Big ideas for small pets
As well as providing the right nutrition, suitable accommodation and company of their own kind (apart from Syrian/Golden hamsters who prefer to go solo – for other pets, same sex or neutered pairs or small groups are recommended) enrichment is just as important for our small pets. But what exactly is it?
Animal charity Wildwelfare.org defines it like this:
- Enrichment is about creating choices for animals so they feel more in control of their environment.
- Environmental enrichment provides species-appropriate challenges, opportunities and stimulation by creating dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities.
- An enriched environment should promote a range of normal behaviours that animals find rewarding as well as allowing animals to positively respond to potential stressors. For example, opportunities to hide or climb away from visitors or more dominant co-species.
We’ve put together some exciting enrichment ideas to make life fun and fulfilling for your small pets...
Most active: Crepuscular – bunnies like to be out and about early morning and early evening
Speciality: Tunnelling and digging
To be happy bunnies, your pet rabbits need plenty of space to hop, stretch and play. Naturally, one of their favourite things to do is running through tunnels – so give them rabbit-size tubes and pipes to lollop through, such as Runaround. As a prey species, bunnies enjoy having a look-out post to jump up on to scan for potential predators (try an upturned, sturdy wooden crate) and places to hide if they sense danger – a cardboard box filled with tasty hay to munch on and an entrance and exit to hop in and out of will fit the bill. These determined diggers will also love to have their own digging pit.
In the wild, fibrevores spend around 70% of their time foraging and eating grass and other plants and chomping on hay. To make feeding time more fun, scatter rabbit pellets to encourage natural foraging behaviours and stuff some long-stemmed feeding hay in hay racks or hanging baskets so your buns can reach up and nibble at it.
Most bunnies like to play and throw toys around, so incorporating hay as part of play activities is a great way to encourage your buns to pull, bite and chew. A willow ball or cardboard tube filled with hay is ideal for batting about. Try putting a bunch in a sheet of brown paper and tie the ends with a strand of hay to look like a Christmas cracker. Your rabbits will love chucking this around and then ripping it open to get to the hay inside. PDSA has more ideas for homemade bunny toys here >>
- Find more useful rabbit enrichment tips here >>
- Help your bunnies get all the exercise they need >>
- How to rabbit-proof your garden >>
- Create the perfect habitat for indoor rabbits >>
Most active: Although crepuscular creatures, who are at their liveliest during dusk and dawn, guineas only sleep for short periods and are awake for up to 20 hours a day
Guinea pigs are endlessly curious and enjoy keeping an eye on what’s going on from a safe space. In addition to spacious, indoor accommodation, they also require a secure, outdoor run where they can graze and keep watch – and with places to hide in case they become alarmed about something. Supplying a range of willow tubes and cardboard boxes to dart into will be appreciated. Most piggies aren’t really fussed about toys, so hiding some of their favourite food in different places for them to discover on one of their explorations will keep them busy and happy. Animal charity Wood Green has a quick guide go making your own forage feeder for guinea pigs here >>
- Find out how to be a gold star guinea pig guardian here >>
Most active: Nocturnal – hamsters are ready for action during the night
Speciality: Climbing and running
Once these daytime snoozers wake up in the evening, they’re ready for a night of activity and need plenty of exercise. A solid, wide wheel (don’t use one with spokes) will help them get some running time in but they’ll also want plenty of spaces and sensations to explore. You’ll have happy hamsters if you give them cardboard tubes to run through and chew and, as they love to climb, a selection of wooden ledges will be appreciated. Hamsters also enjoy rolling around in a sand bath – set up a shallow tray filled with some chinchilla sand.
When it comes to toys and accessories and fun things to gnaw on, make sure your hamster has plenty, such as climbing blocks, ladders, bridges and wooden chew blocks, rope treats. Or why not go all out and treat them their own mini log cabin which will provide hours and hours of hamster-friendly fun and a safe, cosy space to enjoy the food they’ve stashed.
