by Diana Hockley
Having a pet is a commitment. It is not something for which you beg your parents and then, two weeks later, have to be forced to care for. And parents, always remember that you will ultimately be caring for the animal. A decision to have a pet therefore needs to be a parental decision!
Anyone contemplating keeping mice as pets needs to understand one important aspect of their lives: they are the chef’s special on the carnivore’s food chain. Mice breed fast, live fast and die fast, in order to keep up to the ever increasing culinary demands of snakes, lizards, birds, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and – some humans! Yes, believe it or not some people, thankfully few, actually eat them. Jellied dormouse was not only a medieval delicacy.
So you need to be prepared to be vigilant and not allow them to escape. The family cat is the most dangerous predator of all, but if you allow your younger siblings to open the cage door while you have them on the porch, it’s no good wailing if your mice take to their paws and disappear into the garden. The local owls and cats will be waiting there with cutlery and plates at the ready.
SELECTING YOUR MICE: Once you have decided that a pet mouse if for you, your next important decision will be what breed of mice you want to keep. There are four – smooth haired, rex, Manx and long-hair, but lots of varieties. For example, blue, chocolate, Siamese, Burmese, birmans, pied of every color and within this category, broken, white rump, capped, banded, fawns, silver, agouti, tortoiseshell, tigered – and these can have any colored stripes on fawn, white, chocolate or blue coats. These are only some of the varieties.
HOUSING: Like most animals, one mouse is not happy living on his own. Imagine if you were told that you would never see another human being for as long as you live? Ever? You would be living in solitary confinement.
A cage large enough for two animals to live comfortably will be suitable for pets, however, a pet owner needs to consider all the options. A glass fish tank 3 x 2 feet will house several mice comfortably, or an equivalent sized cage with the closely spaced bars. Some people house their pet mice in deep, plastic boxes with gauze or mesh on top. Always bear in mind that when the weather gets hot, you need air flow and somewhere to place your animals in safety. A temperature of around 25 degrees Celsius, or 75 Fahrenheit, is good for mice.
They can live for very short periods of time in temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius or roughly just over 100 Fahrenheit, however this is not ideal because they will dehydrate and die within a short time.
There are various ways you can combat the heat. Air-conditioning is of course ideal, but expensive. A fan is excellent, but you must be careful to allow the air to waft over the cages, not directly onto them. You don’t want to give those tiny lungs pneumonia.
A good method in very hot weather is to three fourths fill plastic soda or lemonade bottles with water. You need to allow room for the bottle to expand. Add copious amounts of coarse sea salt and let it dissolve– this will keep it freezing longer – and put them into the freezer. They will take 24 hours to completely freeze. You can place these in the mouse cages or tanks, wrapped in a piece of cotton material. The mice will nestle next to them, burrow under them or lie on top to keep cool.
You will need three bottles per one cage/tank so you can re-freeze and rotate them throughout the hot weather. If you give your mice a shallow bowl filled with cool water – maybe a few ice cubes in there – on a desperately hot day, they will perch on the sides and drop their tails into the water. Many people are not aware that rodents use their tails to control their body temperature, as well as for balance.
BEDDING: I am not very familiar with the bedding obtainable outside Australia, but a light, fluffy type – soft, pressed shavings or shredded paper – is suitable. Beware of shredded computer paper though, it is frequently hard and shredding makes it sharp. You can cut your animals with it. In America, I believe, you have to be very careful not to use wood shavings which are pine and ordinary sawdust is lethal for pinhead sized lungs. The Eucalyptus can poison your mice. And having said that – NEVER EVER wash your mice, or any of their equipment or bedding in TEA TREE OIL. It is TOXIC and will kill your mice almost immediately.
Inside the tank or cage you will need internal housing. Like most animals, mice need privacy to conduct their lives away from prying eyes – do their washing, hang their knickers on the line – you know what I mean! You can give them a cardboard box/s which of course they will eat, plastic boxes, tubing – PVC, plastic or even large dog food cans. But always bear in mind the temperature.
PVC or light plastic can be too hot or cold for the mice to live in, depending on the time of year. I always used plastic ice-cream containers turned upside down, with the sides cut out to form high arches. These gave them protection and privacy, but allowed for air flow. I used soft, shredded paper which the mice loved to make into nests. Some hammocks will go down a treat! If you get newspaper which loses the black print on your hands, do not use it. It may poison your mice. It won’t be very good for you either! (Editors note: most newspapers in America are printed with soy ink now which is safe for pets-ask your local newspaper what they use)
FOOD: A commercial pellet should always be the staple diet. Food mixes made up by pet shops have no nutritional value for mice, who will waste most of it. Unlike guinea-pigs, who are the only rodents whose bodies cannot manufacture Vitamin C, mice do not require lucerne or copious amounts of green and orange vegetables. If you want to give your mice these, it should only be as a treat.
