Basic Animal Husbandry Techniques



 Ivy Hawken

One of the first rules of animal husbandry for the fancier is “know your animals.” Before you obtain any animal, be sure that it is right for you, ask yourself a few questions, ask everyone else the same questions, then try to find out what is known on a zoological level about the animal you fancy and most important of all learn as much as you can about how this species lives and “survives” in the wild. This knowledge can mean the difference between success and failure.


Ask yourself:-


1. What does this animal require in terms of space to create a healthy, happy environment in which to live?    This will vary for each species, never settle for the recommended minimum.


2. What sort of habitat does this animal require in the wild?    Can you, as near as possible, integrate that into your system? i.e. temperature, burrows, grassy tussocks.

3. What are the food requirements of the species and can you supply any/some or all natural food?  How much substitute food will you need to rely on?   Is the recommended substitute food likely to cause problems for the animal long term? If so, how can you balance the diet in a more acceptable way?


These are just some of the key items which again vary with each species and are often important to the contented state of the creature.


If some of the above seems a bit confusing or obscure I will try to demonstrate examples from real cases.    These cases are situations in which I have been consulted for advice.

Case 1.


“I bought six Bettongs approximately four months ago, three have died and another is not looking well, what is wrong?”


Q. What are they eating?

A. Wallaby pellets, ‘Complete O’ (a proprietary dry feed), fruit and vegetables and they have grass in their enclosure.

Q.  What sort of grass, any shrubs, where do they sleep?

A. We have an enclosure which is a quarter of our backyard, the grass is what used to be lawn, there are no shrubs,   They have a small shelter like a miniature shed where the food is placed.   Water bowls are at the opposite end of the enclosure and are filled by hose.


Q. What sleeping quarters have they got?

A. The little shed.


Q. Do you have a cat or dog?

A. Yes, one cat and one dog.   Both of these animals basically lived in the remainder of the back yard..

My suggestion was that the Bettongs probably died of stress due to the fact that they had no places in which to hide, leaving them feeling very insecure, and that the shed was not an adequate sleeping arrangement.    This was not well received.   It was considered that the animals were well cared for as only the best products were fed and their enclosure was immaculate.   The approach was - what was the point of having something unusual and not be able to see it and have your friends see them also.  


The enclosure had been designed for that purpose - wherever you were in the garden the Bettongs were in view.   In short, the animals were on display twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, even to the dog and cat.    It was also protested that the cat and dog never harassed the animals and they were unable to grasp the psychological aspect of the presence of the dog and cat for the Bettongs.   I got the impression that this was discounted completely and the possibility of an animal having some of the finer feelings of life was quite foreign.    These people were quite unable to accept or comprehend that the Bettongs would be upset by both the domestic pets or the lack of furnishings in their so called triple A accommodation, even though this was most probably the cause of their demise..


Case 2.


Is one of a different kind!    In this story a gentleman was concerned for the well being of one of his Dunnarts and whilst we did discuss the possible causes of his Dunnart looking unhappy at length, the points I wish to raise here are the value of faeces and urine as diagnostic tools and the need to be able to isolate an animal not behaving normally.

Case 3.


This case concerns a lady who had purchased a group of Sugar Gliders which came complete with instructions on housing and diet. She didn’t feel comfortable with all of the items on the recommended menu.   Her phone call to me was to check that list; it was long and complicated.    Three of the stated favourites on this menu were raspberry jam, puppy chow and orange cream biscuits.  I ask you, where in the wild would an animal get such items.  What possible natural foods could these products be substituting.   We discussed this problem at length on more than one occasion, and rightly discussed it with others reputed to have some knowledge and experience with these creatures and their nutrition.    In consequence her charges are now being served a much more realistic diet.



Case one, I think, is self explanatory.   This lady did not give much thought to the welfare of the creatures concerned.   


Case two brings forward some very important issues.  


When you clean cages don’t overdo the protective gear (gas masks and gloves etc.) get a little closer to your animals and their wastes. The humble faeces, if studied can tell you an awful lot about what is going on inside your charges.    You need to be familiar with the normal shape, colour, consistency and smell, all of which can tell you a tale if you care to read it.    Shape is obvious, I suggest you take the trouble to take a good sample (one pellet) and hold in your thumb and forefinger, smell it, squeeze it, when you squeeze note the moisture content.    This will vary from specie to specie and also depend to a degree on diet.    Colour also will depend on the specie.    Example - Sugar Gliders and Ringtail Possums are near to or are black, Brushtail Possum is brown, Kangaroo and Wallaby Dark green.    This of course, will change somewhat with the seasons and will also depend on diet.    Consistency is very important, anything away from normal i.e. too soft, no shape needs further investigation.

