While dogs, cats, fish and birds populate most pet homes, other animals can be just as much fun to own.
“Rabbits are social and love routine. Be late with dinner and a bunny will show displeasure by stomping its feet,” says Pamela Hood, founder of Sweet Binks Rabbit Rescue, a state-licensed shelter in Foster, Rhode Island. Her four rules for happy, active bunnies are: Find a veterinarian that knows rabbits, adopt rather than buy, get a bonded pair and spay/neuter them.
Since 2000, Sweet Binks has rescued more than 1,700 rabbits as recaptured strays or from shelters meant for dogs and cats. Bunnies can live more than 14 years.
Rabbits eat more than just carrots. Pellets should be timothy hay-based, not alfalfa, for adult rabbits,” explains Hood. “But limit the amount. Hay should be 85 to 90 percent of their diet, because the side-to-side chewing of hay keeps teeth worn down to a livable length and ensures proper digestion.”
Rabbits can be litter box-trained and run free if the home is pet-proofed. For example, keep electrical cords out of reach or covered with plastic tubing. A lonely, bored bunny can be destructive, so provide wooden and chemicalfree wicker toys for chewing. Play with them daily, although most shy away from cuddling. Bonded pairs need to be in sight of one another.
Miniature horses are not to be confused with Shetland ponies. Minis are fully grown horses, bred for pulling carts, not riding. They require the same care as a larger horse and make good therapy animals. An adult mini is about the same size as a standard-sized horse’s newborn foal—about 34 to 38 inches tall at the withers (between the shoulder blades), although some are smaller.
“Trained minis are good, gentle interpreters of emotion,” says Veronique Matthews, founder of Hearts & Hooves, a nonprofit equine therapy organization in Austin, Texas. “We visit abused or autistic kindergarten-age children with a ratio of one child, one horse, one handler.” Walking on a handheld leash, a mini can help a child to cope with fear and anxiety.
A few years ago, alpacas were regarded as the next moneymakers when breeding and sales brought high prices for fleece, along with their waste, sold as soil-enriching manure. After the trend peaked, many herds were sold, often to ill-suited owners, and some needed rescuing.
Michelle Zumwalt, a job consultant for people with disabilities in Spanish Lake, Missouri, has hosted rescued alpacas for eight years; the number fluctuates, based on new arrivals and adoptions. “There are enough of them to help supply local organic farms with fertilizer,” says Zumwalt. “These gentle creatures feel safest in numbers; when in danger, they will kick or spit.”
Hermit crabs are likeable for their social, nonaggressive character, ease in handling and low maintenance. All crabs are born in the ocean, although some species leave the water as adults. Pet crabs in the United States are either Caribbean land crabs or the faster and more agile Ecuadorian crabs, which require access to both salt and fresh water.
A 10-gallon fish tank with sand of a consistency suitable for castle building that’s three or four times deeper than the height of the largest crab works well. Crabs can grow to six inches in length and live 10 years or more, although they don’t reproduce in captivity. As colony animals, they’re much happier in a group.
Hermit crabs periodically need to replace the shell they carry on their back. Provide a shell that is 10 to 15 percent larger and watch as the crab tries it on for size. When crabs molt their underside ectoskeleton, they burrow beneath the sand for four to eight weeks; place these crabs in a separate tank.
“Because crabs are scavengers, we feed them chicken, turkey, seaweed, scrambled eggs and fish. They love carrots, bell peppers, kiwi and coconut,” says Christine Richards, a maintenance management analyst and hermit crab caregiver in Montgomery Village, Maryland. “Crabs are nocturnal, so use a small flashlight to watch their antics,” she adds. “They love to climb.”
Chinchillas, another night creature, can live up to 20 years. A round body, tiny hands and large ears make them easy to love, remarks Christina Pierce, a federal examiner of financial institutions in Little Rock, Arkansas. “My chin, Gizmo, wants to be where the commotion is and likes to travel,” she laughs.
A specialty vet is required for chinchillas, with attention given to their teeth, which grow throughout their life. Give them things to chew on and fresh hay to help file down teeth. Gizmo’s favorite chews are willow twigs, peanuts in the shell, alfalfa sticks and lava blocks. “A twice-daily dust bath keeps his fur clean,” notes Pierce, “plus, it’s fun to watch.”
It seems that everyone can find a pet that’s perfect for them. It’s just a matter of thinking outside the litter box.
Sandra Murphy is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings.