The ferret is a predator species, however most exotic companion mammals are prey species. Although ferrets are generally quite bold and may be approached in a manner similar to that used for cats and dogs, many exotic small mammals can become easily stressed in a hospital setting. Approach these patients calmly, gently, and quietly, striving to minimize stress whenever possible. Gather all items that may be needed during the physical examination or procedure beforehand since it is essential to keep handling time to a minimum. Also be sure to perform a visual examination before you lay hands on your patient. Observe the appearance and mentation of the pet to ensure it can handle manual restraint. See Venipuncture in small mammals for a description of specific restraint techniques required for blood collection.
Most pet chinchillas (Chinchilla laniger) are used to being handled and are relatively easy to capture and restrain. Place one hand under the body while the other hand gently grasps the base of the tail (Fig 1). Always warn the client in advance that when a chinchilla becomes frightened it can potentially lose patches of fur. This is commonly referred to as “fur slip”. Although uncommon, “fur slip” can happen unexpectedly. To avoid damage, chinchillas should never be scruffed or handled roughly.
Most ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) are easily handled using minimal restraint and a little petting. With the exception of nursing females, ferrets rarely bite although young ferrets or “kits” may nip. Slow administration of a high calorie paste (e.g. Nutri-Cal®, EVSCO) can be used to distract the patient and to allow some procedures to be performed.
Physical restraint is necessary when obtaining a rectal temperature, giving injections, or during other uncomfortable procedures. Scruff the back of the neck and suspend all four limbs off the table to relax the ferret. Many individuals will even yawn (Fig 2). The ferret can also be stretched like a cat. Hold the ferret firmly by the scruff in one hand while grasping the ferret gently, yet firmly around the hips. Be sure to grasp over the pelvis and not the caudal abdomen since it is easy to inadvertently compress abdominal viscera in this long, lean animal. Do not hold the legs since most ferrets will struggle strongly against this.
Mongolian gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus) are typically docile, and may be loosely cupped within the hands. A threatened gerbil will thump its rear foot and may bite. Restrain this excited patient by grasping the tail base with one hand and then scruffing the loose skin along the neck and back. Never grasp a gerbil by the tip of the tail as this may cause a degloving injury. Healing of this type of skin injury is very difficult and slow.
Most pet guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) are calm, gentle animals that rarely bite. To pick up a guinea pig, cup one hand gently under the thorax and use the other hand to support the hind end. Under many circumstances, guinea pigs will need only light restraint during physical examination. Scruffing is not recommended because the neck is very short and there is little skin to easily grasp.
Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) have a reputation for being “biters”, and most hamsters do not tolerate excessive or prolonged handling. Hamsters are more likely to bite when awakened from a deep sleep, however if not startled they may be scooped up in the palms of the hands. Hamsters have a large amount of loose skin around the neck, shoulders, and back. To provide full restraint, grasp the hamster’s skin between your thumb and fingertips, similarly to scruffing a cat, or with a full-handed grip using all five fingers as well as the lower palm (Fig. 3). Support the hamster’s body with your other hand.
A towel or light leather gloves are often necessary for hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris) restraint since the spines can cause some discomfort in all but the tamest pets. Spines become uncomfortable when the hedgehog “puffs up” as a defensive behavior while hissing and spitting. Techniques to unroll the hedgehog have been described, however these techniques tend to work best on hand-tame pets. General anesthesia is generally required for complete physical examination of the hedgehog, however subdued lighting in a quiet room may help put the conscious hedgehog at ease.
Mice (Mus musculus) are very active, and quick to jump away. To avoid chasing a darting mouse around its enclosure, scoop the pet into a small container like a cup. Transfer to a small, clear container will then facilitate visual exam. Like hamsters, mice have a large amount of loose skin around the neck, shoulders, and back. Gently grasp the tail base to pick the mouse up, then scruff it in a manner similar to that described for hamsters.
Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus)are usually very docile creatures. Rarely, a rabbit will thump its feet and nip. With improper restraint, rabbits that struggle or kick are in danger of a broken back or leg. This is due to their relatively lightweight, delicate skeleton paired with extremely strong, well-developed back and leg muscles. Always restrain rabbits on a non-slip surface such as a large, heavy towel or pad. Many cooperative rabbits can be lightly restrained by petting them and gently holding them, making sure they do not jump off the table. If more restraint is necessary, wrap the rabbit in a towel or tuck the head between the side of your body and your arm. Use the other arm to support the rabbit’s body against your own body. Essentially it looks like you are tucking a football against your body (Fig 4). Rabbits will kick away from the restrainer when returned to a cage. To reduce the risk of kicking and injury, return the rabbit to its cage with the rear end first.
Most pet rats (Rattus norvegicus) are good-natured, friendly animals that are used to being handled. They can simply be picked up and gently supported during physical examination. If more restraint is necessary, place your thumb on one side of the rat’s head and your index finger on the other side while still supporting the body. Alternatively place a forefinger just beneath the jaw on one side of the head and place a thumb beneath the opposite elbow gently yet firmly pushing the forelimb up towards the rat’s face. Rats can also be gently scruffed if necessary. When handling rats that are not tame or used to being handled, gently grasp the tail base to temporarily catch the patient before restraining it.
Sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps) are easy to handle, but difficult to restrain. Sugar gliders do not tolerate being scruffed. They also vocalize loudly, resisting holds strenuously. Some individuals will even try to bite.
To manually restrain a glider, grasp the tail base while allowing the glider to hold onto a surface with its forefeet. Then place your thumb on one side of the glider’s head and your index finger on the other side while still supporting the body. Use of a towel or light leather gloves can prove helpful in some individuals. Light general anesthesia (e.g. sevoflurane or isoflurane anesthesia) is necessary for complete examination.
Consider the difference between approaching a predator like the ferret versus prey species like rabbits and rodents. Prey species can become easily stressed in an unfamiliar environment and should always be approached calmly and quietly, striving to minimize stress whenever possible. In some species such as the sugar gilder and hedgehog, all but the most cursory examination will require general anesthesia. Always consider beforehand the risk of potential injury to oneself or to the patient. Some patients may try to jump off of the examination table such as chinchillas, rabbits, and mice. Others may likely bite if roused from a deep sleep or when pregnant, such as the Syrian hamster and ferret respectively.