Pocket Pets: A Looming Animal Sheltering Crisis
Updated: Oct 17, 2019
Within the animal community small animals are considered “pocket pets”. These animals range from mammal to avian to reptile, and even cover some in between. Our animal shelter, in any given week, will field surrender calls for hamsters, ferrets, geckos, snakes, rats, mice, turtles, rabbits, birds, and even fish! While pocket pets have long been a pet shop staple their inclusion in the sheltering world has yet to become fully universal. Shelters with physical buildings, generally, aren’t built with the inclusion of small animal cages and spaces. When most shelters were being built in the '90s and '00s, guinea pigs and tortoises were not animals that ranked high on their intake ledgers. Adding to the difficulty is the animals themselves, they’re fragile, their sizes differ greatly, their needs are much more specific than domestic animals.
As any animal person looks back on their own life, they’re likely to remember the guinea pig or rabbit they bought from the local pet store, or maybe the parakeet pair, or even the iguana. In my own youth, I badgered a caretaker into allowing me to have a chameleon. He came home and was set up in a small glass cage with branches and some water. He lived a few weeks. I didn’t know any better level of care of a chameleon, I had checked out library books on the topic, but they had only given me a small overview of the basic life of the animal. Today with the 24/7 access to the internet, and within it, seemingly every piece of information and knowledge one could ever need, pocket pets are living longer and better lives after being purchased.
The rabbit that was purchased at a small pet store in the 90s that might have lived 6 months to a year because the new owner knew only to feed it iceberg lettuce and pellets is largely a thing of the past. Today we see rabbits that are being surrendered 4 years after their original purchasing, they’ve had veterinary care, they’ve been spayed or neutered, they’re groomed regularly, and they’re on course to live another 4 years. As small animals live longer and better lives their owners are more committed to their care, and when difficulties arise, more committed to finding appropriate sheltering for them and rehoming.
The rise and fall of the mom and pop pet store versus the big chains has also impacted these species. As the small privately-owned pet stores die off the large chains have filled the gaps and expanded to be in as many communities as possible. As nationally known pet stores take control their reputations and regulation have led to an increase in consumer confidence. Now they offer guarantees, warranties, and even assistance and education to persons buying a new small animal. Big chain pet stores have moved away from cat and dog sales and have moved toward opening their spaces to adoptable animals. While this is great for the domestic pets and the animal sheltering community, it does leave the small animals as the last available impulse buys. While the modern-day pet store is no longer that of overpopulation and money driven animal care it still provides the opportunity for people who are not prepared or able to care for a pet to acquire one easily. Sales are sales, there aren’t landlord checks or calls to the veterinarian to see if the person purchasing the animal is competent and ready to care for an animal. As small pet stores sprung up all across the country in 70s and 80s selling kittens and puppies, we saw a reciprocal response in the 80s and 90s of animal welfare groups organizing and then building physical spaces to accommodate what had become a serious population issue. Now as we have watched mindsets and concerns shift in recent years, we are faced with a familiar problem… but this time the species are a lot more varied, they’re fragile, and their needs are not similar to one another.
Reptiles are unable to maintain a consistent internal temperature. Birds can range in size from an ostrich to a parakeet. A sulcata tortoise can grow to the size of a living room table. A rabbit is fertile from the age of 6 months on and can birth a dozen offspring and then get pregnant again within hours. Adult mice housed with small young mice are likely to eat them. Rats, in large numbers, will pass along colds. Birds that have been outdoors may pick up a highly contagious mite load. Many existing shelters have no spaces built for these purposes. New buildings that are under construction or have recently opened or reopened have worked to incorporate spaces that are meant to accommodate them. While visiting Lollipop Farm Humane Society in New York recently I toured their small animal space. They chose to keep a large area blocked off that focused more on having flexible space inside it than accommodating specific needs of species. At the Gwinnett Animal Shelter in Georgia I toured their small animal room, an area that had a previous use but had been reassigned to house the wide variety of small animals they were now responsible for. Some organizations were proactive in their building and built spaces to house rabbits and guinea pigs, these spaces now are being stretched to capacity with tiny cages for hamsters and filled with tables topped with reptile cages. The APCSM in Brockton was built with a rabbit room and as they have seen their pocket pet intake numbers go up, they have filled their halls with bird cages and topped open surfaces with caged mice and gerbils.