The first thing you check is what was on the menu previously, could something have caused a stomach upset, could something have been not quite edible, could this animal have pigged out on one item, perhaps something new you’ve tried.   If these possibilities give you an answer then the solution is basic, if not take a sample to the vet for analysis.   


This brings us to smell, equally as important as consistency, but is likely to vary a little from specie to specie also.   I will relate here a few examples taken from my experience with macropod species.   It will demonstrate what I mean and give you a working guide.

Distinct Sweetish Smell - Candidiasis (yeast infection), often yellowish to brown colour.

Sour Smell - Digestive problem review diet.

Cow Yard Smell - Flora imbalance. May require antibiotic, consult vet.

Bad Smell - Often associated with germ in bowel, consult vet.


Many of the more common complaints are readily detected just by recognising the changes they effect on the faeces.


Urine too is a very useful tool in the detection of trouble.   Kidney complaints, bladder or urinary infections are two conditions readily detected by colour and smell of urine, or the lack of, or excess of urine.


Left over food is something else that must be scrutinised; exactly what are they NOT eating within eight hours of feeding?   How important is that item to their health?    Can it be substituted with a nutritionally similar product more palatable to them? Are they just eating the lollies and leaving the spinach?     You must devise a way to overcome such problems if you wish to maintain healthy animals’ long term.   Don’t forget to take into consideration that some animals naturally have a dietary change on a seasonal level and some change their diet when breeding and rearing young.


Case three is concerned only with diet - concerning specie for which a 100% natural diet is an impossibility and substitution is the only alternative.

Artificial diets are not hard to get right but some items used are unsuitable and while animals seem to do well initially, their systems on the long term don’t cope and a reaction such as chronic bowel problems, liver complaints and kidney failure are just a few of the grim scenarios that are often the end result. When considering substitute items to add to menu ask yourself the following questions:

1.   Would this animal have access to this in the wild?

2.   What is the object of adding this product to the diet?

3.   Is there something else I can use that is likely to be more readily digested with less likelihood of long term problems?


Further Comments


Artificial substitutes should be able to be justified for realistic reasons and when used they should, as near as possible, resemble in make up, the product being replaced.    That the animal likes it may not be a good enough reason for feeding some substances.


How many of you run to a first aid cupboard for your pets?   It is surprising how comforting such a commodity can be in a crisis and also surprising how often you may require the items it contains.     A few things I would consider essential are:-


Electrolytes (oral rehydration therapy). There are several brands on the market, all known by a different names but they all do the same job.   Personally I prefer the powder form which comes in two separate sachets which are mixed with water, usually to make one litre.   Any excess to immediate needs can be frozen as ice cubes and stored in an ice-cream container for future use.   Once made up it has a very short life unless frozen.   I have kept it frozen for six months.   There is a pre-mixed product available but I have found it unsatisfactory for marsupials.   This product is suitable for use in any kind of illness, shock, etc.   It can sustain for several days if need be without ingestion of other foods.


Otoderm Solution.   An ideal product to clean any flesh wound and buy you time until a vet can attend.   Ointments and salves etc. are best purchased as required and recommended by the attending vet, as these days many preparations are very specific to a precise condition.    If you keep the wound clean with Otoderm your vet will advise further.


Nutrigel a high calorie vitamin concentrate.   Used after illness, it helps to pick up condition and sustains the animal while regaining its normal appetite.   Remember though this product is designed for cats and dogs.   I have found that one quarter of the recommended amount is all that is required for marsupials and more will make them sick.


Loose Items such as syringes (no needles) of different sizes are very good for force feeding or administering oral medications.    A set of plastic forceps, cotton wool, a small packet of gauze swabs and a bandage, if your animal is big enough to accommodate one. A graduated medicine glass, which has at least 5ml increments, less if possible, and a thermometer.


