Don't put us under the tree! Small animals can be big commitment

They might be little, but they can come with big needs. An animal rescue group in St. John's wants people to think twice before putting a pet under the Christmas tree.

Why you should think twice before giving a rabbit or a guinea pig as a Christmas gift

Hoppy Homes Rescue's media coordinator Zaren Healy White with her hedgehog Phil. (Ashley Harding)

They might be little, but they can come with big needs, and a small-animal rescue group in St. John's wants people to think twice before putting a pet under the Christmas tree.

They're so much more vulnerable if they go into the wrong home.- Zaren Healey White

Hoppy Homes Rescue focuses on finding homes for the animals that are often overlooked at shelters —rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, birds, ferrets, hedgehogs and others.

"We do get a lot of animals that have been abandoned as well, so it's unfortunately a somewhat common practice for people to just let animals go outside, especially the small animals," said Hoppy Homes president Judy Perry.

Hoppy Homes volunteers (left to right) Judy Perry, Jane White, and Vicki Peddle (standing) at a volunteer fair at Memorial University. (Submitted by Zaren Healy White)

That's why the organization is asking people to do their research before taking a small animal into the home, especially if it is being given as a gift.

While it isn't a good idea to give a dog or cat as a present either, smaller animals are especially vulnerable because there is less of a barrier when it comes to access and cost.

Long lifespan, loneliness

"People can really underestimate the life span, the care, the need for veterinary care. It can be just as costly as larger animals," said Zaren Healey White, who has been volunteering with Hoppy Homes since 2013. 

Hoppy Homes president Judy Perry with her adopted Quaker parrots Kermit and Elsa. (Submitted by Zaren Healy White)

"They're so much more vulnerable if they go into the wrong home where people don't understand the care that's required," she told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

You can't expect a child to take responsibility for the life of a small animal.- Hoppy Homes president Judy Perry

For example, rabbits can live for 10 years, and the length of commitment required is something that might not come up at the pet store. 

Guinea pigs are prone to loneliness and should be kept in pairs. In fact, it is illegal to own just one guinea pig or parrot in Switzerland because they are considered a social species.

Newton is currently in foster care. He's one of about 20 rabbits available for adoption. (hoppyhomesrescue.com)

"They're so easy to see as inanimate objects, and we're always trying to dispel that," said Healy White.

The group recommends researching the care requirements and cost before making the commitment, especially if giving an animal to a child as a gift.

"If you treat the pet like an object, the child is going to treat it like an object, so like all the gifts they get at Christmas, a few weeks later they've lost interest and the toy is shoved in a corner somewhere, and the same thing unfortunately happens with small animals," said Perry.

Toast the baby rat posing in a promotional shot for Hoppy Homes. He has since been adopted. (Submitted by Zaren Healy White)

"If the parents are committed to caring for the animal and they know it's their animal, then that's a different situation, but you need to be aware of what you're getting into. You can't expect a child to take responsibility for the life of a small animal." 

Alternative to ownership

Perry said fostering is an option that parents could also consider that will allow the child to experience life with an animal.

"But you don't have to make the commitment to care for him for the rest of his life, so if you want to just try it out and see if you like fostering, you know that's a great way to do it as well."

She said Hoppy Homes works with shelters and other rescue groups to connect unwanted small animals with foster homes. There are currently almost 30 rabbits and 10 rats up for adoption on the group's website.   

With files from the St. John's Morning Show