Small Animal Enrichment Tips and Ideas
Guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, chinchillas, rats and other “small furries” are naturally very active and inquisitive animals. They like to keep themselves busy, and when allowed, spend the majority of their time running around and investigating their surroundings. “Small furries” are often misunderstood, possibly because many of them are silent creatures and cannot vocalize their requests as easy as cats and dogs can.
Owners assume that their silent pets are happy in their cages, with little else to do but eat and sleep. This can lead to very boring pets suffering from depression, which can result in health problems and in the worst scenarios, premature death.
It has been reported by the RSPCA that domestic rabbits are one of the most neglected and ill-treated pets in the UK because they spend most of their lives in solitude, imprisoned in their hutches at the bottom of the garden.
Wild relatives of our domesticated pets, however, spend the majority of their time investigating their surroundings, foraging and selecting an appropriate diet from their environment, most small furries are sociable species and spend much time interacting with fellow members of their species.
These natural instincts to forage, explore and socialize are still present in domesticated animals so denying pets these activities is cruel and can easily be avoided, it takes just a little time, a few household items and a bit of imagination.
Simple and easy steps to happy and healthy pets
1. Always socialize your animals every day. Handling and grooming is a pleasurable experience for the owner and animal. It gives the animal something to look forward to each day and it is also a good opportunity to check the health of your animal.
Look for cuts, lumps, runny eyes, a dirty bottom or diarrhea, overgrown teeth and changes in behavior and feeding habits. The earlier you spot these symptoms the easier and more effectively you can treat disorders or diseases.
2. Allow your pet to explore his/her surroundings (out of the cage or hutch) every day. Supervise your animals to make sure they do not escape or cause harm to themselves or their surroundings.
It is important to remember that most small animals are prey in the wild, so understandably they have a dislike of big wide-open spaces, and when approached from above (i.e. to pick them up) it induces fright and their natural instinct is to hide.
Always approach your animal on the same level as them, crouch in front of them and let them come to you. You will also see that generally your animals will explore the periphery or hiding places first, rather than the middle of an area or run.
If you randomly place objects like tubes, tunnels, untreated wicker baskets and boxes in their run or area to play, you will see them investigate more of the available area.
3. Supply a variety of toys for your pet to play with. These needn’t be expensive.
- Smaller animals e.g. hamsters like to explore and chew empty toilet rolls, empty yogurt pots and pieces of cardboard.
- Larger animals like to look under, hide in or climb onto empty cardboard boxes, natural wicker baskets, and plastic flowerpots. Chimney pots and clay/plastic pipes (of appropriate sizes) make good hiding places and excellent tunnels. Rotating or swapping the position of each object, or the objects available to explore provides extra interest for the animal as it runs around re-investigating its surroundings.
- Large “furries” like rabbits and guinea pigs are attracted to noisy toys. Cat balls, complete with a jingly bell, can occupy your pet as it knocks it and flings it around. Hard plastic baby mobiles also have a similar appeal.
- Smaller animals like hamsters may appreciate a wheel to exercise in. Beware of them becoming addicted to endlessly running around a wheel, if this occurs you should limit the use to only a portion of the day, e.g. a couple of hours in the evening. Then your pet will have something to look forward to each day.
- Piles of logs (natural wood: beech, hazel and apple) make interesting platforms to explore, and also benefit dental health, animals are able to chew the wood and so wear their continuously growing teeth down.
4. Feeding time for a domestic animal is often over in minutes, whereas in the wild, feeding occupies animals for many hours. By hiding portions of their daily allocation of feed under cardboard boxes or empty plant or yogurt pots, or in different areas of the animal’s cage, your pet will be forced to hunt for its food which will occupy your pet for longer, keeping boredom at bay.
You could also try hiding some treats for them to find and feast on, which encourage foraging behavior and lengthens eating time.
The animal has to work for its food, which is delivered in small portions as the ball is pushed around and played with. This is particularly good for house rabbits, as it diverts the attention of the animal away from the household furniture.
5. Wild animals also have the opportunity to selectively feed on a variety of different plants and where appropriate, animal matter, which gives the animal a range of textures and materials with which to wear down their teeth.
Small furries have continuously growing teeth, which need to be worn down every day. You should provide untreated wood (branches or twigs, or a pile of logs for larger animals) and cardboard to enable dental wear.
It may also prevent your pet from gnawing things of value, that you would not like them to get their teeth into. Guinea pigs, rabbits, chinchillas, and degus benefit from lots of hay (fiber) which is a necessity in the diet, but also effectively keeps teeth worn down.
6. Edible treats provide extra variety to your pet’s diet. They are designed to be fed occasionally, in small amounts only. When used correctly they are a healthy supplement to your pet’s diet, and also an ideal way to reward a pet for good behavior, or to encourage your animal to come to you, or be groomed.
Treats may be purchased: the range by Supreme is specially formulated for individual animals e.g. Russel Rabbit’s “Carrot and Leek Cookie Treats”, Charlie Chinchilla’s “Cracker treats”, Gerty Guinea pig’s “Herbie treats” and Reggie’s “Rat’a’ chewy treats”.
These are extremely palatable and healthy supplements. Alternatively, you could provide your pet with some natural supplements such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
A species-specific list is included below. Remember to break or cut treats into appropriate sizes for your pet. NB only feed small amounts of green leafy vegetables where appropriate, because overfeeding can cause bloat and excess dietary calcium.