Contrary to what most people believe, mice do NOT go ape over cheese. The pungent aroma will attract them, but they will not eat it unless there is nothing else available. If you want to win kudos from your rodents, buy a few sweet basil plants, keep them in the room where you keep your mice. Not only will they help to hide the mouse smell (if at all possible!) but your mice will love fresh basil leaves. They will line their nests with them, roll in them and nibble them. Truly a “mouse marijuana” like catnip for cats. Again however, use them as a treat rather than an everyday item.
Yogurt drops are always a big favorite. If you acquire small yogurt balls, you can throw them into a tank and watch a mouse grab one and run. The resultant soccer match – chase and mouse touch-down, as the others snatch it and run – will afford you considerable amusement!
TOYS: These can range from little highly colored plastic houses to colored balls, but the one item which every well-equipped mouse colony needs is a wheel. The mouse metabolism is set at an incredibly high rate to give them a sporting chance against predators. In captivity, this energy needs to go somewhere, so a wheel is ideal. The metal powder-coated ones are the safest. There are small, brightly colored plastic ones on the market, which are very dangerous. On several dreadful occasions, I have had mice killed by sticking their heads through the triangular stand from which the wheel hangs. Avoid these at all cost!
MANAGEMENT: The most important thing is to do your research in animal husbandry before buying any pet. This activity is no different in principal to the farmer who goes to the sales to buy cattle, sheep or pigs. Healthy, bright-eyed animals are a must. Pick up each prospective mouse and handle it gently. Is it terrified and trying to escape? If so, check out the other animals in its colony. Are they all skittish? You need a calm line from which to select your pet.
HANDLING: Always pick a mouse up by the base of its tail and lay it on your chest before curling you hand around it. You need to be very careful of tiny ribs which can crack very easily. Small children should always be supervised when they handle pets.
ASSESSING HEALTH: Hold it very gently up to your ear. Can you hear a strong, steady heartbeat? It will be fast, but should not falter. Are the tiny lungs clear? They are the size of a pin head, and if you hear rasping, then you will know there is possible lung infection. This is a good way to select a baby rat also.
When you are selecting pet mice, always make sure that whatever mice you choose, their “nether regions” are the same. Male mice are very obviously male – female mice have no exterior parts. Many pet shops will con you into thinking you are buying two females or two males – do not believe them! Do your homework
BEFORE you go in there, press your nose up against the mouse tank and start your “begging for mice” routine! Another word of caution – do not buy female mice from a tank in which there are males. They will DEFINITELY be pregnant and then you will have the babies to find homes for. Believe me, there are no homes available when you want them! Should you inadvertently get conned by a pet shop owner, then you will need to buy a mouse breeding booklet!
Male mice – quite frankly- stink! One pet male mouse in a house will be instantly discernable. Female mice are much less pungent and generally bond well. Sometimes there are a few bitchy scuffles – a dominant female mouse might bully the other mouse – happens in school playgrounds all the time – but if this occurs, she should be removed and kept on her own for a few days to view her mobile phone video without an appreciative audience. Or take her mobile phone away.
She can be put back with the other mouse after that, because she will then be the “new arrival.” But you need to supervise this, because sometimes she’ll get badly beaten up and have to be removed again. Revenge is sweet, so they tell me!
Grooming is very important to all animals. Think horses standing in a paddock picking at each other’s necks. Mice groom each other every day. In a mouse colony, for example, a heavily pregnant female mouse will lie on her stomach while her fellow wives will groom her. When she has delivered, she will take her turn grooming her sisters. This is true of your pet mice. You will frequently see one “biting” the other. This is normal grooming procedure and doesn’t require any intervention from you. Just look at that little face, eyes blissfully closed! It’s the equivalent for them of going to the salon for a hairdo – but not as expensive!!
INTRODUCING NEW MICE: Introducing new mice to a cage or tank can be extremely difficult, whether you have several mice or a couple. You will have more success with females – and as a matter of interest even for the pet owner – but not if there are babies in the colony. It is very important to point out that mice recognize each other by smell and smell is only emitted after they grow fur. You can introduce an orphan baby (or one that has crawled out of its own box) to a colony while it is naked or just fuzzed, providing it is the same age as the babies who are already in there.
A good way to introduce a new mouse to the current pet, is to pick up a handful of the most peed and poo-ed-upon bedding (they usually do it in the corners of the cage or tank) and roll newcomer in it for a few minutes to ensure it had the smell of the present mice on it. I rarely encountered problems introducing it to another mouse.
WHY MALE MICE DO NOT MAKE GOOD PETS: The main problem with keeping male mice together is their vicious fighting. Like men in a pub, they will brawl at any moment for no discernible reason and mouse fights can make street-gang warfare look like two-year olds bashing each other with teddy bears.
