Small Animal Supplies: Are They Welfare-Friendly?
Gerbils, rabbits, and other small animals make great companions by providing unconditional love to humans. Giving them a safe and healthy environment means choosing the right supplies and accessories for their housing and care.
However, design requirements for products like exercise toys, cages, and nesting materials vary depending on the type of animal. If products are not made to the correct specifications, they can harm or even injure animals. But how are guardians to know which supplies are best for their beloved companions, if manufacturers don’t provide this information?
The authors of this study wanted to know if small animal supplies in Germany comply with current animal welfare criteria, and if they include labeling information on the most appropriate animals for their use. To address these questions, seven categories of products and accessories available from 28 websites, 50 pet shops, and 13 home improvement and garden centers, were assessed. Products included running wheels (n=146), cages (n=257), hay racks (n=109), exercise balls (n=28), harnesses & leashes (n=67), tube systems (n=17), and hamster bedding (n=15). For this analysis, researchers focused only on supplies for rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets/polecats, degus, Mongolian gerbils, chinchillas, golden hamsters, fancy mice, fancy rats, and dwarf hamsters.
Overall, researchers found that most products (e.g., 86% of running wheels, 83% of cages, 56% of hay racks) did not comply with welfare criteria and were considered unsuitable for small animal care. Furthermore, there was a significant lack of information provided by manufacturers regarding the types of animals the accessories were intended for.
Specific results by product, showed:
Small Animal Cages
Most cages were labeled for “rodents/small animals” instead of specific species. 100% of the cages sold at home and garden centers, and 64% of cages sold at pet shops, were not suitable for housing one golden hamster. Furthermore, 70% of cages were undersized for all small animal types; this can restrict movement and harm animal welfare. Two cage models had design features that could potentially restrict proper ventilation: a plastic top with small ventilation slits and glass, with a grid cover.
Many rodents and rabbits need daily hay in their diet. It’s considered best practice to provide hay in a rack instead of on the floor, which is unhygienic. However, more than half (56%) of hay racks failed to meet all welfare criteria. 53% were missing a cover needed to prevent fecal contamination of the hay, while 25% posed a risk of injury to the animal by having horizontal bars, foldable parts, or protruding metal spikes. Another welfare problem included designs that would require animals to eat in uncomfortable body positions.
43% of models were too small for any of the animals evaluated, potentially putting them at risk for spinal damage. Of the 57% of wheels intended for dwarf hamsters, only 55% had the required dimensions. Only 16% of models for golden hamsters were the correct size. 15% of all models assessed did not have a solid running surface, posing risk of injury to paws and limbs.
The authors note that exercise balls are generally considered dangerous and not recommended for small companion animal care. As a result, none of the exercise balls met the evaluation criteria due to the possibility that animals could be injured by bumping against a wall or object, or falling off an elevated surface when using them.
Harnesses And Leashes
The authors also deemed this category unsuitable for small animals due to the risk of constriction to the belly or chest if animals make quick movements while wearing them. This is especially the case if the leash or harness is not properly fitted. As a result, none of the objects for sale met the welfare criteria.
Most of the tube systems were made of plastic, with only one made of cellulose. None of the products met the authors’ welfare criteria due to the potential for animals to get stuck inside the tubes, causing injury, and insufficient ventilation of the tubes that can lead to contamination. Generally, tube systems are not recommended for small animal care.
Hamster bedding that contains synthetic fibers can cause cheek pouching blockage, digestive problems, or strangulation of the limbs. Of the 10 bedding materials included in the evaluation, 7 met the “digestibility” criterion and contained no synthetic material or fibers, although almost all were labeled “completely digestible.” Since safer options for bedding are available such as dry hay, straw, or unbleached cellulose, the authors argue that hamster bedding should not be commercially available.
This study focused on products available in Germany, but the findings are relevant to any region where supplies and accessories used for small animal care can be purchased. The authors concluded that greater detail is needed from manufacturers to ensure the safety and health of small animal companions. Providing consumers with labeling that clearly states the type of animal the product is intended for, detailed product assembly and maintenance instructions, and maximum cage capacity is critical for helping them choose the best products for their furry companions. Animal advocates can use this information to call for more transparency, detail, and responsible marketing in the small companion animal industry.