A guide to keeping Steppe Lemmings (Lagurus lagurus) as a pet written by Christy Brucker, who kept and bred these for many years. Reptile Cymru no longer stocks these and will not be getting them in the future as we don’t have the space to separate live rodents and snakes into separate rooms, but this care guide should help anyone who has bought them elsewhere.
The Steppe Lemming (Lagurus lagurus) is also known as the Sagebrush Vole and is a small burrowing rodent that lives within the steppes of Ukraine, western Mongolia and northwest China.
The Lemming Myth
Many people have heard of lemmings due to the computer game, where they are famous for jumping off cliffs. In reality this is an urban myth; the lemming in real life has no suicidal tendencies! In Mongolia populations would explode to up to 1000x their original size in the space of a single season, then dramatically it would be observed that in a very short space of time the population dropped to almost none (as they only breed in spring/summer in the wild). The next summer, the same observations would occur and it became a myth that all the lemmings would jump off the cliffs and disappear.
After study, biologists found out that the lemming is the exclusive diet of the stoat that lives in these areas. In the summer as the stoat’s bred and were the most active, they would hunt extensively culling the lemming population. As the lemming population dropped, many stoats would die out – only a few making it to adulthood to breed the next year, when the lemmings would again breed – producing a strange cycle where the lemmings in the wild solely sustain the entire population of stoats.
There may be some accuracy to the myth in that the steppes the lemmings are found in are a very flat and completely featureless terrain, the lemming does enjoy running and climbing but they have a very poor sense of height and danger and will run off the edge of a surface – in the wild though, there are no cliffs and they would not encounter any great heights.
Steppe Lemming Stats
They have an adult length of around 8 – 12 cm and a maximum weight of around 30g. They are more active at night but are not strictly nocturnal and will forage for food or be awake during the day if something interests them.
Steppe Lemming Housing
It is best to house this species in a secure chew-proof enclosure, glass tanks, aquariums, exo-terra terraria or similar are ideal as they cannot chew through glass. They are extremely good at chewing and can chew holes in plastic and may be able to chew through metal bars.
They cannot climb and do not jump very high, but do like to burrow, so the tank should be deep enough to provide enough substrate that they can completely submerge themselves. They can be kept in large colonies in relatively small spaces, for example, a 3ft aquarium could house up to a dozen! A 2ft glass tank would be ideal for 2-6.
You should keep them in small single sex groups (unless you intend to breed).
Social Needs and Keeping Groups
It is very important that colonies are established together from a young age. It is very difficult to introduce adults and this can have dire consequences.
Males especially should not be introduced into colonies with existing males at a later date. The larger the colony is the more chance of aggression as in the wild large colonies would split off into smaller family groups when two dominant animals emerge, but if the numbers are kept to half a dozen or less then this would rarely occur.
Problems and aggression can occur during mating and we would not recommend you mix the sexes unless you intend to correctly care for and find homes for the offspring. If a pair has to be separated at a later date this can be very stressful for them and they do not do well as solitary animals – to avoid this happening it is strongly recommended you keep an all male or all female group, purchased together at the same time and as young as possible to allow them to grow up together.
These social needs and potential aggression can make these quite a difficult rodent to keep and is something you need to think about carefully.
Lemmings are easy to tame and intelligent and inquisitive and are rarely aggressive towards people, making them ideal pets. However always handle with care, they should always be supervised and be careful that when they are out and being handled they cannot fall and damage themselves as they have little situational awareness or fear of heights.
Cage Accessories and Bedding
In the cage you should provide wood shavings or aspen as a substrate and straw as a bedding. They will drink from a rodent water bottle and will enjoy any toys or tunnels to keep them active as well as low climbing branches. Just be aware they will chew them!
Steppe Lemmings should be fed a diet of fresh greens, dried grass and a hamster food / bird seed mix. We recommend a 50/50 mix of high quality hamster food (this must not contain dried fruit!) and parakeet seed. It is important that at least 25-50% of their diet is fresh vegetation. Never feed this species sugar, including fruit. Artificial sugars especially have been known to wipe out colonies – do not be tempted to give them “treats” of human food and it is best to avoid hamster treats which can contain sugars.
The lifespan is usually between one and two years, averaging around 18 months.
Why don’t you sell them at Reptile Cymru?
I kept, bred and sold Steppe Lemmings at Reptile Cymru for many years when we first opened. However as time evolved we had to make the best use of our small shop and prioritize what we kept. We also have to consider that Steppe Lemmings are a rodent that snakes can smell, and with hundreds of snakes in the shop, we ultimately decided it wasn’t appropriate to keep Steppe Lemmings as we couldn’t separate the two species adequately. We also don’t stock other rodents, which means we don’t readily stock cages, accessories or food suitable for them.
The only mammal we currently stock is African Pygmy Hedgehogs, as these do not have a smell that agitates snakes and require setups similar to a reptile or tortoise rather than a rodent.
So should you keep a Steppe Lemming as a pet?
Overall the lemming needs more care and attention than a hamster or other common pet rodents, and is best kept in a same-sex colony from a young age and care with feeding. They are an exotic species and require a lot more consideration than keeping a hamster or gerbal.
That being said, Steppe Lemmings are a friendly, active and intelligent mammal and can be freely handled and enjoyed, making excellent pets for people who have considered everything and are willing to put the time and work into keeping a colony.