- Find out how to create the ideal hamster home here >>
Most active: Rats are crepuscular and nocturnal animals and so are active at dusk and dawn and throughout the night
Speciality: Problem solving and mastering tricks
Highly intelligent rats like to keep busy. They look forward to playtime so it’s important that they have at least an hour outside their cage every day for some in-depth exploring (rat-proof the room first and always supervise them).
These super smart and active rodents will enjoy their own rat play park with hammocks to perch in, tubes to scamper through, ropes (made of natural fibres such as cotton) to climb and toys to investigate. Also invest in a large, sturdy rat wheel, which should be solid so they don’t catch their paws or tail in it.
Pet rats are very inquisitive and love learning new things. This makes them quite easy to train. By using food treats, patience and positive reinforcement (always go at your rats’ pace), you can teach your rats some simple tasks and tricks such as responding to their name, shaking paws, jumping through a rat-size hoop or puzzling their way through a maze to find some tasty treasure.
- Find out more about helping your ratty friends to do what comes naturally here >>
Most active: Mice are crepuscular and nocturnal animals and so are active at dusk and dawn and throughout the night
Speciality: Climbing and scurrying
Mice love anything that they can climb – think lengths of rope suspended from the top of their cage or fruit tree branches to clamber over and tiny mice-sized ladders to scale. Add a cosy Cuddly Castle which doubles up as a look-out spot or snoozing space. Mice love to scurry through tunnels, so give them plenty of plastic or cardboard tubes to explore – tempt them by scattering some tasty nuggets around the entrance. These small rodents also enjoy a bit of tunnelling – so half fill a cardboard box with compost for some supervised tunnelling sessions.
Find out more about caring for these speedy little rodents here >>
Most active: Chinchillas are nocturnal and sleep during the day and are most active at night, between dusk and dawn
Chinchillas sleep during the day (often upside down), but once the early evening sets in they’ll be feeling ready for some serious activity, so this is a great time to let them out for a run. These natural explorers love to check everything out and are inclined to nibble stuff – so always supervise them carefully. These fluffy, agile high jumpers – who can leap around 6 feet from a standing start – will love a selection of shelves at different heights to hop about on. Add some ramps and bridges to climb up (scatter some nuggets to make it even more rewarding), hammocks and nest boxes to nap in and some wooden chew toys for gnawing on for guaranteed chinchilla satisfaction.
In the wild chinchillas use fine sand to keep their coats clean so provide them with a dust bath for around 20 minutes each day, using a large, deep dish filled with chinchilla sand, so they can roll around in chinchilla bliss.
Most active: Gerbils are diurnal, which means they are active during the daytime, although they enjoy frequent snoozes throughout the day
Speciality: Digging and tunnelling
Gerbils are happiest when they’re hanging out in tunnels, just like they do in the wild. They need lots of material to dig and tunnel into, such as dust-extracted bedding or organic soil (don’t use soil from your garden as it may contain harmful bacteria or parasites) along with meadow or Timothy hay and some shredded paper for nesting. Add some cardboard tubes for running through and nibbling on. Gerbils like to see what’s going on so a flat rock in their gerbilarium will serve as a handy lookout point. They also love climbing on fruit tree branches and having a good roll around in a sand bath, just like chinchillas.
Most active: Degus are diurnal, which means, unlike many small furries, they're active during the day
Speciality: Digging, running, exploring
Degus are very active and they need lots of enrichment to keep them happy. Exercise wheels (solid and sturdy, not with spokes) will help them to get their daily runs in. Natural wood branches (safe woods include apple, hazelnut and hawthorn) provide three activities in one – an obstacle course, levels to climb on and something tasty to chew.
Naturally curious, it’s important to keep your degus mentally stimulated by providing new experiences and challenges – from adding new obstacles to clamber over to rearranging the items in their cage when you clean them out. Other great ways to keep these smart little rodents entertained are treat balls filled with tasty nuggets, and sisal and corn toys. Degus need a supply of hay – but give them a challenge by filling up a box and letting them forage for it. Degus are also digging fans, so supply them with their own digging box. And, just like chinchillas and gerbils, they’ll also enjoy regular sand baths.
Find out more about caring for degus here >>
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Sources: bluecross.org, rspca.org.uk, wildwelfare.org