When my roommate told me that she wanted a hamster, I was excited. Who doesn’t like the idea of a small furry friend? We got the okay from our two other roommates and I did what I usually do with everything new in my life: I sat down and researched the hell out of what hamsters need. What I found was far more than I ever thought I would find.
The first thing that I learned that shocked me was that pet store cages are at least two times smaller than what most long-time hamster owners agree is humane. The absolute minimum is 450 square inches, while many pet stores will sell you cages as small as 50 square inches. I was appalled at the thought that my childhood hamster was in a pet-store-bought cage probably far too small for her, causing stress, disease and early death. I told my roommate and we found an easy bin cage tutorial using a clear plastic bin that we drilled holes in, something that was much bigger and much cheaper than we expected.
While this story had a happy ending, the same cannot be said for every household pet. My roommate recalled how her freshman year roommate had bought a hamster and my roommate had bought the cage, trusting that her roommate, who had previously owned hamsters, knew what she was doing. The hamster had no room or enough bedding to naturally burrow and lived in a two-level cage which is bad for hamsters that have no depth perception and easily fall from heights. The thing is that that hamster lived for two years, by all accounts a normal life span, but it had all the signs of a stressed and sad hamster from what my roommate described.
This is indicative of a general trend that reaches far beyond my roommate and her former roommate. It is something that extends to the way we treat common pets we think we know the needs of. We grew up with hamsters or dogs or cats or fish. We kept them in pet-store-suggested tanks and cages or used pet-store-suggested regimens and those pets survived. Although rarely do we ever seem to ask if they thrived.
Stray dogs and cats can often travel 20-30 miles a day, which is not to say that our household pets need to walk for an entire day, just to say that their capabilities often surpass what we give them. Many owners are content with two short walks a day for a dog or ten minutes of play with a cat when this might actually not be enough for the animal themselves. Boredom manifests itself often in the ways that we joke about online as just “part of owning pets:” being destructive or noisy or anxious.
Fish are actually not as low-maintenance as we believe, requiring daily water checks, weekly changes and much more water than we give some of them. Bettas fish especially should not be kept in aesthetically pleasing one-gallon tanks but rather five- or even ten-gallon ones where they can actually move. Fish bowls don’t provide enough surface area for proper oxygen flow and should never contain a live fish, much less the goldfish of their namesakes who, in tiny bowls, will stay stunted in size, but they will also die years too early. Rodents, too, require much more space than any pet store cage will ever provide.
These pets are the ones we give to children, the ones we think we are experts in without doing any research. We trust that the experts will tell us what is necessary, but so often they just tell us what they think we want to hear. Chiefly that these pets are easy and cheap to care for. They want to make a sale and have great margins, but their best profits come from lying to people about what actual living creatures need.
In the end, these creatures will survive and might even live out their expected existence, but do we ever stop to ask whether or not they are happy? Because at the end of the day, the one thing that all of these pets have in common is that they do not have a choice where they end up. They have no say in how they are cared for or how much exercise they get or what kind of food they eat. Their entire lives are dictated by us. Ultimately, the problem lies with the companies that sell us these things, but until they are reformed, I think all of us really want to give our pets a life that they might actually choose themselves. Not just a life that is alluringly convenient to us.