Wild at heart

Many generations ago, the ancestors of our small pets lived in the wild. Understanding how their wild relations live can help us meet our small pets’ needs so they have the right environment, company and nutrition to thrive
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6th November 2020

Many generations ago, the ancestors of our small pets lived in the wild. Understanding how their wild relations live can help us meet our small pets’ needs so they have the right environment, company and nutrition to thrive.

Inside every pampered small pet is the desire to exhibit their innate, hardwired, natural behaviours which reveal their wild origins. It’s the reason why bunnies want to dig and burrow, guinea pigs like to keep a watchful eye on what’s going on from a safe hiding place, hamsters stuff food in their cheek pouches and chinchillas prefer to sleep hunched up. Find out more about the natural and fascinating behaviours of some of our favourite small furries.


PROFILE: Rabbit behaviour is highly social. Communities of wild bunnies live underground in extensive, complex, engineered burrows, called warrens. As a prey species, rabbits scope out ‘bolt-to’ locations before choosing a grazing location. Wild bunnies in open fields will sit perfectly still to avoid predators and, when alarmed, will run to their predesignated area. They can cover up to five miles a day.

FOOD SOURCES: During warmer seasons, wild rabbits will feed on weeds, grasses, clover, wildflowers, and flower and vegetable plants, spending around 70% of their time foraging and eating. When the weather turns cold, rabbits will munch on twigs, buds, bark, conifer needles, and any remaining green plants.


  • Company of their own kind – Rabbits are sociable animals and a single bunny is a lonely bunny. Happiest in the company of their own species, the best combination is a neutered male and neutered female. Find out more about bonding bunny buddies here >>
  • A spacious home – Rabbits need plenty of space – think garden shed, rather than cramped hutch – in housing that’s protected from the elements and is safe from predators or loud noises that can startle them. They also need a roomy, secure exercise area permanently attached, so they can come and go as they please. Their home needs to be tall enough for them to be able to stand up fully without their ears touching the roof and to lie fully outstretched in any direction, to take a number of consecutive hops, and to run, jump, explore and forage. Some rabbit-sized tubes and pipes to lollop through will mimic running through tunnels. These determined diggers will also love to have their own digging pit. Indoor bunnies need a large pen or a ‘rabbit-proofed’ room in your home.
  • 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. 
  • Foraging opportunities – scatter their portion of Excel rabbit nuggets and a small selection of rabbit-safe leafy greens, vegetables and herbs (such as carrot tops, cauliflower leaves, kale, mint, and leaves from dandelion, hazel, willow or apple trees) around their accommodation to encourage natural foraging behaviours. Stuff some long-stemmed high-quality feeding hay in hay racks or hanging baskets so your buns can reach up and nibble at it. Fill a willow ball or cardboard tube with hay and some Excel Country Garden Herbs for extra tasty chewing, hay-munching fun.

Guinea pigs 

PROFILE: Guinea pigs or ‘cavies’ originate from the grasslands and lower slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. In the wild, they live in close family groups of five to 10 individuals, though several groups may live in close proximity, forming a colony. Being a small animal, guinea pigs face all sorts of challenges and have many natural predators, which is why they avoid open areas without shelter and are on constant alert against potential dangers.

FOOD SOURCES: Wild guinea pigs naturally eat a diet of grasses, plants, vegetables and crops.


Another guinea pig chum – Due to their highly social nature, guinea pigs can only be truly happy as one of a pair or as part of a small group of the same sex – littermates make the best companions. If you’re planning to keep a male and female together, it’s essential that the male is neutered to avoid the unwanted patter of tiny guinea pig feet. Never keep guineas with rabbits or chinchillas as they all have different housing and nutrition requirements. Bullying between species can occur and rabbits can give guinea pigs serious diseases.

Safe indoor accommodation and an outdoor run – Although on the shy side, guinea pigs are endlessly curious and enjoy keeping an eye on what’s going on from a safe space that has 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. Deep piles of hay will enable natural tunnelling behaviour.

