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Rodent toys

Discussion in 'Rodents' started by Colette, Nov 26, 2013.

  1. Colette

    Colette PetForums VIP

    Jan 2, 2010
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    I don't want to discuss anyone inparticular (heaven knows we've done that enough!!) but something on another thread really, really got my goat... the idea that hamsters don't need toys. :eek:

    I know I'm preaching to the choir as far as the regulars here are concerned, but just in case any rodent newbies are lurking about - here's the deal with decent caging and toys.

    Do these little critters really need huge cages and lots of toys?


    I'm going to discuss "rodents" in general mostly, with a few species spefic bits but most of this applies to most of them.

    Rodents are highly active, industrious creatures with naturally large home ranges relative to their size. Hamsters will travel many miles every night, while mice will travel up to 20+ feet from their nest (imagine a circular cage with a radius of 20 feet!!)

    They have a wide range of natural behaviours, which can include walking, running, jumping, climbing, digging, burrowing, foraging for food, food caching, nest building, chewing and gnawing, and interacting with conspecifics if appropriate (ie in social species like mice and rats).

    In order to do these things, they need appropriate facilities, in other words - space, toys and suitable husbandry routines.

    Space is necessary for many reasons - too small a cage prevents certain types of movement such as running at speed, jumping or climbing. It also makes it difficult to provide toys. And of course, its boring - there is nothing to do, nowhere to explore.

    But empty space is next to useless for a rodent - being prey species many exhibit thigmotaxis (moving in contact with a vertical surface) and thus can feel overexposed and anxious in a large open space.

    So once you have your big cage, you need to fill it. What makes an appropriate toy?

    Broadly speaking, anything that enables the animal to exhibit natural behaviours. For rodents this means things that they can move, climb on, hide in or under, gnaw, rip up/shred, find food in, build a nest from, dig or burrow in.... Of course, the ability to control their environment is also highly important, so being able to maniulate their environment to their own preferences is great.

    Wheels are actually disputed in some circles as to how beneficial they really are. On the plus side they do enable rodents to run at speed and get plenty of physical exercise. On the other hand running on a wheel is a pretty pointless exercise (the road to nowhere lol), offering no mental stimulation, and some have gone so far as to suggest that wheel running may even be a form of stereotypic behaviour. Personally I like to err on the side of caution - I will always provide a safe running wheel, but I do not believe it makes up for a suitable sized cage or other appropriate enrichment.

    Some ideas for rodent toys:

    Cardboard boxes and tubes - can be used for climbing on, hiding or nesting in, gnawing, and can be shredded for bedding material.

    Wood blocks and similar hard toys, wooden cage furntiure etc - again, can be climbed on and gnawed.

    Nestboxes of any material, or other enclosed objects such as plant pots or even a large mug - used for hiding, nesting or food caching.

    Digging boxes - can be used for the animal to forage for or cache food, digging and burrowing.

    Nesting material, paper towels, sheets of newspaper, old phone books - can be shredded for nesting material.

    The emphasis should be on variety and complexity so it helps to provide various different types of toy / furniture. Personally I like to use a mix of wooden, plastic, cardboard, etc toys.

    For further environmental complexity and novelty value it helps to have surplus toys which you can rotate, or to put toys in different places to enable exploratory behaviour.

    Husbandry also plays a part. If you provide your pet with a nice bowl of food at one end of the cage, and a nice comfy bed at the other, what exactly is your pet going to do all night? It doesn't need to nestbuild, forage, or food cache...

    Options to increase normal activity and behaviours include scatter feeding, making food harder to get (eg hiding it inside things, or wedging it in tight so it has to be gnawed out), scattering nesting material around the cage to be collected, or providing solid materials like sheets of newsaper or paper towels for the animal to shred itself.

    But the big question of course is why bother?


    Never underestimate the effects stress can have on an animal. The body's "stress response system" is designed to prepare the animal for "flight or fight". It is a short term response to enable the animal to escape and survive a threat.
    When stress is caused by unsuitable living conditions it results in long term (chronic) stress. Whilst the stress response is perfect in the short term, over long periods it is actually extremely harmful.

    Inadequate housing, limited exercise and chronic stress can cause:

    Muscular-skeletal problems
    Dental problems
    Digestive problems
    Reproductive problems
    Increased cortisol levels (stress hormone)
    Impaired learning ability, memory and brain development
    Reduced immune response
    Increased healing time
    Abnormal behaviours such as stereotypies, aggression, depression or self-injurious behaviour such as limb chewing.
    And ultimately reduced lifespan.

    Insufficient exercise and mental stimulation, boredom, frustration of natural behaviours are all well known to cause chronic stress and the associated health and welfare problems.

    The final point I want to make is about animals actually using the things you provide.
    Most rodents are nocturnal or crepuscular. As such, we don't actually get to see the vast majority of what they get up to. Even animals that seem to do bugger all during the day (funnily enough - when they prefer to be asleep!) are often inredibly active overnight.

