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Beating boredom, part 2: How to entertain small mammals, reptiles and amphibians

Beating boredom, part 2: How to entertain small mammals, reptiles and amphibians
Small, caged pets like this hamster can benefit from chewing materials and changes in scenery. (©istockphoto.com/tunart)
Last issue, we started to explore whether pets get bored when they’re home alone and whether it matters. Yes, they do — and yes, it does. We’ve already covered some ways to enrich the home habitat and improve mental and physical well-being for cats, birds and fish. This time, we’ll look at ideas for other popular pets.
Small mammals
Because small mammals and pocket pets spend most of their time confined to cages without much interaction with their owners, it’s especially important to provide rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats and chinchillas with environmental enrichment to help them lead happier lives, with fewer health and behavior problems.
Chewing is a favorite small-mammal entertainment and stress-buster, so make sure they have natural materials to chew on — hay, alfalfa cubes and raw vegetables — as well as safe, nontoxic toys, especially those incorporating food. Cardboard paper towel tubes can be chew toys as well as tunnels for small animals. Other toys and cage furnishings can include mouse huts, exercise wheels, tunnels, covered nesting and hiding places, nylon balls and jingle-bell balls. Vary their enclosure environment periodically, and go for a larger cage with more room for multiple levels and deeper bedding for burrowing.
Ferrets, in particular, like hammocks. Chinchillas enjoy jumping and bouncing, so their cages should include several platforms and perches. Many rodents enjoy dust bathing — purchase dust at pet stores, put it in a shallow dish and let your pet have some fun a few times a week.
You can make meal times more challenging and interesting by hiding some of their food in toys, in bedding, under objects or hanging in the cage. Foraging is a natural behavior that can reduce boredom, aggression and compulsive behavior disorders.
Try to spend some time each day playing with and handling your little pets. This socialization provides mental and physical stimulation and makes biting less likely. Many small mammals can be taught specific behaviors and tricks with treat-based positive reinforcement and clicker training.
These cute little animals can enjoy supervised exercise time outside their cages in a safe, enclosed and escape-proof space. Larger pets like rabbits and ferrets can be loose; smaller pocket pets can have a great time rolling around inside a clear plastic “run-about” ball. Naturally curious ferrets can even be taught to wear a harness and taken out for walks on a leash. Rabbits enjoy toys and time spent in alternate outdoor pens designed to safely confine them while allowing them to graze and get some fresh air, sunshine and exercise.
Other than hamsters, many small mammals that normally live in groups benefit greatly from the company of others of their kind. So think about getting more than one — though you’ll need to do some research on how best to mix genders, avoid behavioral issues and space requirements for the critters to coexist comfortably.
Reptiles and amphibians
While a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians make excellent and fascinating pets, it’s fair to say they’re less responsive to the toys and training that can add enjoyment to the lives of furry and feathered pets. But there are plenty of ways to give reptiles and amphibians more interesting lives.
As with fish, this enrichment revolves around physical environment and feeding.
Depending on the animal, try something as simple as periodically rearranging the “furniture” inside the cage, tank or enclosure, either by moving old things or adding new ones they can use for perching, climbing or hiding.
No matter the pet, there’s a natural tendency for caretakers to fall into repetitive feeding routines — same food delivered the same way. So add some variety. In the wild, these animals have to find or hunt for their food. Depending on the species, try adding some foraging challenges to mealtime by dragging a piece of food around the enclosure and then hiding it, giving your pet a problem to solve before it can eat.
Do some research and find out whether it’s safe to vary your pet’s basic diet. While it’s most convenient to stick with a commercially prepared feed, it may be safe and beneficial to supplement your pet’s diet with such things as live or canned insects, or small amounts of fruits and vegetables. Consult your veterinarian, books and reputable species-specific websites for useful and accurate information.
Whatever pets you may have, it doesn’t take a great deal of time or expense to make their lives more interesting and enjoyable — with results and benefits well worth the effort. Next issue, we’ll look at enrichment for dogs. 
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