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'No need to comment on my setup, my pets are happy thank you'

It's a comment I see a lot on various rabbit and rodent groups, when owners have been given helpful advice on improving habits and in turn welfare.

But how do you judge happiness in an animal?

It's not an easy question to answer and to some degree we are all making our best guess. However, there is some fantastic research out there to help guide us in the right direction. Before we even begin to explore the above question we need to understand what drives all living creatures.

We can never truly understand the mental lives of our pets, but we can observe behaviour, both in captivity and in the wild. Our small furries are not that far removed from their wild counterparts. They keep their natural sleep wake cycles, they need food, water and a feeling of security. Each species has evolved a set of behaviours to help them achieve one single goal, stay alive long enough to reproduce. Now I'm absolutely not saying that we should allow our pets to breed because it's natural and will make them happy. In fact, I urge you to not breed and spey or neuter where appropriate for the species. But it's important to understand the drive behind all life is reproduction and behaviours are actions animals take to reach this goal. For those wishing to understand this on a deeper level I recommend Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene.

The next important question to answer is, what is behaviour? The answer is everything an animal does: sleeping, eating, walking, running, drinking, defecating, it's all classed as behaviours. Behaviours allow animals to alter unfavourable internal states to favourable ones. That may sound a bit complicated but actually it’s really simple; being hungry is an unfavourable internal state, eating food will alter that unfavourable state into a favourable one, and foraging (looking for food in the environment) is the behaviour which facilitates the change. Being frightened by a sound, smell, or movement is an unfavourable state, running to seek shelter (behaviour), changes that to a favourable state of feeling safe.

All behaviours can be viewed this way, but not all behaviours in captive animals are healthy behaviours. These are commonly called stereotypical behaviours and are defined as repetitive behaviours which have no goal or function, i.e. they do not result in the change from unfavourable to favourable. One of the best examples of a stereotypical behaviour in hamsters is bar biting. Many owners have assumed for years that the function of this behaviour is to wear down their teeth, but this is a myth. Wild hamsters don’t endlessly chew on items in their environment, it has no function and does not resolve an unfavourable internal state. A captive hamster displaying this behaviour is attempting to change the unfavourable state of boredom, frustration and stress which has been caused by an unsuitable habitat. As the hamster is unable to escape the cage through bar biting the behaviour becomes stereotypical as no matter how long the hamster bites, the unfavourable internal state will not change and is actually more likely to increase in its intensity.

So, we now know that for captive animals, we have two forms of behaviours, healthy natural behaviours which result in a positive change from unfavourable to favourable and unhealthy stereotypical behaviours which have no function and decrease mental and physical well-being. It should be obvious that any animal displaying stereotypical behaviour isn’t a happy animal and it is a failing on our part to provide a suitable environment.

Common stereotypical behaviours in rabbits and rodents are:

  • Biting at bars

  • Chewing holes in plastic bases or wooden hutches

  • Repetitive digging/scratching in corners

  • Over grooming, also known as barbering, causing bald patches

  • Excessive chewing to the point of destruction of accessories, such as wheels, shelves, ledges and hides

  • Excessive bar climbing (i.e without the goal to reach another level/section of the environment)

  • For rabbits prolonged inactivity - this is commonly seen in rabbits kept in hutches and is a form of learned helplessness.

If you see any of these behaviours, you must look at making changes to the habitat, because your pet is clearly telling you that they are not happy. But what can we do to make their lives better?

There is obviously an ethical debate about the rights and wrongs of pet ownership. Do we have any right to keep these animals in captivity in the first place? My animals are everything to me and my life is filled with joy by interacting with them, but I can’t help but feel that this is a very selfish viewpoint. They are still captive, their lives are still limited by the confines of 4 walls and no matter what I do, I can never hope to provide them with a life which fully replicates living freely in the wild. While I fully understand this, I can’t imagine my own happiness without devoting my life to caring for pets. Ethically I’m torn, but the reality is that pets exist and with so many neglected, abandoned, and unwanted and many many more being bred solely for the pet market every day, I’m not about to face an existence without animals.

All I can do is try my very best to provide the animals in my care with the best life possible. I haven’t always succeeded, and I look back to some of my childhood pets and feel a deep level of guilt as to how they were kept, despite thinking that I was doing everything right at the time. I’ve always tried to provide spacious homes, but these have either been woefully inadequate or utterly unsuitable. My point is, we’ve all made mistakes, no matter how dear our pets are to us or how much we value them. The world is slowly changing, and we are learning more about these animals in captivity than ever before. With so much information at our fingertips via the internet it’s never been easier to fully research and understand the needs of our pets. But the pet market is still flooded with awful housing, terrible accessories and prospective owners lining up to perpetuate unintentional cruelty through a lack of education and understanding. If you truly value your pets then you should be listening to advice from leading experts in welfare, and this will not come from petshop staff who are motivated by sales, targets and bonuses.

