal into your family, knowing how to best approach your pet and their habitat will go a long way toward keeping them happy and healthy and free of stress. For example:

Practice proper handling: Most small animals require specific handling to keep them safe and happy. “Slow, gentle and low-stress handling is a great way to help our small animals feel comfortable,” says Dr. Miller. ferret being held by boy

Provide proper habitats: Different small animals require different habitat needs, including habitat size and setup, entertainment and space for privacy. You can consult with your veterinarian for advice on setting up the perfect habitat for your pet, check animal care guides or consult with store employees who have gone through training related to small animal care – like the store partners at your local Petco. One other thing to keep in mind: “Try to reduce the amount of noise when performing habitat cleaning, move slow when grabbing bowls and accessories, cup your hands or use the walk-up barn to scoop up animals and prepare them for safe, temporary relocation,” said Dr. Miller.

teddy bear hamster in play tube

Follow guidelines for healthy living based on your specific small animal: Different small animals require different levels of interaction and have different needs in terms of entertainment and companionship, as well. Use this species guide as a starter for the different small animal needs. Dr. Miller suggests also considering olfactory cues for small animals, as well. “Odors of urine, feces, dander and pheromones can be incredibly stimulatory and stressful,” she said. “This can result in aggression, pacing, increased rooting and marking.” By following proper maintenance schedules, cleaning vents and around all habitats, you can help avoid these issues leading to stress in your small animal.

Following the above guidelines can help you ensure your small animal’s living area is as stress-free as possible. For more information, consult with your veterinarian, a Petco partner or reach out to @Petco on social media with your question. Dr. Miller also suggests Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin as a resource. “It gives you a whole new perspective, seeing the world as different animals do,” she said.