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Environmental enrichment for small mammals
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Environmental enrichment for small mammals

For far too long the concept of keeping small pets in cages has been considered acceptable but this is now thankfully being challenged and the living conditions of millions of animals is changing for the better. Pet shops have improved, client knowledge and awareness has increased and much more is known of the benefits of providing a better living environment.

Enrichment in multiple ways is necessary for animals of all description, but perhaps applies most particularly to the smaller pets, which are so often left unattended in small cages. It is as important as routine veterinary care and proper nutrition.

As vets we are ideally positioned to promote and improve animal welfare. By discussing environmental enrichment we can help improved the lives of all our patients.

Environmental enrichment – 3 key benefits

The good news is that improving an animal’s environment can be easy and inexpensive. Here are 3 key benefits of improving the environment.

  1. Mental stimulation – by providing a stimulating environment you keep animals mentally stimulated and active, thereby meeting their emotional and social needs.
  2. Improved memory - environmental enrichment has been shown to influence and improve learning and memory.
  3. Healthy immune system – mental stimulation through environmental improvements help keep animals physically fit with healthy immune systems.

Environmental deprivation – 4 warning signs

The consequences of providing an environment deficient in challenges and devoid of interest are numerous, including;

  1. Over grooming – constant licking and rubbing may result in trichobezoars with gastrointestinal obstruction.
  2. Self-mutilation – look for signs of hair loss, excessive licking, non-healing wounds and skin infections
  3. Cage chewing – this can be a sign of stress and boredom in small mammals.
  4. Unwanted stereotypic behaviour – these are often presented as repetitive pacing, head bobbing, weaving, rocking and swaying signs.

Five enrichment areas to improve

There are generally considered to be 5 main areas of enrichment that can be altered to improve the welfare of small mammals;

  1. Social
  2. Physical
  3. Nutritional
  4. Sensory
  5. Occupational

Social Enrichment

It’s really important to think of how individual species live and interact with others in the wild, and from this you can help cater for social or solitary living animals. Many species prefer to be housed in groups. These include rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, rats and chinchillas.

When housed in groups, ensure they have enough room and shelter to interact while spacing themselves in a socially acceptable way. Overcrowding will only cause stress and may result in aggression towards each other. Also take into consideration the numbers of males and females that are happy to live together.

The Rabbit Awareness website has some useful information on introducing rabbits to each other and providing a safe living environment in groups.

Take a look at the RAW website >

Physical Enrichment

Physical enrichment involves making the environment appealing and safe to enable the animal to perform all of its natural behaviours. These may include digging, chewing, gnawing, climbing and perching.

Cardboard tubes and boxes (such as those from carpet shops and supermarkets) provide ideal hiding and tunneling toys. They are safe and inexpensive and will provide hours of fun. You can fill the boxes with clean bedding hay or soil to allow them to burrow and dig.

Boxes can be stacked or ledges added to provide higher platforms. Many small mammals prefer to be on high perches so they can keep an eye out for potential predators.

Dry food pellets can be placed in different areas of the tunnel or hide to make the animal look around for rewards – this tends to be mentally stimulating and encourages physical activity.

Simple changes such as adding deeper bedding will result in unwanted stereotypical behaviour.

Nutritional Enrichment

Encourage the use of healthy, species-appropriate food treats – these can act as opportunities or foraging that will stimulate mental activity and increase exercise. This can be as simple as scattering dry food into clean bedding areas for mice, gerbils, guinea pigs and chinchillas.

Feeding hay used in a variety of creative ways can also provide behavioural as well as nutritional benefits. Hay stuffed into tubes, balls, bags and boxes will provide mental and physical stimulation whilst the animal is feeding and foraging. 

Many owners with rabbits and guinea pigs living in the garden throughout the summer will grow grass thereby encouraging foraging and grazing.

When discussing this with your clients it’s important to warn them not to overfeed. Unless they reduce the daily feed accordingly there is a risk of obesity when overfeeding treats.

Sensory Enrichment

The term ‘sensory enrichment’ is used to describe how we can increase sensory stimulations such as taste, smell and touch. This might involve moving furniture, food items and treats into different areas within the animal's home, so forcing it to take part in an active hunt for food. Light can be provided on a timer, thereby creating a natural day/night cycle appropriate for the species. Be aware that for some animals, artificial light in the home can interfere with the normal sleep cycle so there may be a need to cover the animal in the evenings to encourage sleep.

Occupational Enrichment

Providing objects and toys to allow small mammals to modify and control their environment is also very important. Provide problem solving tasks that use motor skills and coordination will go a long way to keeping an animal mentally and physically active. Materials to build nests such as wooden blocks, hay bales or cardboard boxes can all be chewed and modified in some way to improve and enrich their environment.

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