Updated: Mar 3
What is enrichment?
Enrichment is a key aspect of pet ownership - it is just as important as correct nutrition and veterinary care. We need to make sure that we meet all our animals’ exercise and behavioural needs; such as digging, hiding, social contact, foraging and gnawing. Without enrichment, stereotypical behaviours (eg. pacing, rocking and excessive grooming) can manifest, animals may feel stressed, and acts of aggression towards humans can occur (Poole, 1998; Baumans, 2005).
The main aim of enrichment is to allow animals to exhibit a wide variety of behaviours. In the wild, an animal’s environment is constantly changing, but we must simulate this change in captivity (Wells, 2009). Therefore, having knowledge and understanding of an animal’s natural behaviours is necessary to be able to make an appropriate environment in captivity (Baumans, 2007). Animals should feel safe and secure in an environment that is complex and challenging, but one that they can control (Baumans, 2005).
Here are some of our Ranger's favourite enrichment tips and tricks to improve your pet’s welfare, no matter the species.
Invertebrates may not be as intelligent as mammals, for example, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t require some form of enrichment. They can enjoy activities such as digging, hiding and burrowing; there are multiple ways that you can meet these needs.
Invertebrates enjoy having a variety of hides across the length of their enclosure so that they can control their temperature (one end of the enclosure has a heat mat). Fake plants can give them something to explore and I’ve even seen my scorpion sitting on top of the plants (pictured left)!
Providing a good depth of bedding can also be important. Some invertebrates, such as my salmon pink tarantula, fancy themselves as a landscape architect and will move their soil around (see top photo).
Another way to enrich your invertebrate’s life is to feed them different prey items.
Many species of reptile enjoy exploring different hides, sticks and plants. You can also provide a variety of textures through bedding, rocks and bark. One way to avoid purchasing new enrichment is to cycle items or to rearrange them. This makes the environment different and gives them something to explore. However, it is worth leaving a couple of items in the same place and washing them at a later date so that the environment doesn’t feel completely different to your reptile, preventing any stress.
Many reptiles require a humid hide to aid with the shedding process, preventing stuck shed. Some animals enjoy having a dip in their water bowl so it may be worth having a large, deep water bowl to allow them to do this.
In the wild, corn snakes often burrow. An easy way to encourage this behaviour is to provide mounds of bedding so that they can tunnel and climb over it. It may be difficult to find them if needed but they enjoy it! Bonus points if you can spot Snoopy below.
Mammals are particularly susceptible to becoming frustrated with their environment due to their intelligence. Many rodents divide their environment into designated areas for toileting, resting and feeding, allowing them to control their environment (Baumans, 2007). We can facilitate these divisions by providing items such as litter trays, shelters, nesting material, tubes and platforms.
Nesting material doesn’t have to be expensive. A shredded newspaper can keep the busiest of rats occupied for days and offers a functional form of enrichment!
Providing animals with means of exercise is also important. This can be through secure free-roam time or active layouts using ropes, small ledges, or even a wheel. Care must be taken with wheels to ensure that they are large enough so that the animal’s spine isn’t arched while running. Be sure to check sizing before purchase as many wheels sold at pet shops are not big enough (even though they are often marketed as suitable)! Exercise balls are not the best tool to use as they can be very stressful to your rodent. The ball deprives them of their key senses (mainly touch and smell) and does not allow them access to food and water when needed.
Stimulating each of the senses is a vital way of providing enrichment and this is especially impactful when focusing on the dominant senses (Wells, 2009). This can be done through natural (eg. digging) and non-natural (eg. music) means.
Dig boxes can come in a variety of sizes and be very beneficial. A simple way to provide a dig box is to hook a shower storage box onto the side of the cage, where dried fruit and mealworms can be hidden in coco soil. Providing ropes and ledges encourages an active layout, where the animals have to climb and balance to get to different parts of the cage.
We can also provide different food items for our animals. Standard nuggets are advertised as a way to prevent animals from picking out the best bits, but they’re incredibly boring after a while! Mixes allow you to choose a diet for your animal that is balanced, well-sourced and varied. You can feed balanced mixes then have a ‘starve evening’ before clean outs to encourage animals to eat what they have left behind. Seasonal fresh food can be a fun way to involve your animals in holidays!
Sometimes we need to cater enrichment to our animals’ needs. For example, Hetty the hedgehog has problems with her hind legs so cannot run on a wheel or easily dig like other animals. Instead, she enjoys the occasional roll in sand baths while supervised.
Baumans, V., 2005. Environmental Enrichment for Laboratory Rodents and Rabbits: Requirements of Rodents, Rabbits, and Research. ILAR Journal. 46, 162–170.
Baumans, V., 2007. The welfare of laboratory mice. The Welfare of Laboratory Animals. 2, 119–152.
Poole, T.B., 1998. Meeting a mammal's psychological needs: Basic principles. Second nature: Environmental enrichment for captive animals. 83-94.
Wells, D.L., 2009. Sensory stimulation as environmental enrichment for captive animals: A review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 118, 1–11.