Image via iStock.com/gollykim
By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Most small animals, such as guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets, chinchillas, rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters, rarely leave the comfort of our homes. That means that taking a trip to the veterinarian, even for a healthy pet checkup, can be very stressful for these small pets.
However, these animals need annual veterinary examinations and may require veterinary care when they are sick. So, it is critical for small animal owners to be prepared (and to prepare their small animal pets) for travel. Here are a few tips for how to safely transport your small animal to a veterinary appointment with minimal stress:
1. Get a proper small animal carrier.
Too many people put their small animals into a cardboard box to transport them to the animal hospital. Cardboard boxes are just not a safe option for these animals, especially because many of them, particularly rabbits and guinea pigs, routinely chew on cardboard and may gnaw their way out of the box before they even get to their destinations. Small pet carriers of the appropriate size and material (typically hard plastic) are the safest option for transporting our small animal companions. Having a proper small animal carrier is essential to being able to safely travel with small animal pets, even in case of emergency. When selecting a small pet carrier, owners should be sure it’s designed for the species they own so that it is escape-proof and well-ventilated. It also should lock securely and be easy to clean.
2. Get your small animal pet used to the carrier.
Even the most welcoming small pet carriers can be scary to a small animal. So, it’s important for small animal owners to get their pets used to their carriers before it’s actually time to travel. Leave the carrier open in the house, where your pet is comfortable; offer your pet treats in the carrier so that it becomes a positive place; and simply walk around the house or take a practice ride in the car with your pet in the carrier, to help your small animal feel more comfortable in it. Exposing your pet (while in the carrier) to the sights and sounds of the outside world and returning them safely home a few times before they have to take the big trip to the veterinarian will likely make the trip less scary.
3. Have the right accessories.
Pets feel more comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings when they are surrounded by familiar objects. A favorite blanket, towel or toy—even a T-shirt that you’ve worn—can put a pet at ease in an unfamiliar carrier. Many small animals are prey species and feel more comfortable when they can’t be seen. Providing them with a small box within the carrier, such as a shoe box for a small rabbit or guinea pig, or a tissue box for a hamster or gerbil, where they can hide may make being in the carrier less stressful. Larger animals, such as ferrets and big rabbits, may want to burrow their heads under towels or blankets within their carriers to prevent from being seen.
4. Make sure the temperature is right.
Rabbits and chinchillas have thick fur and get overheated easily in hot weather (temperatures greater than 80F), while small rodents, such as hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice, as well as older ferrets who often lose hair as a result of illness, shiver when it’s cold outside. Preheating the car and wrapping the carrier with a towel or blanket to prevent wind from whipping through it can keep small pets warmer in cold weather. Alternatively, turning on the car’s air conditioning ahead of time and placing a small ice pack, wrapped in a towel in the bottom of the carrier when it’s extremely hot outside, can help prevent pets predisposed to overheating from getting too hot.
5. Be sure the carrier is secured in the car.
Pets are as likely as people to be thrown from a car in an accident if they aren’t strapped in. So, ideally, a small animal’s carrier should be secured to the seat with a seatbelt, if possible. If not, the carrier should be placed in an area, such as in the back on the floor, where it can’t roll off the seat or topple over. Small animals should never be let loose to roam around a moving car, as they can not only get injured, but can also distract the driver and cause an accident.
6. Bring snacks.
Most small pets can be kept occupied with a snack when they are in their carriers, unless they are extremely stressed. Special treats, such as a piece of apple or pear for a rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla; a slice of turkey or chicken for a ferret; a sunflower seed for a hamster or gerbil; and a piece of cereal for a rat or mouse are great options for distracting these animals as they travel. Many small animals get car sick, so be sure not to overfeed them with a big meal before the trip.
7. Make the animal hospital a fun place.
Not only can the carrier be a scary place, but the animal hospital can be just as intimidating, if not more. Therefore, it’s important to teach your small animal that going to see the veterinarian isn’t such a bad thing. Cuddling your small pet, giving her a lot of verbal praise and offering her yummy treats as you open the carrier at the hospital can help to associate the sights and smells of the veterinarian with positive experiences. This can help to ease your animal’s fears a bit and make future trips there less scary
Most people don’t like going to the doctor, and neither do most pets. But there are certainly several steps that owners of guinea pigs, rabbits, chinchillas, ferrets, gerbils, hamsters, rats and mice can take to help allay their pets’ fears. Following the simple tips listed here will make your pet’s trip to the vet just a little less stressful.