Small Animal Behavior Basics

Is she sick or is this normal behavior?

Your pet’s behavior will change as she matures from newborn to adult. Some of these changes, however, can be mistaken for illness or even worse, they can be mistaken for normal behavior when they are actually caused by some underlying disease condition.

  • An alarmed pet can behave strangely. Some gerbils when startled or handled improperly, will exhibit seizures and collapse in their cage. This can be quite frightening to a young child or adult, but this is normal behavior for a gerbil reacting to a stressor. After a short time, the gerbil will recover and return to its normal behavioral patterns. It’s important to note that epilepsy is also a common inherited disease in gerbils.
  • Excessive grooming is not normal. Rabbits scratch and groom often, but excessive scratching of ears and head shaking also can be a sign of a parasitic ear infestation caused by mites.
  • Nesting can be the source of some strange behaviors. If they are allergic to the bedding, they might develop a “runny nose”. Gerbil mucous is red colored and can give the appearance of a bloody nose. Try to switch bedding types to see if that is the source of the problem.
    If you notice red patches on your pet, and she is not nesting, this may be caused by tiny mites coming from bedding material, a more serious and pathological condition.
  • Not all strange eating behaviors are abnormal. Guinea pigs will often whistle frequently at feeding times, especially when their favorite greens, fruits, and vegetables are offered. On the other hand, these pets scare easily and may stop eating and run around in the cage when approached. Typically they return to normal behavioral after a short rest period.
    Changes in eating behavior also could be a sign of teeth (molars) problems in guinea pigs and rabbits, or overgrown teeth in gerbils, rats, hamsters and mice.
  • Stress is the cause of a number of odd behaviors. Rabbits, for example, adjust poorly to sudden changes in their daily routines. Moving them to a new room or location, or even a new addition to your family, can cause some non-pathological behavior changes. These changes can cause a “fight or flight” stress response and cause them to become aggressive or react differently when handled.
    Stress also can cause a rabbit to run around in circles in its cage. Irritation from mites or lice, or other biting insects, however, can cause this same behavior. Running in circles, shaking its head, or head tilting is a more serious behavior problem caused by an inner ear infection. Tune in to what changes took place in the animal’s environment before assuming it is an illness.
  • Territorial behaviors can be misinterpreted for illness. Some rabbits may give behavioral (territorial) warnings such as stomping its rear feet when a new person or another rabbit approaches.

Any sudden change in behavior is a sign that something has changed in your animal’s life. Not all changes are caused by disease; many are a result of some environmental stressor. Identify what caused the sudden change and correct the situation. These behavioral causing stressors can be short-term and quickly corrected, while some may require 24 hours or more for the animal to return to normal activity. In any case, if an animal shows reaction to pain when handled, or normal behavior does not return in a few days, seek immediate medical veterinary attention.