Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A review of four mouse cages

Last year my SO and I got a seven-for-one deal on some mice. In the ensuing time we purchased five cages for our mice, and used them constantly until our last mouse died a few days ago. In this post I will review the four types of cages we bought.

New mouse cages
A setup of four of our cages.

The picture above shows our original cage setup, which includes, from left to right, a CritterTrail Mini Two, a Habitrail Mini, another CritterTrail Mini Two, and a CritterTrail Three. We purchased a set of CritterTrail connector tubes ("Fun-nels") and have hooked all four cages together to create one large habitat. One of the reasons we settled on these cages is that they mix wire sides with plastic tops and bottoms; many of the modular styles of cages are completely enclosed with solid plastic, which greatly decreases ventilation.

CritterTrail Mini Two

CritterTrail Mini Two
A CritterTrail Mini Two.

Of the cages, the CritterTrail Mini Twos are by far the least expensive ($15), but also the smallest and least interesting for the mice. The cage comes with a wheel, a water bottle, and a rather useless food dish (although a few of the mice seem to like sitting or sleeping in the dish). The CritterTrail Mini Two makes a great side cage, and when we had only two cages the mice used the CritterTrail Mini Two as a nest location and exercise room (there was often a line at the wheel), but I'd never permanently keep any number of mice in just one of these due to the small size.

Habitrail Mini

Habitrail Mini
A Habitrail Mini.

The Habitrail Mini is a decent standalone cage; it's intermediate in size and price ($30). The cage has a good amount of floor space, and comes with a water bottle, a wheel, a "MushRoom" climbing toy, and a food dish. The water bottle that came with the cage is of a rather odd design and takes up valuable floor space, so we didn't use it (though it is great for sick mice that may not be able to reach up to a hanging water bottle). Instead, we bought a small hanging water bottle and suspended it from the wire (as you can see in the front-right portion of the cage picture above).

Habitrail wheel
The Habitrail Mini wheel.

The wheel of the Habitrail Mini seems to have a design flaw (besides being hard to install) that could be dangerous: the mice climb in through one of four small holes in the side, which, when the wheel is rotating, pass directly underneath the wheel's support structure. Thus, if a mouse was trying to enter the wheel while another mouse was running on it, the entering mouse could get slammed into the support bar. This didn't happen to us, though we've heard rumors of at least one mouse fatality happening on this style of wheel, so we figured we'd rather not risk it, especially since we had safer wheels in other cages.

The Habitrail Mini "MushRoom".

The Habitrail Mini has two spots to hang accessories from, so we decided to replace the wheel with a second MushRoom that we bought from the pet store's clearance bin. The MushRoom consists of a tube leading from the floor of the cage up to a small platform enclosed by a dome with lots of mouse-sized holes in it. The mice absolutely loved the MushRooms and often climbed from one to the other.

This cage also has the most closely-spaced bars of our four cage types (making it the most escape-proof, especially for baby mice), and the largest door.

CritterTrail Three

CritterTrail Three
A CritterTrail Three.

The CritterTrail Three is the largest and most expensive ($40) of the cages. It has about the same floor space as the Habitrail Mini, but is more than twice as tall, with five levels (the floor, three shelves, and an enclosed area on the top). This cage comes with a water bottle, a wheel, and a food dish. The wheel in this cage is larger than the one in the CritterTrail Mini Two (but of the same basic design), and ended up getting the most running time of all the wheels. The top of this cage has a "Petting Zone", an enclosed area the mice climb into through the long blue tube on the right side of the cage; the "Petting Zone" also has a lid that can be opened by humans.

CritterTrail Three
The CritterTrail Three "Petting Zone".

The "Petting Zone" is marketed as a little area you can use to interact with your pet, but that, of course, assumes that your rodent pet actually wants to interact with you (which many a hamster does not). But at least the "Petting Zone" is a nice retreat that adds complexity to the design, and our mice seemed to like climbing up to it and sleeping there.

The shelves in this cage are solid plastic with a lip around the edges, meaning they can hold a bit of bedding for urine absorption and won't trap feet like wire mesh floors can. The shelves also have tubes that can help mice climb up or down to them, though mice can climb the bars just fine (and we often removed the tubes to encourage the mice to exercise more). While the CritterTrail Three is the most expensive, it is also one of the best cages for the mice, as it has more spatial complexity than the other three.

A problem with the CritterTrail Three is that it is relatively difficult to assemble. The plastic support pieces that run the length of the cage have to be snapped together, and then the wire cage sides must be slid into tiny grooves running the length of these supports. While we were assembling the cage one of the guide pieces in the groove snapped off; this didn't cause anything to fail (the cage was perfectly fine when assembled), but it did make cleaning the cage harder as the wire sides always wanted to pop out of the plastic supports.

CritterTrail Two

CritterTrail Two
A CritterTrail Two.

This cage ($35) has the same basic layout and construction as the CritterTrail Three, except that it is slightly shorter and has one fewer shelf. So, while the CritterTrail Three has five main areas (the floor, three shelves, and an enclosed area on the top), the CritterTrail Two has four (the floor, two shelves, and an enclosed area on the top). This cage also comes with the same wheel, water bottle, and food dish as the CritterTrail Three.

The CritterTrail Two is easeir to assemble and handle than the CritterTrail Three; the CritterTrail Two is shorter, and thus sliding the wire sides into the plastic supports is easier. The shorter height also makes the cage easier to clean, as the plastic supports and wire sides bend less when they are carried to be washed in the shower or with a hose. The flexibility of the cage layout is limited because it only has room for two shelves, but this limitation is not major compared to the other advantages of the cage.