This makes housing them difficult, so it is important to decide whether you really want them. Their strong, pungent smell makes them unpopular, but it has a two-fold purpose. On the one hand, it tells predators where their dinner is. On the other, they need to attract females and keep the species going. Stinking to high heaven is the buck’s equivalent of roses, wine and a great meal out. Bullying, including keeping a mouse from the food is common and you need to remove the victim as soon as you can. This means, checking your pets every day without fail. It’s always a good idea to keep a small “hospital” cage in case you need to separate your pets.
FIGHTING: This is a common problem in a cage of several male mice but occurs in a cage with just two. In every colony – male and female – there is an alpha. It is very important to give your male pets – should you have them – a wheel or even two, because this keeps the king mouse occupied. Having control of the wheel is much like capturing the radio station in the military coup and consolidates the king’s position. But when the alpha needs to eat, drink or sleep, he is presented with a dilemma. How to remain in control, but not be in the wheel?
Easy! You let your thug mates use the wheel, eat, sleep, pee, then bash up a few of the other colony members just to remind them of your status. When this has been achieved to your satisfaction, you throw your second-in-command out of the wheel and resume spinning.
Mice know each other by smell. This means that when it comes to cleaning their cage, you have to be careful how you get them back together, because they can’t remember their mate after a few minutes apart! The most successful method, I found, was to spray both of them with a bird mice and lice spray before I put them back into their home. This had the two-fold purpose of ridding them of any mites they may have picked up and making them so outraged that they needed to groom themselves, before attending to the busy business of fighting the “strange” mouse each was being homed with! By the time they finished grooming, they’d forgotten to fight – mostly!
The other method I used to facilitate peace, was to keep back a handful of really dirty litter from their container. I would put this into a corner when putting in fresh bedding, thereby ensuring their smell was still in the cleaned container. These methods fooled most of them 99% of the time!
MOUSE ILLNESS: Mice are such hardy little souls that you may not know if your animal is sick until it’s too late to save it. Contrary to popular understanding, viral pneumonia is the common killer of mice. They get cancer, but not as frequently as rats. The first sign that your mouse is ill will be him or her hunched over, fur looking rough and dull. They lose weight and this can happen literally overnight. Of course, the illness has been “cooking” for at least 24 hours by then. Viral pneumonia is not necessarily contagious. One mouse in a tank of twenty can get it without anyone else becoming ill. Conversely, a whole tank or colony can go, one after the other in a matter of a few days.
Your best option is to remove the patient and give him or her a drop of Baytril or a combination dose of Doxycycline and Baytril. One drop is more than enough for a mouse. A rat only needs a drop the size of a grain of rice. Unfortunately, once you see a mouse is ill enough for this, it’s probably too late. You can only isolate the patient, keep him or her warm and book a service with the vicar for the next day.
If you opt for male mice, you need to remove the patient and isolate him. You can put Savlon or any antiseptic lotion on his back, or whatever your vet can give you for wounds. Keeping him away from his best friend means the ointment or painted antiseptic can’t be licked off. Of course you will need to be vigilant, and after cleaning the cage or box and dropping soiled litter in the corner – put a younger mouse or another wounded soldier (if you have one) in with him. However, you must remember to monitor these pairings in case you inadvertently put a heavily disguised gladiator in with your patient.
MOUSE PERSONALITY: Unlike a pet rat, your average mouse is a cold-hearted little sod. He will not love you. He might like crawling over you, sitting on your head – where he will pee and scent-mark to his heart’s content – but he will not bond with you. Certainly, he’ll recognize his slave when he or she comes bearing food and water, and performs room-service. But if you were hanging by your finger nails from the edge of a cliff, he would not stretch out a paw and drag you to safety.
In the 14 years I had the mouse circus, I only came across one mouse with whom I bonded. You note, I bonded. He did not! His name was Obediah Slope, a silver agouti mouse, who was given to me because he was an enthusiastic exponent of domestic violence. He thrashed every wife with which he was provided, so his owner thought he would have to send Obediah to the Rainbow Bridge. Fortunately I took pity on the little tyrant. He lived with us for two more years, during which time he did indeed sit on my head and hang from the rims of my sunglasses eyeballing me through the lenses.
When he was feeling particularly energetic he would clamber down my person to reach the colony boxes, where he would trundle to his heart’s content, dragging his goolies across the top of the mesh to tease the females and taunt the males by peeing in their faces. When he became tired of the game, he would grab the hem of my shirt when I got close enough, and haul himself paw over paw, up to my shoulder where he would wait patiently, nibbling my hair and ear, until he was put back in his house.
I was well aware that the little toe-rag only regarded me as a convenient step ladder and hand-maiden, but I cried buckets when he died.
Watch for a review of Diana’s novel, The Naked Room, in an upcoming issue of KRL.
The mouse art in this story was done by Drusilla Kehl of The Illustrated Rat. To see more of her work go to her website.