Author: Christine, of Crittery Exotics
It is important to give your rodent as much enrichment and mental stimulation as possible, regardless of whether they are an exotic rodent or common one. Company of their own kind, where appropriate, is always the best first stage as well as a large habitat or rodent cage. Given that they don't have the freedom to explore as they would in the wild it is vital to ensure their environment will stimulate and interest them.
Rodent enrichment can come from many things. Some Parrot toys are ideal climbing apparatus for Fancy mice for instance, plus some of the smaller nest boxes for wild birds are loved by African Pygmy Dormice. The nets typically used for ferrets are also useful for African Pygmy Dormice, Fancy mice and Mongolian Gerbils. Equipment can always be found second-hand and some natural enrichment such as branches need not cost you at all providing you do so safely.
However, with a little spare time there are many interesting items to make yourself.
Cardboard tubes from toilets rolls are ideal for all small rodents. The large tubes that posters or large photos are posted in are perfect once the staples and tape are removed.
If an item has holes in, all the better. Chocolate orange boxes are excellent for mice for example, and egg boxes are particularly loved by gerbils because of the thicker material. We've even used these as an additional nest for the African Pygmy Dormice, though this would not substitute for their main one.
Cooling your rodents
In summer you may have problems with keeping your rodents cool. Try some of the following steps to combat this:
- Ventilation Make sure you have good ventilation, both for your cages and within your home. Consider moving the cage to somewhere cooler and more in the shade.
- Tank lids A solid lid for your tank will need replacing with a mesh one to allow better ventilation - a staple gun, some pieces of wood and wire mesh that is 1cm wide are all you require to make a home-made effective lid.
- Fans rodents do not perspire in the same manner as we do, so a fan is not all that effective. However, it can easily be made effective by placing a small bowl or dish of water in front of it, so that it will then distribute the moisture in the air and help cool down hot rodents.
- Plant pots a ceramic plant pot can be good at resisting heat and providing a cool shady spot for your rodents. Chinchilla cooling ledges are also good.
Hammocks and beds
There are plenty of good sites out there supplying various hammocks, corner crushes, rope ladders and fuzzy beds. These are essential for most rodents - for some, such as Fancy Mice or Steppe Lemmings, it is better to have two entry holes to these.
Ebay offers many second-hand hammocks. Tea towels are a cheaper or temporary option. If getting these items for Mongolian Gerbils, you may find that they are destroyed within seconds. However, this will vary by personality so it is always worth trying - a prolific chewer may require the cheaper option of tea towels.
Hammocks can be secured with normal string, thin sisal rope, or garden wire (providing you are careful with the sharp edges). Giant paperclips are extremely useful to attach to your wire sides.
If you feel like treating your rodents, the items offered at Fuzzbutt are excellent quality and adored by our rodents. The non-fuzzbutt stuff they offer, such as the 'beer cans' and 'igloos' are also well received.
A length or ball of sisal rope is not expensive and will last you a long time. Combine this with the studier cardboard tubes and hang them from the ceiling or the sides of bars, or simply drape across for climbing material. It is safe for them to chew, and fun for them to climb.
If you remember your time at scouts or brownies, you may be clever enough to tie yourself an effective net, much like those used for ferrets. For the less adventurous, try buying a small packet of wooden curtain rings (check for varnishing and wood type first) and tie these together to provide a different kind of net.
You can also get rope toys that are designed for parrots, or buy a dog rope ball and unravel to provide yourself with several lengths of strong, think, climbing material. If you have a wire cage you can use garden wire to twist around the outside edge to secure to the bars.
Exotic rodents often need a habitat that is close to what they would have in the wild since they haven't been domesticated to the same degree as something like a fancy mouse. Here are some good options for natural rodent enrichment and to help provide essential mental stimulation.
- Sand Bath rodents such as mongolian gerbils really benefit from a sand bath. This just requires a shallow dish and layer of chinchilla sand. It is also very fun to watch.
- Branches Providing it is not near a road, you have checked the list of safe woods and prepare it correctly, you can collect your own branches from outdoors. This provides a cheap way of giving your rodent climbing material. This is particularly good for African Pygmy Mice, African Pygmy Dormice and Harvest mice. See our article on How to Furnish a Vivarium for an Exotic Rodent for more details.
- Pebbles African Pygmy Mice collect pebbles in the wild to stack in front of their nest to collect dew. Although this won't have the same effective in captivity it is still something they enjoy doing. Giving an exotic rodent a chance to exhibit natural behaviour will help to keep them happier.
- Artificial burrow system Research has shown that creating an artificial burrow system for Mongolian gerbils whilst raising pups can prevent the emergence of stereotypical burrowing behaviour. See further reading for details.
- Livefood Livefood such as mealworms and crickets can make excellent natural enrichment for your rodents. It provides an interesting meal that encourages your rodents natural instincts and keeps them mentally stimulated.
- Cotton Pods these digestible cotton pods allow your rodent to chew on the outer casing and release the bedding. It provides them with excellent nesting material, keeps teeth trim and provides valuable enrichment. Some keepers chose not to use these, as they believe them to be dangerous but this is currently unproven.