Here at Forever Paws we live within a building that was constructed in 2003. 16 years ago, or even for that matter 6 years ago, we focused on accepting cats and dogs. Very rarely a rabbit or pair of guinea pigs might enter the shelter. But now, like the other groups mentioned we are seeing an increase in homeless pocket pets. In less than 3 years we have taken in 745 small animals. Through animal control, owner surrenders, and work with other humane groups we have housed quail, chickens, turtles, mice, rats, a goat, pigs, chinchillas, 4 snakes, and 75 rats. Rabbits and guinea pigs have transitioned from a rare shelter resident to numbers nearing 400. Our filing cabinets are now frequently topped with parakeets, our spare spaces in the hallways are home to rabbits, rats, and guinea pigs. Ferrets live in our kitten room in the off season. Doves, wayward pigeons, and parrots have joined us in our offices. Staff foster newborn rats and hamsters in their homes until they’re old enough for adoption. We have worked with PetSmart to feature our available small animals in their adoption centers in an effort to find more homes. A visit to PetSmart in Fall River, Raynham, Attleboro, Leominster, and at any given time several others will give you the chance to meet adoptable small animals alongside those available for sale. Our community adoption events that were once stocked entirely of cats and dogs now feature rabbits and parakeets. Our press appearances include reptiles and flying squirrels. Our Facebook page tells the story of pet rats rescued from a trailer home, in addition to the human resident was a population of nearly 150 rats. The stories have no end, the species are now more numerous than ever. Today we live in a society that thankfully takes the future of a homeless horse, cow, goat, cat, rat, and hamster seriously.
As we move forward as an animal welfare community, we will continue to face new issues and we’ll have to continue facing the same old issues that brought us into existence. It’s worth noting that several of the oldest and largest humane organizations in the United States were born out of a concern for working horses. Our field has transitioned as the needs of the world around us has. Now we stand at the forefront of the next challenge; small animals. Our shelters, this time, face an issue that has no easy solution or fix. How do we accommodate animals that need 90% humidity alongside animals that are nocturnal? In what space are we going to be able to appropriately house a domesticated pig and an amazon parrot? What will be needed to adjust the building or spaces within it to care for an anole, bearded dragons, fish, or hedgehogs?
At Forever Paws Animals Shelter
We at Forever Paws work constantly to train and learn about these new species and their needs. However, our preparation and planning are only one small piece in the overall issue. Without adoptions all our efforts will be for naught. Even animal people are prone to “ew” and cringe at the sight of a snake. Adopters will still view rats and mice and even hamsters as vermin. Visitors to the shelter will ask why we don’t just flush the fish down the drain.
As we rework our spaces and practices for the benefit of these animals we must continue to be advocates for the “strange” and “offbeat” animals. Domesticated rats enjoy interacting with people; they love to sleep in hoodies or play in hair. Tortoises have amazing personalities that mostly would be associated with being grumpy. Most parrots are smarter than I am; figuring out puzzles and challenges in little time. Ferrets are playful and enjoy chasing balls and running around. Guinea pigs vocalize when they hear their food being prepared in a way that is unique and adorable.
We shouldn’t allow these animals to suffer more because of old taboos, to be passed over as members of families because they’re not fluffy, or to be ignored because the have scales. In order to rise to the challenge this small animal crisis is presenting us, we must adjust not only our physical spaces but also our mindsets. This is a human caused issue and it is on us in the animal welfare community- professionals, volunteers, supporters, and animal lovers alike- to fix it.