Google defines enrichment as the action of improving or enhancing the quality or value of something. For our purposes this refers to improving or enhancing the environment in which we keep our pets.
Imagine facing another lock down, but this time you have to empty your home of EVERYTHING other than your bed, basic kitchen supplies and loo roll. That's it, that's all you can have. If you thought lock down was tedious the first time around, it would be a living hell this time.
Our homes are filled with enriching items, from our TVs, games consoles, books, phones, gym equipment, crafts, toys and a million other items which keep us entertained and enhance our lives. Yet, many of us forget to consider the welfare of our pets and only provide them with the bare necessities of a bed, toilet and food and water. How boring!
Enrichment is vitally important for all captive animals, it helps to keep their minds and bodies active, helps to reduce boredom and stress and overall enhances their quality of life.
Domestic rodents and rabbits still share many of their natural instincts and behaviours with their wild counterparts. But trapped in cages, many are prevented from doing what comes naturally. Take a moment to think about how frustrating that must be.
So what can we do to provide our pets with an enriched and happy life?
Space To Move
The vast majority of animal housing available in pet shops and online is far too small to provide adequate space to provide any level of freedom to move around appropriately. These animals naturally roam large areas in the wild searching for food. While we can't replicate this in captivity, we need to do our very best to provide as much space as possible.
Here's a great example of providing a spacious environment for a Roborovski hamster. This was home made using materials easily available online and measures 122cm x 56 cm. Just look how much bigger it is compared to the cage on top which is marketed towards hamsters by Pet at Home. Roborovski hamsters may be small, but in the wild they will cover the equivalent distances of 3 marathons. They are quick, fast and busy
little animals that need suitable space to run around.
Places To Hide
Rabbits and rodents are all prey animals and need to be provided with suitable spaces to hide if and when they feel threatened. Having spaces which provide shelter gives a feeling of security and safety and makes them feel more confident. They would naturally seek out areas of shelter in the wild, whether this is a burrow, natural crevice or even a tight hedgerow.
Here's a great example of providing areas of shelter for house rabbits. They have a number of options to hide away from houses and tunnels.
This is very species specific and needs to be carefully researched. It is always best to look at the natural habitats of the species and how they live in the wild. For example chinchillas need lots of ledges to leap between, but gerbils need to be provided with a very deep layer of substrate to allow them to create intricate burrow systems. One thing both species do have in common is a desire to chew, chinchillas love safe woods such as apple tree branches and gerbils love small cardboard boxes.
Species which like to climb need to be provided with suitable accessories which enable this behaviour, as much as species which like to dig are provided with suitable digging areas.
Many owners provide small rodents with wheels to accommodate their desire to run. Wheels are great, but it's vitally important to choose a safe wheel which will enhance their lives. Many wheels commonly available in pet shops are simply too small, leading spinal curvature and possible long term spinal damage. Wheels should be of a solid construction, mesh wheels can lead to feet, tails and even heads becoming trapped and cause serious injury. Syrian hamsters need a minimum of 12" (28cm) diameter, with chinchillas needing a minimum of 16". If you are looking for a suitable and quiet wheel check out tictack wheels. They may be expensive but they are long lasting and very quiet. Definitely worth the initial investment.
Here's a great example of a mouse cage with lots of times to climb, suitable wheels to run in and plenty to play with.
Ability To Forage
Both rabbits and rodents spend much of their time foraging for food. Many will travel great distances; wild rabbits roam an area equivalent to three football pitches. As owners, we tend to provide food in a single place, usually contained within a bowl. There are many ways we can increase enrichment using food and mimic their natural foraging behaviours. Scattering food across substrate is a great way to encourage foraging behaviours, or hiding treats in boxes or loo roll tubes. For rabbits adding dried forage into hay or using children's stacking cup for treats are all great ways to encourage natural foraging behaviours.
This may seem like an odd thing to add to an article about enrichment, but for some species companionship is vitally important for their overall welfare. For others it is vital that they are housed alone. Rabbits do need another rabbit to be happy. In fact research has shown that rabbits value companionship more than food. This shouldn't be that surprising. Wild rabbits live in groups to provide a greater level of protection from predators. There is safety in numbers, not only does it reduce the chances of an individual being caught, but many eyes, ears and noses have a greater chance of spotting a predator giving the group, as a whole, a better chance of survival.
Guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus, rats, mice and gerbils are all social species and need a companion of the same species. Hamsters are solitary and need to be housed alone, this includes all dwarf species. Campbells, Winter whites, Chinese and Roborovski find the presence of another hamster stressful and in many cases this will lead to serious fighting. They are much happier having a solitary life in captivity.
It is very important to fully research each species and how to correctly introduce additional group members. Each species is different and you will need to plan ahead and carefully consider how you are going to introduce them to each other safely. Never ever place a new individual straight into the home of an existing pet. This is almost certainly going to lead to fighting. If you were suddenly confronted with a complete stranger in your house, who'd just moved into your spare room, are you going to offer them a cuppa and a slice of cake?
Mixing Things Up
We get bored by everything always being the same. We'll redecorate or try new hobbies and activities. But we don't consider our small pets will feel the same way. Adding new items, moving items around and swapping items all helps keep their environment novel and interesting. Allowing them to use the space differently and encourage different behaviours.
Enrichment is vitally important for all captive animals and we must remember that our rabbits and rodents are no different. Providing them with suitable enrichment will drastically improve their lives as our pets and improve our relationships with them. I find nothing as rewarding as watching my small friends interact with their environments and doing what comes naturally to them and nothing more depressing than seeing an animal enclosed in an unsuitable space, chewing at the bars and showing signs of obvious distress.