So, let's look at what we can do to provide our pets with their best life. From my own observations and interactions, both with my own animals and animals in the rescue, I've discovered that the habitat does have a big impact on personality and friendliness. More specifically, the size of the habitat has a major impact on our small pets. We have a number of different rabbit housing units at the rescue, from 8ftx4ft kennels to larger pens up to 6ftx10ft. When we've moved rabbits from a kennel into a larger pen, personality and friendliness changes greatly. Rabbits become more playful, they interact with enrichment items more frequently and become more social and interactive with us. This change in behaviour can be very pronounced, from a rabbit who will actively keep out of our way, to a rabbit who will approach and ask for a head smooth. The only change is the size of the enclosure, we have the same staff and volunteers caring for them, they have the same accessories and enrichment items, and the same feed and treats. This change in behaviour has occurred in every rabbit we've upgraded, every rabbit! Witnessing this first hand on many occasions, it cannot be denied that space has a major impact on welfare. Research has shown that rabbits require a minimum space of 60ft² to reduce stereotypical behaviours and encourage natural healthy behaviours.

There has been research carried out in Germany which looked at floor size and the presence of stereotypical behaviours in syrian hamsters. In the group studied, all stereotypical behaviours ceased when provided with a continuous floor space of 1m x 1m, with a significant reduction in stereotypical behaviours at 1m x 50cm.

Size really does matter and yet the vast majority of housing available in pet shops is woefully lacking and quite honestly utterly depressing. Our pets don't want or need cute pink tubes with little purple walkways and blue plastic houses. These environments are completely alien to them and serve no function to allow for healthy natural behaviour. I can absolutely guarantee you that your pet is NOT happy if you haven't provided enough space. They are existing, and certainly not living their best lives.

Once we've provided suitable space our job doesn't finish there. We've still got a lot to do to provide a suitable environment, which allows for and stimulates natural behaviours. Creating a suitable environment is species specific, many small rodents want to create a burrow system but for guinea pigs this is unsuitable. Do some research, where do they live in the wild and how do they interact with their native environment?

Guinea pigs come from South America and live in a range of habitats from grassland, scrubland and even swamp margins. They spend their days foraging for food and live in colonies for safety. So providing foraging opportunities, plenty of shelter and the company of another guinea pig is vital.

Chinchillas live in dry mountain ranges, sleep during the day in rock crevices and forage at night. Once again, they live in colonies and are very agile animals able to leap long distances. Like guinea pigs, they need company of their own kind, but unlike guinea pigs they require lots of ledges and platforms to jump between.

Understanding the natural behaviours of your chosen species will go a long way to providing them with a suitable environment which meets their needs. If they naturally climb, provide climbing opportunities, if they burrow provide burrowing opportunities, if they jump provide jumping opportunities. The vast majority of all species' time is used to forage for food in the wild. Many will travel great distances in search of food in a single wake cycle, for example the smallest species of hamster, the roborovski, will travel the equivalent of three human marathons in one night. In the wild there isn't a little dish, a few centimetres from their borrow, which is magically replenished each evening. Scatter feeding, sprinkling food around the habitat, mimics natural foraging behaviour and provides the opportunity for mental and physical stimulation and can be adapted for all species of rodents and rabbits. The more time spent engaging in healthy natural behaviours, the less likely it will be for your pet to develop unhealthy stereotypical behaviours.

So please, take a few moments out of your day to look at your current setup and ask yourself what you can do to make it better. There is always going to be something, as none of us can ever hope to fully replicate a natural life in the wild. I can 100% guarantee you that you will foster a better relationship with your pets and develop a new found appreciation for their unique personalities and preferences. There is nothing more enjoyable than watching your pet interact with their environment in a healthy natural manner.

Most importantly, be open to constructive criticism, we've all made mistakes, been given poor advice, done the wrong things and been led to make the wrong choices. That doesn't make you a bad person or a terrible pet owner. Becoming hostile, aggressive and rude and refusing to take this advice on board and make healthy changes for the long term welfare of your pets does! I genuinely don't understand why people react so poorly to helpful advice. Why do you not want the very best for your pets?

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