An isolation ward is something else that is essential.     This can be as large as a 1800mm x 1800mm enclosed space for roo’s, or a shoe box sized plastic or glass container, such as a fish tank for Dunnarts etc.   Any animal that is off-colour should immediately be isolated from its cohabitants, kept warm and constantly monitored. The ability to provide warmth to this facility is essential; this can be achieved by using electric heat pads, heat lamps or hot water bottles.


Faeces and urine can be collected for analysis with the confidence that you have collected from the sick animal and not another. When collecting such samples always use clean containers.   In the case of faeces, wrapping in regular kitchen foil is all that is required. Present to your vet as soon as possible. Hopefully he/she will be able to identify the problem and prescribe the appropriate treatment.   A check for internal parasites can be done at the same time. Diet of course will dictate the quality of faeces.   You only get out of an animal what you put in; if the diet is not good then the faeces will not be either.   It does happen though, where all can be going fine and suddenly the situation begins to deteriorate, if no change has been made to the menu, then it doesn’t hurt to review the menu itself, just as a precaution.

Make sure you provide your enclosures with adequate cover in which your animals can shelter and provide proper sleeping facilities, suitable to the species. Marsupials are extremely sensitive to their environment and don’t adjust as readily to change, sometimes not at all, the way most domestic animals do.  A happy and contented animal is a relaxed and thus generally a healthy animal.


When you get your animals home spend as much time as you can just watching them.    Pick yourself a spot where you are not so close as to intimidate them at first, give them time to get used to you before sitting for long periods at close range.   Study them, get to know each individual at first glance, be aware of the behaviour differences of each individual.   Note the shy ones, the bossy ones, the greedy ones, the ones that like to lay out in full view and those that prefer to half hide in the bushes.   If you can note the individual behaviour patterns of each of your animals, the first time something is out of sink with one, you will notice, never ignore but watch, should the change become more obvious – act.  Never put this kind of thing off till tomorrow; tomorrow may be too late. Get on the phone, talk to someone else who has personal experience with the species, you may be saving a life.


One last thing that you should be doing is keeping a diary or case/specie history.   This record has a twofold purpose at least.    In it you record where, when and from whom you bought your animals, their living environment: i.e. describe with as much detail as possible their enclosure, what they eat, and as you get to know each one, a description which explains what you see about this animal that makes it different from the rest.


Record anything new you feed, do or change, watch for and record their reactions.   Record anything you feel might be different about them, even if you are not sure.   When you make an entry you date it and make comment on weather conditions for that day and if no entries have been made over the previous week, note the weather generally for that week, in particular any variation, e.g. a thunderstorm, sudden cold snap, excessive heat etc.   Any such happenings could well be the cause of any problem that may arise.

Should you have a problem, your answers may be found in such a record.    The invasion of your property by the neighbours’ dog may produce no immediate reaction but it may take as long as a fortnight after the incident occurred for trouble to become evident. Loose bowel motions are very common reactions to stress.   So your record is often an invaluable diagnostic tool.   It is also very interesting to go back over your notes from time to time.    As you progress you will see where problems of yesteryear are problems no longer, because you have learned to deal with or prevent certain situations.


This record is also your way of contributing to the knowledge which is so hard to acquire, indeed, it could be the only detailed record of such an exercise.   If five people keep detailed records of their chosen specie, say a red kangaroo or brushtail possum, our ability to compare such records and achieve a norm, how valuable would that be?


Take the time also, or make the effort to get to know each animal personally, on a one to one basis.    This can easily be done over a time, just by offering some special tit-bit that will entice them to come close.    The object here is not just the great feeling you get, but the chance to check coat condition, is it as it should be?  Nice and sleek and shiny, not dull and matted.   Become familiar with their eyes.   The eyes of a healthy animal are unmistakable; they sparkle, whereas an off-colour animal will have dull eyes that seem uninterested in life.    The saying, “EYES ARE THE MIRROR OF THE SOUL” is very true.


If you want to see sickness before it becomes death, learn what is normal and don’t ignore the unusual.


This article is reproduced with many thanks to the Marsupial Society of Victoria,   It was first published in their newsletter in 1996. 

Bennett's Wallaby
Juvenile NT Brushtail Possum
Swamp Wallaby
Golden Brushtail Possum
Red Kangaroos
Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies
Baby Squirrel Glider
Sugar Glider

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