Cage connectivity

What's in there?
A CritterTrail expansion tube.

All four of these cages can be interconnected using either Habitrail or CritterTrail tubes. The ability to connect, and thus expand, these cages is probably one of their greatest benefits, as you can easily expand (or contract) the space available to your mice based on your current needs (and budget). Once our mice matured, we kept the four girls in a three-cage complex (one CritterTrail Two, one Habitrail Mini, and one CritterTrail Mini Two), and the three boys in a two-cage complex (one CritterTrail Three and one CritterTrail Mini Two). Whenever a mouse got sick and needed to be isolated, we separated one of the CritterTrail Mini Two's and kept the sick mouse in that cage. This connectivity also made cleaning the cages easier, as we could lure all the mice into one of the cages and then quickly separate the cages.

We bought one pack of CritterTrail expansion tubes ("Fun-nels"; $10) and one Habitrail expansion tube (a T; ~$2 in a pet store bargain bin), and were quite happy with the ability to connect the cages. The tubes included with the shelves in the CritterTrail Two and Three can also be used as expansion tubes, and we often used them for that purpose. One problem with all of the CritterTrail cages is that it is difficult to attach the expansion tubes to (and detach them from) the sides of the cages, as they fit very tightly.

We liked to rearrange the cage layouts every time we cleaned the cages; this created a more mentally stimulating environment for the mice, and it was fun to watch them explore their "new" cages when we put them back in.

Overall considerations

We had very few problems with the cages in more than a year of constant use: none of them broke, and no mice ever escaped. Probably the largest annoyance was that Rem, the mother of our babies, sometimes chewed on the bars of the CritterTrails, which would often make a very loud "twang"-like sound. Rem never chewed on the bars of the Habitrail, probably because the Habitrail's bars were slightly closer together.

One possible problem with the CritterTrail Three and Two is that they are probably the least secure of the four cages. There is a bit of extra space around the doors (see this picture) which a small mouse might be able to squeeze through, and the wire bars are able to be pried apart a bit where they wrap around the corner of the cage. We never had any mice escape, but if you have an escape artist on your hands you might want to be a bit cautious.

The wheels included with the CritterTrails were all excellent; they attached to the side of the cage (thus not using up floor space), had solid plastic sides and bottoms (so mouse appendages couldn't get stuck in them), and were very quiet when properly maintained. We placed a few drops of vegetable oil on the axles every time we cleaned the cages - this lubricated the wheels and prevented them from making noise. The only downside of these solid wheels is that the mice would excrete into them, which could cause the cages to get smelly very quickly; to control the smell we often just removed the wheel and quickly cleaned it without cleaning the rest of the cage.

Probably the biggest problem with all of the cages (especially the CritterTrail Three) was setup - it took a lot of time and patience to assemble them properly, and at times it seemed like we were only a fraction of a newton away from breaking the parts. However, we were able to successfully assemble all four without seriously damaging them. If you're looking for easy cage assembly, the CritterTrail Mini Two was by far the easiest of the cages to assemble.

The CritterTrail Mini Two and Habitrail were the easiest cages to clean - both allowed for quick and easy removal of the top without much fiddling. To clean the CritterTrail Two and Three, we had to remove the top (including sliding some annoying snaps), remove the shelves and wheel, unsnap the sides from the base, and finally lift the sides out of the base. It wasn't exceptionally hard, and the extra space these cages give the mice was well worth the extra effort it took to clean them.

All four cages were light and easy to handle, a definite bonus compared with aquaria. None of the cages had wire mesh floors or shelves, which is good since rodent feet can get trapped in wire mesh when they walk on it. The tubes, and many of the plastic components, can be washed in the dishwasher, which is handy (though we typically just washed them by hand).

  • CritterTrail Mini Two
    • Cheap ($15)
    • Too small for use as a permanent home for mice
    • Good choice to expand the other cages
    • Good wheel design, okay water bottle (hard to clean inside)
    • Expansion tubes can be difficult to attach
    • Easy setup and cleaning
  • Habitrail Mini
    • Intermediate price ($30)
    • Included wheel and water bottle are not generally useful
    • "MushRoom" is a huge hit with the mice; if at all possible buy an extra one
      • ("MushRoom" is designed only for use in a Habitrail Mini)
    • Can only handle two Habitrail accessories at at time (e.g., one wheel and one "MushRoom" or two "MushRooms")
    • Narrowest bar spacing - no chewing, and harder to escape from
    • Easiest of the larger cages to clean and assemble
  • CritterTrail Three
    • High price ($40)
    • Good wheel design, okay water bottle (hard to clean inside)
    • Largest cage; lots of floor and shelf space
    • "Petting Zone" is a good nest location for mice
    • Three shelves, plus lots of space, allow for rearrangeable cage layouts
    • Shelves made of solid plastic can have bedding put on them
    • Difficult to assemble, expansion tubes can be difficult to attach, cage feels fragile when disassembled
  • CritterTrail Two
    • High-ish price ($35)
    • Good wheel design, okay water bottle (hard to clean inside)
    • Large cage; lots of floor and shelf space
    • "Petting Zone" is a good nest location for the mice
    • Two shelves can't be rearranged much
    • Shelves made of solid plastic can have bedding put on them
    • Somewhat easier to assemble than the CritterTrail Three, also feels less fragile when disassembled than the CritterTrail Three
    • Expansion tubes can be difficult to attach

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