One of the Hardest Kinds of Pets to Train and Stimulate - But It Can Be Done

reptile enrichment

Story at-a-glance -

  • While the idea of environmental enrichment for dogs and cats is catching on, you might be surprised to learn that it’s important for captive reptiles as well
  • Captive reptiles often live much shorter lifespans than reptiles in the wild due to the inappropriate diets and environments they are provided
  • Environmental enrichment for a reptile involves enhancing his surroundings and lifestyle to parallel life in the wild; providing him with the ability to make choices; and encouraging the performance of instinctive, species-specific behaviors
  • Learning all about the species of your reptile and his natural lifestyle and behavior in the wild is the first step in providing environmental enrichment for your pet

By Dr. Becker

Until fairly recently, the concept of environmental enrichment for pets wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Most people believed that as long as a pet had a roof over his head, regular meals, and a few toys, he was good to go.

Then slowly we began to hear about the benefits of environmental enrichment for cats and dogs, exotic birds, pocket pets, and even aquarium fish. Fortunately, the idea that indeed all animal companions, including reptiles, do better in enriched environments is really catching on.

While birdcages and small mammal habitats have long been equipped with at least a few adornments to keep the occupants entertained, it hasn’t been the case for reptiles.

Most people assumed that reptiles didn’t care about their surroundings, and so their enclosures were uninspired, featuring nothing more than a heat gradient, a source of light, and a hiding place.

Why Environmental Enrichment Is so Important

Environmental enrichment for pets, also called behavioral enrichment, means:

  • Enhancing an animal’s surroundings and lifestyle so that he is presented with novelty in his environment
  • Providing the animal with the ability to make choices
  • Encouraging the animal to engage in instinctive, species-specific behaviors

According to Dr. Douglas Mader, a veterinary expert in exotic animal medicine, writing for Clinician’s Brief:

“It is well established that all animals need to be able to perform biologically appropriate behaviors while in artificial environments. Housing essentials should be determined by the caged animal’s natural biology.

Although it may be unrealistic to review wild-matched husbandry conditions for all reptile species, it is not unrealistic to make the effort to provide proper housing and nutrition for the 3 to 4 dozen species that are regularly kept as pets.”1

Environmental enrichment is an essential part of providing an excellent quality of life for all pets due to its proven positive effect on the health and well-being of animal companions.

Why Environmental Enrichment Is so Important for Reptiles

Unlike many other types of pets, captive reptiles often live much shorter lifespans than their counterparts in the wild. According to Mader, this is because the diet and environmental conditions provided to pet reptiles often don’t meet their needs.

An inappropriate diet coupled with unsuitable temperature, humidity and lighting in the animals’ enclosures creates stress that ultimately compromises their immune response. The result is a pet without the means to fight off disease.

In the case of reptiles, environmental enrichment is best achieved by providing a way for the animals to perform natural behaviors and endure minimal stress. This requires an enclosure that offers features of the animal’s natural habitat, and provides mental stimulation as well.

“An excellent way to provide [mental stimulation] is to encourage natural behaviors,” says Mader. “This can be accomplished by rewarding natural and shaped behaviors.”2

Mader continues:

“Allowing a captive animal the opportunity to make choices (ie, think) provides mental stimulation. Instead of languishing in one spot, waiting for something to happen, they should have the ability to make things happen.

For example, providing separate areas within the cage where food items can be hidden encourages foraging behavior (eg, in partitions, inside hide boxes, underground, placed high in branches). The active effort to find food can provide physical and mental nourishment.”3

Many reptile keepers, when selecting an enclosure for their pet, prioritize ease of maintenance ahead of the needs of the animal. Consequently, many reptiles are housed in enclosures that are “environmentally and psychologically sterile” according to Mader.

Learning All About Your Pet Is the First Step

In order to provide environmental enrichment for your reptile, you need a basic understanding of the natural habitat and behavior of the species.

You’ll need to research things such as:

  • Your pet’s natural habitat in the wild
  • How she would live in the wild (her natural behaviors)
  • Her diet and where she would find food in the wild
  • Her daily and seasonal rhythms
  • Her reproductive habits
  • Her natural aging process

You’ll also want to investigate the latest in reptile care products that can help provide the right diet and environment for your pet’s particular species.

Providing a Species-Specific Enclosure

Your reptile’s enclosure design will depend on whether he is a burrowing species, a land or tree or water dweller, or a combination. For example, a land-dwelling snake that doesn’t burrow doesn’t need the same deep substrate a digging snake requires.

Keep in mind that a burrowing (fossorial) snake whose habitat doesn’t provide a soft material for digging will become noticeably stressed. That’s why it’s so important to learn about your pet’s natural behaviors and provide an environment that allows him to routinely perform those behaviors.

The goal is to encourage and enhance your reptile’s ability to engage in instinctive, species-specific behaviors.

Providing the Right Nutrition, in the Right Way, at the Right Time

When you feed your reptile will depend on whether she’s active during the day or at night. Feeding at appropriate times will help your pet maintain a good appetite and willingness to eat.

Depending on the species, some reptiles eat on the ground, others eat in a tree, and water-dwellers eat in water. You can encourage foraging by dragging dead prey (for example, mice or rats) around your reptile’s habitat to encourage him to follow the scent trail.

How you provide water to your pet will depend on whether he will drink from a bowl or, for example, from foliage that has been misted with water.

Social Enrichment and Training

Some reptiles are more social than others, with shyer species needing hiding places within their enclosures, and a relatively quiet housing situation. Likewise, many reptile species are solitary, meaning they should be housed alone to prevent generalized stress or a threatening environment for smaller, more timid animals.

It has long been assumed that reptiles can’t be trained as a form of enrichment, but that’s proving not to be the case. According to Mader, many large facilities housing captive reptiles have successfully target-trained certain species

“For example,” says Mader, “Komodo dragons are trained to enter a crate for weight measurement and blood draws, and crocodiles are crate trained to allow for similar behaviors and ease in transport.

At one facility, the keepers have trained the alligators to present for physical examinations by using gelatin cubes as rewards.”4

It could be your own reptile can be trained to do certain things, which will provide mental stimulation and an opportunity for you to interact with your pet. Again, learning as much as your can about your reptile — his life in the wild and his potential in captivity — is the best way to provide him with environmental enrichment.

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