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April-June 2000

Small Pet Animals (Hamsters, Ferrets, and More)

Recently, more and more people are adopting small animals, which are relatively easy to care for, as pets. Particularly popular with kids are hamsters and ferrets.

Hamsters first gained broad public attention in Japan 10 years ago, when a comic book featuring one as the main character became a hit. Then in 1996--the year of the rat in the Chinese zodiac--hamsters became a favorite topic on television and in magazine features because they are closely related to the zodiac animal. Since then, more hamster comic books have come out.

There are many different kinds of hamsters. Golden hamsters have long been popular, but recently, smaller-sized varieties known collectively as dwarf hamsters have become familiar faces in many pet shops--particularly the Djungarian hamster.

Ferrets, meanwhile, are domesticated animals that look a lot like weasels. Larger ones grow to be 40 to 50 centimeters (16 to 20 inches) long. People in Japan first started keeping these animals as pets around five years ago, after which, as you might expect, ferrets began being featured as main characters in comic books and anime (Japanese animation). Since they usually aren't afraid of humans, they're particularly popular with girls; many of them find the critters "friendly toward people and cuter than a lot of other animals."

Because it's only fairly recently that small animals like these have come to be widely owned as pets, not as much information is available on how to care for them compared to dogs and cats. As a result, it's becoming increasingly common to exchange information over the Internet among fellow small-pet owners. One owner might ask, "My pet is sick but won't take its medicine. What should I do?" In response, another owner familiar with the problem might write, "Mixing some honey into the medicine should do the trick."

Popular small pets have one more thing in common: They're virtually soundless. In Japan, most apartments and condominiums don't allow residents to keep dogs and cats, but there usually are no specific restrictions regarding other animals. Quiet animals that don't cause a nuisance to neighbors have therefore become ideal choices as pets.

By the way, according to one pet shop, other small animals that have lately gained in popularity include wallabies (various types of small kangaroos), chinchillas, chipmunks, brush-tailed possums, raccoons, prairie dogs, alligator snappers, Netherland drawfs (miniature rabbits), fennecs, skunks, hedgehogs, flying squirrels, armadillos, and even iguana--you name it!

Photos: (Top) Djungarian hamsters are small and gentle (Masao Moriguchi); (above) ferrets make friendly companions (Yuri Katada).