Things to do – Guinea pigs like to keep busy and, if they get bored, their health and wellbeing will suffer. Most piggies aren’t really fussed about toys, but you can keep them occupied by hiding some of their favourite food in different places for them to discover on one of their explorations. Tuck away some nuggets in cardboard egg cups, or mix a few in with yummy Excel Feeding Hay with Dandelion and Marigold and Apple Snacks and stuff this tasty mixture inside a cardboard toilet roll. Some Excel Gnaw Sticks to nibble on will help to keep them busy – as well as promoting good dental health.

Plenty of fibre – To keep healthy, guinea pigs need to keep their digestive systems active with a mix of two kinds of fibre (called digestible and indigestible fibre) moving through the gut at all times. Guinea pigs get this fibre mainly from feeding hay, which also helps to grind down their teeth to keep them the right size and shape. 

Vitamin C – Just like us humans, guinea pigs are unable to make their own Vitamin C  and need a daily dose or they can suffer from all manner of health issues. The best way to ensure your guinea pigs are getting enough Vitamin C is to provide them with an egg cup full of specially created guinea pig food such as Excel Adult Guinea Pig Nuggets with Blackcurrant & Oregano alongside their Excel feeding hay every day. Guinea pigs can be fed a few fresh greens to give additional nutrients and to provide some variety. Each day, you could alternate a small bunch of parsley, a couple of dandelion leaves (ensure they have not been sprayed with pesticides or are from an area where wild rabbits graze, as they could carry disease), half a curly kale leaf, one small floret of broccoli or 1/8th of a green bell pepper. Scatter these treats around for them to find as they’re foraging and listen out for those happy ‘wheek-wheek’ sounds.


PROFILE: Wild hamsters are found throughout much of Europe and Asia and like to live in warm, dry areas, such as steppes, sand dunes and the edges of deserts. Hamsters are nocturnal creatures, which means they are active at night and sleep during the day. All hamsters are excellent diggers, constructing burrows with one or more entrances, with galleries connected to chambers for nesting, food storage, and other activities. They carry what they forage for in their specially designed cheek pouches so they can eat it later in the safety of their burrow, away from potential predators. There are many species of hamster and, apart from the Syrian or ‘Golden’ hamster who prefers to go it alone, most are social and live in family groups.

FOOD SOURCES: In their natural habitat, wild hamsters eat grasses, seeds and grain. And, although they are often through of as herbivores, they are actually omnivores and will happily munch on burrowing insects.


Hamster pals – either as a same sex pair or small group, unless you have a solitary Syrian. Find out more.

Plenty of exercise – These small, busy rodents enjoy climbing, running and burrowing. 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. Give them cardboard tubes to run through and chew and, as they love to climb, a selection of wooden ledges will be appreciated. Add ladders, bridges and wooden chew blocks and rope treats, as well as a safe, cosy nesting space to enjoy the food they’ve stashed. Hamsters also enjoy rolling around in a sand bath – set up a shallow tray filled with some chinchilla sand. Find out how to create the ideal hamster home.

Nutrition-packed nuggets – Steer away from ‘muesli-type’ mixtures as hamsters may pick out the bits that are high in sugar, which could cause painful problems with their teeth, and cause an imbalanced diet. Burgess Excel Hamster, Gerbil and Mouse provides your pets with a balanced food that replicates their natural diet and prevents selective feeding. As a treat, provide a tiny portion of hamster-safe, fresh veg and fruit a couple of times a week (such as carrot, cucumber, apple and pear), hiding these special titbits inside paper bags or cardboard tubes for them to forage for. Find out more about what pet hamsters like to eat.

Things to chomp on – Hamsters need some tasty, high-quality Excel Timothy hay to munch on. They’ll also appreciate untreated softwood such as hawthorn, hazelnut, pear, poplar or apple wood to chew to stop their teeth from getting overgrown, or try some healthy, wholesome Excel Gnaw Sticks, made from willow, apple and hazel wood.


