The Secret Lives of Mice

Jun 20, 2020 | 2020 Articles, Diana Hockley, Rodent Ramblings

by Diana Hockley

COMMITTMENT: Having a pet is a commitment, not something for which you beg your parents and then, two weeks later, are forced to care for. Parents should always remember that they 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 with 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 a medieval delicacy. mouse

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: Your next important decision will be what breed of mouse you want to keep. There are four: smooth haired, Rex, Manx, and long-hair, but with lots of varieties. For example, blue: chocolate, Siamese, Burmese, Birmans, pied of every color and, within this category, broken, white rump, capped, banded, fawn, 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 its own. Imagine if you were told that you would never see another human being for as long as you live. Ever! Even most human prisoners don’t have to stay in solitary forever.

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 ft. x 2 ft. will house several mice comfortably. Alternatively, an equivalent cage, the ones with the closely spaced bars will work. 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° C (77° F) is good for mice. They can live for very short periods of time in temperatures up to 40° C (104° F). 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-quarter 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 frozen longer—and put them into the freezer. They will take 24 hours to completely freeze. You can place one of these in each mouse cage or tank, 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 (or a clay pot) filled with cool water (maybe put 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, which can cut your animals. In America, I believe, you have to be very careful not to use wood shavings, which are usually pine, and ordinary sawdust is lethal for pinhead sized lungs. 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. Another NO-NO is using bug spray of any kind in the same room as your rodents.

Inside the tank or cage you will need housing. Like most animals, mice need privacy to conduct their lives away from prying eyes, do their washing, hang their underwear on the line, you know what I mean! You can give them a cardboard box (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 air flow. I used soft, shredded paper with 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!

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 alfalfa 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. A real treat for mice or rats is a wide dish, about an inch or two deep, filled with ordinary garden soil, dampened, and sown with finch or any small bird seed or wheat. Nurture this for one to two weeks, watering lightly every day, and providing good sunlight. When the shoots are about two to three inches tall, put it into the cage/container with the mice and stand back ready to take an action video!

Yoghurt drops are always a big favorite. If you acquire small yoghurt 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 colorful balls, but the one item which every well-equipped mouse colony requires, 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!

Diana’s mouse circus

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 your 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, whether they be mice, rats, dogs, cats, or any other animal. If an unsupervised child inadvertently hurts and animal and it retaliates in some way, then it is NOT the pet’s fault. It is YOURS.

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 also a good way to select a baby rat.

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 will be 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 mice—as 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 cell phone videos without an appreciative audience. Or take her cell phone away.
She can be put back with the other mice 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 of 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 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, 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 orphaned 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, BUT you MUST take precautions.

INTRODUCING A BABY MOUSE: 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 the newcomer in it for a few minutes to ensure it acquires the smell of the present mice. I rarely encountered problems introducing it to another mouse. If you do not do this, one of the female mice in the tank will kill it with one bite to the neck.

WHY MALE MICE DO NOT MAKE GOOD PETS: 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. 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. (Bucks and does are male and female mice. The babies are called pinkys.) 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: It is very important to give your male pets, should you have them, a wheel or even two, because this keeps the alpha mouse occupied. Having control of the wheel is much like capturing the radio station in a military coup; it consolidates the alpha’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 closest thug mate use the wheel while you eat, sleep, or pee, and 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 cage mates even after a only 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 need to groom themselves before attending to the business of fighting the “strange” mice they were 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 them 99% of the time.

NURSING WOUNDED WARRIORS: If you opt for male mice, you need to remove the patient and isolate him. You can put Savlon (an antiseptic cream) or any non-poisonous 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 antiseptic won’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 ILLNESS: Rodents 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 thought, viral pneumonia is the most 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 probably 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 (an antibiotic) or a combination dose of Doxycycline (also an antibiotic) 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 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.

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 you come bearing food and water and perform room-service. But if you were hanging by your fingernails from the edge of a cliff, he would not stretch out a paw to drag you to safety.

In the fourteen years I had a 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 across 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, 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 toerag only regarded me as a convenient step ladder and hand-maiden, but I cried buckets when he died.

All of the pieces of art in this story were done by Drusilla Kehl of The Illustrated Rat. To see more of her work go to her website and check out KRL’s article about Drusilla.

Check out more pet stories in our Pet Perspective section, and more mouse and rat related stories in our Rodent Ramblings section.

We also have a pets newsletter that will be going out every month or two, letting our readers know about all of the pet and animal rescue related articles that went up over that time, so you never miss a thing. This is still a work in progress so I hope you will be patient with us-we are still sorting out exactly what this will all be, and how often it will go out. We also hope to provide some additional content and maybe even some pet related giveaways. You can use this box to subscribe!

powered by TinyLetter

Diana Hockley is an Australian mystery author who lives in a southeast Queensland country town. She is the devoted slave of five ratties & usually finds an excuse to mention them in her writing, including her recent novel, The Naked Room. Since retiring from running a traveling mouse circus for 10 years, she is now the mouse judge for the Queensland Rat & Mouse Club shows. To learn more, check out her website.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.