Exotic furballs: Family-friendly hamster alternatives

There’s a reason why hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils are popular first pets for kids: they’re harmless, gentle, spatially efficient, inexpensive and low-maintenance companions who don’t need to be walked or groomed.


But these critters typically don’t live long (a hamster’s lifespan can be as short as two years) and kids often lose interest in these ubiquitous pocket pals.


As they age, kids crave animal friends. While you’ll probably be quick to quash requests for a snake, tarantula or piranha, here’s an idea that could work: consider an exotic small mammal species, including rarer breeds like a chinchilla, hedgehog, degu or sugar glider—all of which are legal in Illinois.


Experts say these cute and curiously distinctive animals can make great pets for families—provided you have a responsible child who’s at least 8 to 10 years old and you’re willing to invest some time and money.


Clinch a chinch


A bit larger than a ground squirrel and possessing perhaps the softest fur in the animal kingdom, chinchillas originate from the Andes Mountains in South America. They’re frisky and active, which makes them fun to watch but a bit tricky to handle. Chinches are also awake mostly at night, so they’re not recommended for light sleepers.


“The pros are that they are fun to interact with, they have a long lifespan—living up to 20 years—and they produce an overall low odor versus other small animals,” says Schaumburg-based Jason Casto with Kaytee, a pet products manufacturer.


The cons, notes Kristy Morici, breeder/owner of ABC Chinchillas in Cary, include a less cuddly pet, constant nibbling (fingertips included) and a high initial cost.


“A gray-colored chinch averages $75 to $150, while the larger cage they require runs up to $150 or more,” says Morici, who adds that basic supplies are around $300 a year.


Julie Fain with Bowling Green, Ohio-headquartered Vitakraft Sun Seed Inc., makers of chinchilla foods, cautions that chinches can scare easily and are relatively fragile, so handle with care.


“They also require regular dust baths. And since they’re social, they work best in pairs,” Fain says.


Living on the hedge


We can thank Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog for popularizing this uncommon pet (specifically the African Pygmy hedgehog, originating from West Africa), which looks like a mini porcupine with an irresistibly sweet face.


“Hedgehogs are almost completely hypoallergenic, make little to no noise, are generally very clean, do not require a lot of space, rarely bite, can roll into balls and are adorable,” says Jonell Stetz, breeder/owner of Morning Star Hedgehogs in Addison, who notes that these animals can live up to eight years.


“But daily socializing and handling for about an hour a day is a must to keep this pet friendly. They are shy and timid by nature and require extra patience. They’re also nocturnal and may need a heat lamp or small heat pad.”


Hedgies eat insects, plus high-protein cat food, fruits and vegetables.


Expect to pay $125 to $300 or more for a hedgehog, plus up to $300 for its habitat and supplies; annual supply costs are about $200.


Degu debut


Cross a mouse with a squirrel and you get something that looks close to a degu, a fetching foreign furry native to Chile with big eyes, soft fur, a long, thin tail, and a skin flap that allows them to glide short distances.


“Degus are active during the day, friendly, clean, non-odorous, live up to eight years, and are inexpensive to purchase—about $30,” veterinarian Heidi Hofer says. “They are less reliant on humans for social engagement but are relatively social animals that should be paired another same-sex degu.”


Brian Ogle, assistant professor of anthrozoology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., cautions that while they’re the easiest of exotics to care for, degus are serious chewers who sometimes bite and can develop obesity and diabetes easily.


A proper enclosure costs about $200, with a year’s worth of supplies for $300 or more. “They need a specialized mixture of pellets to eat and large amounts of high-quality hay daily, and they require access to a special dust-bath,” Ogle says.


Sweet sugar


Few furballs steal your heart like a sugar glider, a lovable little nocturnal marsupial from Australia and New Guinea that prefers sweet eats and can leap and glide through the air. Jennifer Holland, breeder/owner of My Four-Footed Furries in Woodstock, says these energetic pets form strong bonds with their owners.


“They value their playtime with their people and are very loyal to those who care for them,” says Holland, who says gliders thrive best in pairs and live around 12 years in captivity. “The more time you spend with them, the more love you get back.”


However, this species startles easily, needs its cage cleaned weekly for best health and has very particular nutritional requirements—including a specially formulated liquid supplement that duplicates the nectar they eat in the wild.


They also require a variety of fresh produce, insects and commercially available pelleted food and need multi-level metal cages.


Plan to pay at least $200 for the pet, plus $150 or more for its cage, and $300 a year for supplies.


Other considerations


Keeping an exotic requires extra TLC from owners willing to make the necessary commitments and sacrifices. That’s why hectic households and families with young, aggressive or impatient children should avoid these pets, say the pros.


If you think your clan has what it takes, the best place to start your search is at a local animal shelter, where many abandoned pets in need of a good home end up, or through an animal rescue organization (visit tinyurl.com/exoticill for a list of Illinois rescue organizations and shelters). You can also Google search for private breeders in your area.


“An exotic animal should not be an impulse buy,” Stetz says. “If you seek out a breeder, choose one that is USDA licensed and follows strict guidelines of a reputable breeding program—not a hobby breeder.”


Lastly, before acquiring one of these animals, make sure you can find a local vet who will treat exotics. Not all do.


You can find a list of vets at the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians’ website.

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