Pocket pet is a term used to refer to a small pet mammal commonly kept as a household pet. The most common pocket pets are rodents such as hamsters, gerbils, degus, fancy mice, fancy rats, chinchillas, and guinea pigs. The term also includes exotic pets and marsupials like flying squirrels, pygmy opossums, sugar gliders, and hedgehogs (which have been bred as house pets in the United States for the last 15 years). An expanded definition would also include larger pets like rabbits (Lagomorpha) and ferrets (a carnivore).
Other small animals, like reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians, e.g. lizards, snakes, turtles, goldfish, canaries, and frogs, may not be considered pocket pets.
Many of these small pets are prohibited in certain areas for being invasive. California, Hawaii, and New Zealand have their strict regulations to protect their native environments and agricultural operations. Gerbils, degus, ferrets, sugar gliders, and hedgehogs all have multiple prohibitions on their ownership. Rats are outlawed in Alberta and rabbits are restricted in Australia.
The domestication of small mammals is a relatively recent development, arising only after large-scale industrialization. Historically, when western society was more agrarian than it is today, rodents as a whole were seen as a nuisance, as they were carriers for disease and a threat to crops. Animals that hunted these pests, such as terriers and cats, were prized.
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Guinea pigs have perhaps the longest tradition of pethood among rodents (note that rabbits are not rodents). While they served as a foodstuff for the native Inca, they were imported to Europe as early as the mid-16th century, shortly after Spain conquered Peru. As an oddity from the New World, they were afforded a special status, and seen as house pets, rather than vermin or food. While their popularity was initially limited to the wealthy, their prodigious reproductive habits ensured that they spread throughout the middle classes shortly after their introduction, with guinea pig burial places (not scattered bones, as would be found with an eaten animal) found in archaeological digs in medieval middle-class suburbs.
Fancy mice were popular pets in Japan during the 18th century, due in large part to the abundance of color mutations in wild mice. In 1787, a book on this hobby called The Breeding of Curious Varieties of the Mouse was published by Chobei Zenya, a Kyoto money exchanger. Over time the tradition spread from Japan to Europe, and 1895 saw the establishment of the National Mouse Club in England.
Hamsters first gained popularity as pets in the 1930s, with virtually all modern Syrian hamsters tracing their lineage back to a single litter of hamsters taken to Palestine for scientific research in 1930. Shortly thereafter, in 1938, hamsters were introduced to the United States.
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