Environmental Enrichment Is Crucial for Exotic Pets

exotic pet tortoise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Exotic pets need opportunities to spend time outside of their cages and engage in behaviors they would take part in in the wild, otherwise they may become stressed out and bored
  • Animals who become stressed may develop behavioral issues, such as self-mutilation, or become depressed and lethargic
  • Different species require vastly different environments to thrive, which is why it’s crucial to do your research and talk to experts before bringing an exotic pet home

By Dr. Becker

Exotic pets, which may refer to reptiles, birds, "pocket pets" including hamsters and rats, rabbits, ferrets, amphibians and other less-common pets like pot-bellied pigs, make up a small fraction of pets in the U.S. compared to dogs and cats. However, that's not to say they're a rarity. More than 19 million U.S. households are home to at least one exotic pet,1 and their owners have a variety of reasons for wanting such an unusual family member.

Some may be allergic to dogs or cats or desire a pet that requires a smaller amount of space. Other exotic pet owners simply are intrigued by their pet of choice. It's also often believed that exotic pets require less care and/or stimulation than pets like dogs, cats and horses, making them a good choice for people who travel or have less time to invest in their pet, but this is a misconception — one with the potential to seriously harm the mental and physical well-being of your exotic pet.

Because these unique creatures stimulate a lot of interest, they are popular in the pet trade, but because so few people adequately educate themselves about the extensive nutritional, behavioral and emotional needs of these animals, many end up in rescues and shelters.

Signs Your Exotic Pet Is Bored or Stressed

Exotic pets need opportunities to spend time outside of their cages and engage in behaviors they would take part in in the wild, otherwise they may become stressed out and bored (wouldn't you?). How can you tell if your pet is unhappy? There are signs to watch out for, some more obvious than others. In pet birds, it's typically very obvious. An unhappy bird may scream loudly or resort to self-mutilation, including picking his feathers.

Sugar gliders are another example of an exotic animal that's often mistaken as an easy-to-care-for pet. Sugar gliders do not make good pets and, unfortunately, most people keep their sugar gliders in tiny 4x4-foot cages where they can't "glide," which is the equivalent of raising a human in a small bathroom. Further, they require hours of socialization and become extremely stressed without companions to socialize and snuggle with.

A stressed-out sugar glider, in turn, may become aggressive or engage in self-mutilation. DVM360 compiled some other signs of boredom and behavioral issues that can occur if your pet does not have the appropriate environmental enrichment.2 Sadly, oftentimes these behavioral issues cause the animals to be given up to shelters, where their emotional stress only continues to grow.

  • Rabbits may groom themselves excessively, to the point of pulling out hair
  • Reptiles may become depressed and lethargic, refusing food and interaction
  • Hamsters may curl up in a ball and sleep all the time
  • Ferrets may sleep even more than normal, causing them to gain weight

Proper Environmental Enrichment for Exotic Pets

Different species require vastly different environments to thrive, which is why it's crucial to do your research and talk to experts before bringing an exotic pet home. One thing that applies to many, however, is giving them time outside of their cages, in a safe place, to exercise and explore new sights, smells and sounds. In addition, most animals enjoy "hunting" for their meal. As DVM360 noted:3

"All species benefit from foraging for food. Food can be hidden in crumpled paper, stuck in the bars of a cage or even buried in material on the floor of the cage. The pet then has to work in a way that's mentally challenging and fights boredom to find its meal."

There are unlimited ways to create foraging experiences for your pet, only limited by your creativity and ingenuity. Beyond this, your pet's individual needs depend on his species' requirements. Here are some factors to consider prior to adoption for some of the more popular exotic pets.

Birds

Birds require a tremendous amount of environmental enrichment to prevent boredom and destructive boredom-based behaviors, including plenty of time outside of their cage.

I recommend rotating through non-toxic, destructible (chewable) toys daily to keep your bird creatively interested and engaged in play, in addition to fun training sessions and plenty of time socializing, grooming and conversing. Food-wise, omnivorous parrots enjoy live mealworms, waxworms and crickets, which you can obtain from a chemical-free bug farm.

Rabbits

Rabbits are social creatures who do best with a buddy or two (obviously, they must be sterilized or same-sex groups to prevent unwanted litters).

It's best to let them live primarily indoors but give them safe access to the outdoors daily (this is important to prevent vitamin D deficiency), either on a harness or by moving her cage outdoors for a few hours (as long as it's not over 80 degrees F and she has access to a shady spot in the cage). A rabbit's cage should be at least five times bigger than she is, and the flooring should not be wire.

Rabbits can roam freely around your home (or in a certain area of your home), but be sure it's been thoroughly rabbit-proofed, especially for electrical cords, which can prove fatal to your rabbit if chewed. Rabbits enjoy chewing, so be sure to provide ample safe chewing materials, such as untreated wood blocks or cardboard, bowls, balls and rings made of willow wood, and paper towel or toilet paper cardboard rolls.

Ferrets

These active pets enjoy multiple-level houses that allow them to run and tunnel and hide, which you can sometimes find in cages exclusively designed with them in mind. Other necessary supplies dedicated to ferrets include a litter pan and ferret litter, and a blanket to burrow in. Being naturally intelligent and curious, ferrets also thrive on an assortment of toys to stimulate their brains and encourage activity for a trim, active body.

Reptiles

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 by offering the animal choices.

You may, for instance, hide food to encourage foraging and add digging substrate or vertical objects (to simulate trees) depending on whether he is a burrowing species or a land or tree dweller.

Dr. Laurie Hess, DABVP (avian), told DVM360, "Give lizards an opportunity to dig with pelleted cage flooring … They also like to have different levels to climb, versus being horizontal, like tree limbs."4 Reptiles also have specific indoor lighting and heat requirements and benefit from spending consistent time outside, as long at the temperature falls within the species' preferred optimal temperature zone.

Rats

Rats are intelligent, inquisitive and affectionate, and like all species in captivity, will thrive when given the opportunity and appropriate environment. They learn their names and can come when they're called, and they beg for time out of their cage to play and interact with their owners.

Many rats will also "groom" their owners, which is a sign of affection. In general rats enjoy the companionship of humans (and other rats). Many rats enjoy being petted while some enjoy perching on your shoulder.

Rats will often cuddle up on your lap (especially males) and some even play games like peek-a-boo. While rats enjoy spending time outside of their cages with their owners, they also require ample room to move around for stimulation while in their cage, so consider multiple levels, hammocks, tunnels, ramps, shelves and other areas of interest to keep them occupied.

Getting Educated First Means a Better Life for Your Pet

If you decide to add an exotic pet to your family, it will be up to you to not only create an emotionally and physically fulfilling environment for them but also to continually strive to learn more so you can provide the best home possible. An integrative exotic vet will be able to provide wellness care for your pet while giving you additional insights into how to safely care for these small creatures in your home, including advice about species-appropriate diets and specific nutritional requirements.

Joining local exotics clubs, such as the American Federation of Aviculture, is an excellent way to learn more, and you can also join online forums or volunteer for a local rescue organization. Keep in mind that there are many exotic pets in need of good homes — from snakes and lizards to birds and even sugar gliders — so rather than shopping for one, rescue one from an organization near you.

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