Pocket pets -- so-called because of their small size -- are good alternatives when you lack the space and time for bigger pets.

Sometimes owning a dog, cat, or larger pet is impractical. An apartment may be too small or may prohibit keeping such a pet, there may be allergies to consider, or it might simply be too much responsibility. There are alternatives, however, and pet expert Marc Morrone has several suggestions.

Hamsters and gerbils have gentle temperaments and are available in a variety of colors and coat lengths. They can be housed in a 10-gallon glass aquarium with a mesh top, which should be secured with spring clips. Clean and wash the cage once a week, and line it with a layer of aspen bedding or pine shavings (gerbils and hamsters can develop skin irritations from cedar shavings). You will also need a water bottle with a holder, a food dish, an exercise wheel, and a wooden chew block, which keeps hamsters' and gerbils' incisors worn down. Preparing a gerbil's or a hamster's diet is simple: Use a high-quality seed-and-pellet mix formulated especially for rodents, add a vitamin supplement to the water, and offer cut-up vegetables and nuts.

Hamsters should be kept singly, although same-sex siblings from a common litter will be able to get along. Gerbils prefer to live in pairs; they are monogamous, and a male will aid the female in raising the young. Try to find young animals that have just recently been weaned from their mothers, as they will be easier to bond with. When you first acquire your hamster or gerbil, use a coffee cup to scoop it up and gently stroke it; this prevents the animal from scurrying away and allows you to build up trust. After you and your pet gain a little confidence, you can tip it out of the cup and into your hand.

The downside of owning a hamster or gerbil is its short life span -- only about three years. But following these guidelines will ensure that your pet lives in health and comfort.


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