Chris Strike VN,CGLI



Theatre Nursing and Anaesthesia
Surgical Nursing
Basic Small Rodent Data
Other Articles in the Series


This article illustrates the basic principles involved in the nursing of small mammals.


Try not to approach small rodents from above, they assume you to be a predator and are un-nerved and more likely to bite. Offer the back of the hand to assess the animals temperament and scoop it up from the sides into cupped hands, holding over a work surface which would cushion any falls should the animal attempt to jump out of the hands.
Tails may be used as extra restraint, but beware the skin slough in fur-covered species (particularly Gerbils and Chipmunks). Hold at the base only.
The scruff may be used in difficult patients, but keep in mind the excess skin caused by cheek pouches in Hamsters and Chipmunks. Ensure these are empty before scruffing to prevent damage from compression of foods against the lining. Hamsters will often disgorge the contents of their pouches if distressed.
Larger rodents and rabbits can be restrained around the shoulders and the rear supported or held down onto a non-slip surface. Beware of injury to Rabbits backs should they attempt to kick out violently. Also bear in mind the relative fragility of the abdominal wall and diaphragm in Guinea Pigs. Excessive handling of Chinchillas will cause fur loss/slip.


Wire cages are totally unsuitable for nursing small animals. They should be enclosed on all sides, preferably in glass fronted cages or converted aquaria, to reduce draughts, minimise heat loss and prevent cross-contamination. The ideal atmospheric temperatures being 75-80 F (24-27C) for smaller rodents, 70 F (21C) for Rabbits, Guinea pigs etc. They will suffer heat stroke over 80 F (27 C). Relative humidity is best around 45-50% to reduce the risk of respiratory infections.
Heat can be provided by propagator or vivarium pads placed below the cage: radiant heat source (preferably non-light emitting) suspended overhead, (DO CHECK THE CAGE TEMPERATURE and adjust the lamp distance); or ceramic hot water bottles, well insulated and placed near the patient. Many small mammals also recover better and are less nervous if provided with a nestbox. This can simply be cardboard, with a suitable sized hole in the side. Once contaminated it can be disposed of and replaced. Bedding for small rodents should be of the safe, edible types and shredded paper or good quality, dust-free hay can be used for Rabbits and Cavies.
Soiled, infected bedding should be removed regularly, but for hoarding animals such as Hamsters, a small amount of the original nesting material and food store should be returned to offer a sense of security. Wood shavings, not fine sawdust, can be used as litter. The latter can cause eye irritation and will adhere to soft foods.

Theatre Nursing and Anaesthesia

Small rodents should not be pre-fasted because of their high metabolic rates and inability to vomit. The patient should be weighed within half an hour of premedication / induction and dosage calculated. Atropine sulphate may be given to Rabbits at the rate of 1mg/Kg and to Guinea pigs , Rats, Gerbils and mice at 0.05mg/Kg. It is also suitable for use in Hamsters at 0.1mg/Kg. Note: some Rabbits have atropinesterase a blood enzyme, which naturally breaks down any atropine given. ACP may be used in nervous rabbits at 1mg/Kg. Valium is useful in Guinea pigs at 2.5mg/Kg I/P if they are very nervous and they may be given Hypnorm at 0.5mg/Kg I/M but recovery is slow, with depression of pulse and respiratory rates. The most suitable anaesthetic gases are Methoxyfluorane and Halothane. It is important to prevent stress from rough handling during induction of anaesthesia. For very small rodents use gaseous agents in a warmed anaesthetic chamber ( a plastic sweet jar can be converted) and then once induced transfer to a small mask or tubing covered with fine gauze to prevent loss UP the tube! Larger mammals may be induced using a face mask. Restrain on a non-slip surface to prevent limb and spinal injury, particularly in frightened rabbbits, Maintenance levels of agents such as Halothane may be higher than in dogs and cats, often around 4% in Rabbits. Nitrous 0xide can be used to provide analgesia and reduce the levels of anaesthetic agents required. Many small rodents, such as rats have a low-grade chronic respiratory infection, making them poor anaesthetic risks. Avoid the use of anti-biotics immediately pre and post-anaesthesia because of possible interactions.

Surgical Nursing

Blood loss is critical. Provide accurate means of haemastasis for your surgeon, possibly using magnification, Consider fluid replacement at an early stage, with steroids and analgesia to aid recovery.
Careful surgical technique is important . If assisting, hold all tissues very gently to keep trauma to a minimum. Provision of smaller surgical blades also limits the extent of tissue damage.
It is vitally important to maintain and conserve body heat and to keep fluid loss to a minimum. Use heated pads etc. during surgery. Clip as small area as practicable . Keep wet preparation to a minimum. Cover and wrap the patient with insulating materials. Ensure that the recovery area is suitable temperature, as previously described. Place the patient in sternal recumbency for recovery and offer warm fluids and provide food at the earliest possible stage to replace losses and provide energy for recovery. Guard against delayed shock by maintaining ambient temperature and recovery conditions for up to 48 hours if necessary.

Basic Data on Small Rodent Species
SpeciesBody Temp
Pulse Rate
per min.
rate per min.
Average Life
span in years
Mouse 37.452084-2302-3
Bank Vole 37.84504101.5-2
Syrian Hampster 36-38300-60033-1271.5-2
Chinese Hampster 35-39350-4502002-6
Russian Hampster 35-41340-4602502-3
Rat 37.5260-60070-1502-4
Mongolian Gerbil 38-39.5450-50070-1403-5
Chipmunk 3840075-2003-8
Guinea Pig 38.6130-19090-1504-8
Chinchilla 38-39100-15040-8010
Rabbit 38.322035-606-8
If any readers have any comments / ideas to add to this article please e-mail the editor.
To read more about Chipmunks please see our Book Shop.


1. The Biology and Medicine of Rabbits and Rodents. Harkness and Wagner.
2. Keeping Small Rodents. Chris Henwood.
3. Manual of Exotic Pets. BSAVA.
4. Pet Care Manual Pet Trade and Industry Association.

Other articles in this series by Chris Strike VN, CGLI
Feeding Small Animals
Hand-Rearing and Supplementation of Small Animals

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  Return to Vet On-Line Owners 

Received March 1996