Keeping Exotics Cool

Although this could be a story about the hottest tropical trends, it’s actually a reminder that warm weather can be especially dangerous to our non-traditional or “exotic” pets. Living in New Mexico, we’re probably aware of how heat can affect cats and dogs as well as livestock. Lots of shade, plenty of water, and rest during the midday sun is good advice not only for us but for our pets.


Sometimes, though, people forget about the basics when it comes to our small furry friends like rabbits, ferrets, and rodents. We won’t get into birds or reptiles, except to say that “cold-blooded” reptiles tend to do just fine in the warmth of summer. And most pet birds are from hot climates (albeit more humid) and adapt to our weather patterns with little effort. But the furry guys are a different story.


Rabbits are common pets these days, and just as with dogs and cats, we usually see three different lifestyles—the house rabbit, the outdoor rabbit, and the one that goes back and forth. No matter what the habitat, we have to be really sensitive to their needs in summer. Rabbits have a thick fur coat and don’t tolerate high temperatures well. The jackrabbits and cottontails you see running around are very well adapted to this climate, but our domestic rabbits are just not the same.


Ferrets, being related to weasels, minks, and the like, were obviously designed for colder weather. Thick fur coats and strategic body fat—these are not warm-weather creatures. Luckily, most people who have ferrets in the United States primarily keep them indoors, so it is easier to control their ambient temperatures.


The domestic guinea pig, which does not exist in nature the way it exists at the pet store, is also not designed to tolerate heat well. Since their relatives are from the Andes, these household pets have a hard time when the temperature goes above 80 degrees or so.


Hamsters and gerbils have a little bit better time. Many of our domestic hamsters are descended from wild ones in Syria and can tolerate some heat, but they do burrow down to where it’s cooler when out on their own. The gerbil is a true desert animal from Africa, India, and Asia. Gerbils probably need the least amount of adjustment during summer in the high desert.


A lot of us tend to let our houses get warmer during the day when we are not home, then cool them off at night. Whether you have refrigerated air or a swamp cooler, you need to pay close attention to your pets! Here are some ways to keep them comfortable:


• If you can keep pets in a separate room with a thermostat or cooler, try not to let the temperature rise above 75 degrees or so. You may see ferrets having a hard time at that temperature.


• Use ceiling fans. A lot.


• Always, always, always make sure water is available.


• Keep cages away from windows—no direct sunlight on them in the heat of the day. Or at least keep the window shades pulled, and get UV-blocking shades if you can.


• Sometimes a little ice can go a long way. I have seen people fill half-gallon or gallon milk jugs with water, then freeze them. Place these in the rabbit’s hutch or cage so they can lay up against them if they want. Add a fan and you have a natural air conditioner! This works great for ferrets too. Then you can re-freeze the bottle at night and use it over and over.


Most of these guys will be lethargic during the heat of day and become very active in the morning and night. This is normal. But if they stay lethargic into the cool of night, something may be wrong and you may need to see a qualified veterinarian.


Have a great summer, and don’t forget about your family members with permanent fur coats who can’t reach the thermostat!


Daniel Levenson operates the Southwest Veterinary Medical Center at the south end of Corrales Road. Visit his website at Send him your questions care of