PROFILE: Chinchillas originate from the rocky slopes of the Andes Mountains of South America. Their dense fur efficiently protects them from the cold and their hairless, fleshy footpads helps them grip rocky surfaces. In the wild, chinchillas are hunted by owls, hawks, snakes, foxes and mountain lions – so they’re always listening out for danger and are easily startled by sudden loud or unfamiliar sounds. Primed to run and hide, they seek cover by wedging themselves in rocky crevices. Their long hind limbs help them leap out of harm’s way and they can jump more than six feet in height. If caught, they have a defence mechanism called ‘fur slip’, which results in the predator being left with a tuft of fur while the chinchilla makes its escape. Chinchillas are highly social and live in colonies of more than 100 individuals. 

FOOD SOURCES: In the wild, chinchillas eat grasses, leaves, twigs, bark, roots, stems and seeds, holding the food in their forepaws.


Chinchilla chums – Chins communicate with each other through a variety of soft, high-pitched grunting noises, chirps, squeals and barks, which is why it is essential that pet chinchillas have another chin to chatter to. Littermates will live happily together but if they are not the same sex make sure the male is neutered to prevent them breeding.

A home designed for activity – These fluffy, agile high jumpers will love a selection of shelves at different heights to hop about on. Add some ramps and bridges to climb up (scatter some Excel chinchilla nuggets to make it even more rewarding) and hammocks. 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 sand-bath bliss. 

Cosy sleeping spaces – Chinchillas sleep during the day, often while squeezed into very small spaces and usually upright in a huddled position, which mimics being wedged in a rocky crevice. They will also sleep on their sides and can even sleep upside down. Provide a range of nest boxes for your chins to hunker down in.

Stuff to gnaw on – Chinchillas love to chew and carry stuff and will enjoy getting their teeth stuck into a natural, untreated wood, coir and seagrass fashioned into interesting shapes such as balls, wreaths, stars and sticks. Chomping on some Excel Gnaw Sticks, made from 100% natural, wholesome ingredients – willow, apple and hazel – will keep your chins occupied and provide great environmental enrichment.

Fresh, tasty hay – Pet chinchillas need plenty of high-quality feeding hay – not bedding hay, which lacks nutritional value. Feeding hay is high in fibre, which aids digestion, while the long stems satisfy both chewing and natural foraging behaviours. Eating hay also helps wear down their continually growing teeth so they are kept at the correct length and shape. 

Lots of leaves – Chinchillas prefer dead and dry leaves to fresh so try mixing some Excel Mountain Meadow Herbs through feeding hay to help increase fibre intake and add variety and interest to your chins’ diet. 

Nutrition-packed nuggets – Each of your chinchillas will require an eggcup-full sized portion of tasty Excel Chinchilla Nuggets every day to ensure they are getting all the vitamins and nutrients they need to keep them in tip top health. Wild chinchillas spend most of their waking hours searching for food. You can recreate this for your pet chins to keep them occupied and to encourage their natural behaviour by scattering their daily Excel nuggets allowance around their cage, hiding hay, nuggets and herbs in paper bags, cardboard tubes and boxes. You could even try out some special activity toys suitable for small animals, such as maze boards and treat balls that you can put some of their daily ration of nuggets in for them to forage for.


While it’s lovely for children to enjoy the company of small pets, the responsibility for any animal’s wellbeing lies with adults. Small animals are often more complex to feed and care for than a cat or dog and require more looking after than a child can offer.

Why choose Burgess Excel Pet Food, Hay and Treats?

Did you know that 92% of UK vets recommend our Excel range? What’s more, at Burgess, all our pet food is produced in line with FEDIAF (the European pet food industry federation) nutritional guidelines. These guidelines, which are based on many pieces of published research, helps us to calculate the nutrient content and dietary components required to ensure all our foods meet the detailed nutritional requirements for the pets they are designed for.

Are your small pets, Burgess small pets? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

If you found this interesting, you may also like:

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Sources: pfma.org.uk, pdsa.org.uk, rspca.org.uk, petmd.com, bluecross.org, wildwelfare.org, livescience.org, peta.org

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