How to Care for Orphaned Baby Hamsters, Mice, Gerbils, and Rats: Orphan Rodent Caretaking, Caring for Orphans

Photo copyright Inge Habex via Wikimedia Commons
Photo copyright Inge Habex via Wikimedia Commons

“Pocket pets” such as hamsters, gerbils and mice are fun animals that are very rewarding to keep and can stay healthy with far less maintenance than larger animals such as cats or dogs. Rodents are also very easy to breed, and generally the litters are very successful. However, there is always the chance that something could happen to the mother that she can’t or won’t take care of the babies – she may die, or some first-time mothers simply ignore their young and don’t take care of them. While baby mortality rates are high in these situations, there are a few things you can do to take care of them and, with time and dedication, pull them through.

Feeding

First, get some milk replacer, if you can't find anything specifically for rodents then kitten milk replacer will work just fine. The nursing bottles sold along with milk replacer in most pet stores are designed for puppies and kittens and are far too large for newborn rodents, but you can use either the corner of a piece of fabric such as silk or old t-shirt material. Do not use terry cloth, such as wash cloths, or flannel (old flannel is sometimes usable) because they tend to be fuzzy and fibers can be swallowed by the nursing babies. Alternatively, a small syringe without a needle attached works very well for nursing as long as you’re very careful when pushing the plunger to give the baby more milk. In general, pushing out a small drop on the end and letting the baby lick it off is the best way to make sure they don’t get too much at once and end up with milk in their lungs. Syringes can generally be obtained from a veterinarian's office or from a pharmacy. Most pharmacies have the syringes on hand to hand out to patients and may be willing to sell or give you one for your rodents.

Babies will need to be fed about every 1-2 hours, though this time varies with the species and age of the babies. The best way to determine feeding intervals is to watch the litter closely and set a timer after a feeding; when the babies start becoming more active and nuzzling around in their bedding for food, check the timer and use that as your feeding interval. The amount for feeding will also vary, but in smaller species may not be any more than three or four drops of milk per feeding. Pay attention to the way the babies eat and when their interest starts to wane, even if they keep nursing, they’re likely done. Also watch their bellies, and should they begin to get distended then stop feeding because they’ve definitely had enough and it could be harmful to give them more.

At about a week old (may be a little more or less depending on the species) the babies will need a little more substance to their food. At this point you can begin giving them baby cereal meant for human babies with a little bit of milk replacer mixed in – rice, oatmeal, or mixed grains seem to work the best. Rats may appreciate a little bit of meat-based sauce along with their meal, such as spaghetti sauce. As the baby’s teeth begin to develop, you can introduce grains and seeds from an adult rodent food, though you may need to soak it in water or milk replacer in the beginning. Depending on the species, the babies can be weaned entirely on to adult food at around 3-4 weeks.

Bedding

Keeping very small babies at the right temperature can be a challenge, but perhaps the best nest for babies that are not yet mobile is a small box that fits the litter in it, but does not have much excess room. Line the box with a layer of cotton batting, then cover the batting entirely with a soft fabric such as flannel or silk. Place the box in a place free from drafts, and being inside a plastic or glass-sided rodent cage can help hold in some of the heat. Depending on the outside temperature, it is often a good idea to place a piece of light fabric over the top of the litter to keep additional heat in, though make sure it is set loosely so they still get fresh air. Whenever the cloth becomes soiled it can be changed out for a clean one, and the soiled cloth may be washed in warm water and mild soap to be re-used.

Voiding and Cleaning

For the first week or two, babies do not have the muscle tone necessary to void for themselves. While this can make keeping the bedding clean easy, it also means that after each feeding you have to stimulate them so that they can defecate. Failure to do so will result in severe constipation and, quickly afterward, death. To stimulate, place the baby belly-down on the palm of your hand (most people prefer to put a cloth down on their hand and place the baby on that) and gently rub its back end with a fingertip. Moistening the finger with warm water can sometimes help, but is unnecessary if the baby goes just fine without the additional stimulation, and it’s safer to keep the baby as dry as possible. After it voids, carefully wipe its anal/genital area with a soft, moist cloth until the baby is clean and then return it immediately to the nest before it has a chance to get cold. As the babies become more independent and move out of the nest, you will eventually be able to switch to normal maintenance and cleaning of the rodent cage.

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