These Tiny Pets May Steal Your Heart, but Please Don't Ignore These Special Needs

enrichment for small mammals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Whether you’re choosing a small mammal as a pet, or if you’re already a proud owner of an adorable hamster, gerbil or rat, there’s more to consider than simply “keeping” them
  • Enriching the lives of your miniature-sized pet takes a little more time than setting up a cage and putting them in it; knowing what individual animals need to feel secure and happy requires sound knowledge from a savvy veterinarian
  • Rats like to burrow in strips of paper or fabric; hamsters like to dig into their habitats and gerbils enjoy all kinds of toys, from cage furniture to running wheels, to fully engage in their species-specific behaviors
  • Advice for providing enrichment for gerbils can be used for other small mammals, such as making sure their cardboard-chewing habits don’t include swallowing the pieces and that running wheels don’t have openings their tails can get caught in

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Many people assume "pocket pets" or small animals like rabbits, mice, hamsters and gerbils don't require any care except food and water and are often given to children as gifts or first pets. Like other pets, these animals need environmental enrichment and species-appropriate care that is often overlooked.

Too often, small mammals brought in as pets can find themselves living in tiny cages lined with a bit of straw or newspaper, given water and some processed, poorly formulated small animal "chow" to eat and, if their owners think of it, perhaps a ball or wheel for the pet to roll around for entertainment.

When small animals are not destined to live out their lives in their own specific natural habitats, it might be more suboptimal existence than thriving. Veterinarians observing such situations can find it frustrating, worrisome and sometimes tragic.

How much better would it be if people with small animals under their roofs knew specifically how to care for them in ways that actually mimicked life in the wild and enriched their lives? Small animals usually spend their lives in a cage, which is designed to keep them safe, but does not necessarily account for their physical or mental well-being.

It's far better when owners seek help, if needed, to ensure these animals experience surroundings that will allow them to express species-specific, natural behaviors, which will improve several aspects of their lives, as Veterinary Medicine (DVM) 360 observes:

"For example, a wild mouse will spend a significant portion of its time foraging over a distance that measures in miles. When its domestic counterpart lives in a cage with food provided in a hopper or crock, there is a missed opportunity to allow the mouse to engage in a preferred behavior. A simple solution to this can be the provision of some or all of its food in a manner that encourages exploration of the cage environment and foraging for food."1

Rats and Mice: Nesting Instincts

If you've ever read research papers or clinical studies that talk about animal models, more often than not they're talking about mice, but many of the environmental enrichment strategies in laboratories use rats. Either way, the studies often cover ways their owners can improve the lives of the rodents and provide ways their natural habitats can be simulated in captivity.

For instance, wild mice generally live in burrows made of dirt or grass, and prefer deep bedding and shelters, no doubt because of their natural instinct for self-preservation in the midst of multiple predators. Mice also choose places where they can sleep comfortably and maintain their body temperatures.

One study2 noted that laboratory mice do best when they're given a "complicated space," which could involve cages with several levels and, inside, cage furniture to mimic surroundings similar to the burrows where their wild counterparts live. They naturally seek out nesting materials made up of long strips of paper or cloth. Given the choice, they opt for opaque or semi-opaque nest-boxes.

Experiments that used progressively weighted doors demonstrated to the researchers that the rodents would go to the trouble of lifting heavier doors to make use of nesting boxes, even without nesting material, rather than "set up housekeeping" in an empty cage. However, for rats, nest-building behavior depends on the strain or specific species. For instance:

"A commonly albino rat, the Sprague Dawley, seems to benefit from the provision of nesting material, but its hooded cousin — the fancy rat, which is most commonly seen as a pet — does not interact with nesting material in a constructive manner. In general, rats benefit from the provision of complex environments that allow them to climb, explore and maintain normal postural adjustments, including rearing on the hind limbs."3

Providing the Right Stimulation

Owners of cats and dogs are generally eager to provide plenty of mental stimulation with items like feather teasers, cat trees, flying disks and balls, and they often get them involved in learning activities like fetching and games. If you're interested in getting a small mammal such as a pet rat, gerbil, guinea pig or hamster, you may not be aware that these animals need enrichment, too.

Finding out how to provide it and exactly what your individual pet needs, however, may be something else altogether. Fortunately, options in the way of toys for small mammals is a market that's growing rapidly as more and more small animal lovers, veterinarians and even pet food companies have become more informed about what's available, and creating what is now known to be an expanding market. DVM 360 notes:

"Over the past decade, several reputable pet food companies have invested in research to improve our knowledge of small mammals' nutritional needs and enrichment preferences, resulting in drastic change in veterinary recommendations.

Much has also been learned about these species from the field of laboratory animal medicine, where they are used in research to help develop cures and treatments for devastating diseases. Thanks to all of this work, veterinarians now have the opportunity to recommend or sell high-quality products from reputable vendors that enrich the lives of these pets."4

As mentioned, mice in the wild spend much of their time foraging, and they travel significant distances, several miles, even, while they're doing it. Obviously, when their world is only as big as the confines of their cage, that instinctive nature is seriously curtailed. One way to remedy the problem is to provide ways to encourage exploration along with foraging opportunities within that space.

