Behavior enrichment for rodents: how to have a happier, healthier pet
Enrichment is a big buzz word in the field of animal behavior. According to the Encarta Dictionary,” enrichment” is defined as “to enhance or improve the quality of something usually by adding something else to it.” Whether this term is applied to the behavior of a dog, cat, bird, fish, or other animal, the notion is the same: enrichment is the provision of items or activities that improve the quality of that animal’s life.
When people hear the word “rodent,” they generally think of pesky vermin scurrying around. But actually, many rodents are commonly kept pets such as guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, gerbils, mice, domesticated rats, and degus (in the rat family). All of these animals can make great pets when they are cared for properly with the right diet and proper housing. Unfortunately, many people get these animals as pets and don’t realize that in addition to good food, a safe cage, and clean bedding, these pets – just like cats and dogs – need environmental stimulation to be happy and to thrive. Many wild rodents are very social animals living with numerous others of their own kind in their normal habitat. In the wild, they have “jobs” – searching for food, finding mates, building nests. Most rodents nest in communities and share parental responsibilities. They spend 30-50% of the time they are awake grooming each other. When young rodents are separated from their mothers, they often show an increase in disease, are more anxious and aggressive, and are less likely to play.
Captive rodents that are kept caged and not given anything to play with or to chew on commonly develop behavior problems including barbering (chewing hair off themselves), repetitive behaviors (such as cage bar chewing, jumping, digging, and running in patterns), fighting, cannibalism (of their mates and babies), and repetitive teeth chattering. Studies have shown that rodents provided with different forms of environmental enrichment do not develop these undesirable behaviors.
If you have a pet rodent, there are many ways to provide enrichment. Here are just a few:
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