Notes on Individual Small Mammals

Veterinarians and small animal researchers agree that one of the easiest ways to enrich the life of a pet rat, mouse, gerbil or guinea pig is to set up a shared housing environment for them. In fact, they get along so well together that, given the choice, they nearly always prefer group housing. However, use caution with male mice and female hamsters since some of them have a tendency to become aggressive and fight.5

Aggressive behavior can oftentimes be avoided with larger cages. Remember, opposite sexes reproduce quickly (not the goal), so if you choose to have two animals in one cage make sure they're the same sex and in a big enough cage that they won't fight. All animals need a spacious cage, nontoxic bedding, access to pure drinking water, a quiet environment with natural sunlight and darkness cycles, and species-appropriate food.

Small rodents and rabbits require lots of exercise and many natural options for chewing, so supplying things to gnaw on, such as untreated wood or natural fiber materials they can really sink their teeth into is particularly satisfying for them. Foraging is one of the most basic instincts of small animals in the wild, so making healthy forage-type foods (organic seeds and nuts) available by hiding them throughout their environment provides natural foraging opportunities.

Some small animals can learn to enjoy being gently handled and picked up, while some prefer to not be handled. Handling involves a slow and consistent training process that should be done on the animals' terms and instituted by adults.

After the animal has been conditioned to being handled and enjoys it, then kids can be taught to handle these pets with kindness and respect. Rabbits, mice and rats have all been taught how to run "agility" courses and out-of-cage exercise opportunities can be a great way to add to environmental enrichment while promoting the human-animal bond, depending on the personality of your small mammal.

Advice for Gerbils Can Be Used for Other Small Mammals

Gerbils, like most pocket pets, love to explore and enjoy having all kinds of options provided, from cardboard tubes and boxes to running wheels — anything that allows them to fully engage in their species-specific behaviors. Furniture with holes in them that they can stick their heads into seem to be especially desirable, but make sure they can't splinter off pieces they can swallow and injure themselves.

I like providing boxes of brand new tissues or a fresh roll of paper towels that allow these creatures to create their own chewable masterpieces right in their cage. Other advice The Spruce Pets6 offers regarding pet gerbils could be applied to many other small mammals:

  • Remove plastic toys or any other item if your gerbil starts chewing on them
  • If they're shredding cardboard, make sure they're just using it for nesting material, not eating it, and don't provide them with cardboard with ink on it
  • If toys or any parts of their habitat have strings that could trap their toes, legs or tail, remove the item
  • Running wheels should be placed on a solid surface, but make sure their tails and other body parts can't get caught in moving parts

Also make sure you provide a lot of natural chewing options to prevent your small mammal from chewing plastic in the cage. All small mammals need plenty of hiding spaces and "burrows" or manmade tunnels can be provided, but remember:

"Plastic toys and tubes are best offered only when you are there to keep an eye on things. You can also try PVC pipe sections from the plumbing section of the hardware store, as PVC tends to be a little more resistant to chewing than plastic tubes made for rodents.

Relatively new on the market are dyed bamboo tubes, and these are said to be tougher and longer lasting as well. You can also find ceramic tubes (check the aquarium section), and these have the advantage of being virtually indestructible."7

Rabbits and Guinea Pigs

Rabbits and guinea pigs were once fed pellets as the sole foundation of their diet. Savvy veterinarians are now recommending a variety of natural grasses, including Timothy hay, aka grass hay, as their main course, with pellets as more of a side dish or treat.

Researching the nutritional needs of each animal is critical prior to bringing the new addition home. Some animals, such as guinea pigs, require supplemental nutrients (such as vitamin C) that must be provided in their all-natural diet. In addition, part of the enrichment you can give your small mammal should involve opportunities to graze even while they're in their secure "hidey hole" living spaces.

In this area, there are a few contrasts. Female rabbits, for instance, only build nests just before kindling, the term for having their babies. On the other hand, guinea pigs don't create nests at all, but they both like habitats that provide them places to hide if they feel like it. Guinea pigs want to be able to move freely to the outside perimeter of their cages and will sometimes be seen circling it.

As for nibbling, I prefer Manzanita wood and other all natural materials and disagree that plastic is a species-appropriate chew substrate, but agree all chewing surfaces should be regularly evaluated for safety:

"Since both species need to wear down their incisors, structural items that are also edible are preferred. Additionally, nonedible items (e.g. items made of an appropriate hard plastic) that provide hiding spaces but do not pose a hazard after continual wear and can be easily sanitized are also preferred.

Items that present hazards, such as sharp edges or holes big enough for teeth to get stuck in, should not be purchased for rabbits and guinea pigs. Items that become worn over time should eventually be discarded if a hazard becomes apparent or it cannot be kept clean."8

Sound Advice: Small Mammals as Pets

There are lots of different types of pocket pets available for adoption through rescue organizations and local humane societies. Adequate research, preparation and planning is an important part of making sure you are being the best animal guardian you can be, regardless of the species you choose to care for.

Although some people think small mammals require little care or maintenance, this is untrue if you're committed to making sure your small animal has the best quality of life possible.

In addition to large cages with appropriate bedding, furniture, toys and species-appropriate food, all animals deserve to be able to express their natural behaviors in an environment that is safe and reflective of their natural habitat, in the wild. If you have questions about how to best care for your pocket pet, an exotic animal veterinarian is a great place to start.

Enriching the lives of your miniature-sized pet takes a little more time than setting up a cage in the garage (not an appropriate location for a thriving existence) or your child's bedroom. Knowing what individual animals need to be physically well is one aspect of home care, but equally as important is their environmental enrichment; what they need to feel secure and happy over their lifetime.

This will require your own research (depending on the species) and a commitment to continually provide ongoing enrichment experiences that keep your pets emotionally, mentally and physically healthy.

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