    I've had the benefit of watching a cage of rats filmed overnight using an infra red camera and I can honestly say I've never seen rats behave like that before (not kept rats myself to be fair). They were so fast, running at speeds I never imagined, jumping far higher than I thought possible, and making use of every toy and every centimetre of space available.

    If you really believe your rodent is not using the things you provide you should be asking yourself why not?

    It could be that the items are simply not suitable or not interesting to that particular individual - animals have preferences same as we do. Maybe your hammie would prefer a wooden nestbox to a plastic one? Or maybe a top entrance rather than a side entrance? Are the tubes too narrow etc? Would she prefer a softer type of cardboard (eg an egg box)?

    Or it could be that the husbandry is lacking - ie if the animal already has all the food and bedding it needs there's not much point in foraging for more. Scattering food and bedding usually helps here.

    And one more thing - enclosed versus open style caging.

    Enclosed caging like tanks and bins can be suitable for some rodents, but not for all.

    Mice and rats tend to do best in open (barred) caging. This is partly because of the higher stocking density (they are housed in groups rather than alone), and partly because they have a high urine output.
    Hamsters and gerbils on the other hand urinate relatively little, so produce far less ammonia, and of course hamsters are housed singly. As such they can do fine in enclosed cages.

    However, for enclosed cages to be suitable at all they still need to provide a safe and sanitary environment, which is not too high in ammonia (which is toxic remember!).
    Basically the bigger the better (in terms of hygiene and ventilation you need a larger tank or bin than you would a barred cage) and it must have adequate ventilation. Rodent tanks usually have mesh lids; bin cages should also have mesh lids and preferably further ventilation holes or mesh in at least one side to allow air flow.
    Enclosed cages that are too small or poorly ventilated can quickly become too hot, too humid, and too high in ammonia - leading to a wide range of health problems including respiratory diseases, or ringtail in rats.

    Sorry this has been so long, this is one of my pet hates. Rodents are some of the most active, intelligent, industrious creatures we can have the pleasure of keeping as pets; yet so many suffer unnecessarily. If this post encourages just one person to rethink how they keep their rodents it will make the last hour of typing worthwhile!

    Rant over :eek:
  2. blade100

    blade100 PetForums VIP

    Aug 24, 2009
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    Excellent post and a completely agree with you as a lot of others in sure!
    Jay Martinez likes this.
  3. Bloodraine5252

    Bloodraine5252 PetForums Senior

    Jan 13, 2013
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    Excellent post! I think there should be a sticky!
    Jay Martinez likes this.
  4. thedogsmother

    thedogsmother PetForums VIP

    Aug 28, 2008
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    Excellent post OP, I've stickied it. Perhaps if people have any recommendations for a particular toy, or knows of a toy that should be avoided they could add it to the thread.
    Personally for the multis I like to use children's toys, wooden shape sorters make great climbing frames and houses, I also like rope dog toys or leads to make walkways. For mouse wheels I can reccomended silent spinners (the medium ones) or wodent wheels.
    My rats love nothing more than a shoe box or smaller boxes filled with treats hidden in the substrate.
    Jay Martinez likes this.
  5. emma20

    emma20 PetForums VIP

    Feb 7, 2012
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  6. harryhamster

    harryhamster PetForums Newbie

    Jul 30, 2013
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    That's a brilliant post all animals deserve great attention and love. My hamster harry has a seesaw from pets at home that's really good he spends a lot of time in it he also has a green tube which he can gnaw on also form pets at home he spends a lot of time on my hands and in his exercise ball he has lots of fun and he also has a orange plastic house which is good because the top is really strong and he cant push it off unlike the one he had before that one that was also from pets at home most of his stuff comes from there Hamster House by Savic | Pets at Home something a lot like that :):):)
    Jay Martinez likes this.
  7. janecoram

    janecoram PetForums Newbie

    Feb 14, 2014
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    Yep, awesome post.

    My daughter and I have been rescuing and keeping mice for many years and learnt by trial and error. I wish we'd seen your post when we first started out!
    My daughter is bedridden and she has our mouse cage in her bedroom at the foot of the bed so that she can lie there and watch them. Obviously because it's in her bedroom, we're limited for space so we had to go upwards rather than outwards with it. It's ten times the minimum size for the three mice we have at present, but only takes up the size of a coffee table.

    We've put several levels in it with ramps going up between levels, which gives them more running area, they have lots of bars to climb. It does mean it takes longer to clean it out, because you have to take all the levels out and wipe them down, but it's worth it to keep them happy. Every level has something different to keep them occupied. We rotate their toys continuously and give them plenty of challenges to find their food.

    One idea that doesn't take up any space in a cage is a dowling rod, running from one side to the other, which can have rope ladders and hanging ropes. It gives an extra exercise area in dead space. They love to scurry along it and dangle from it. There are some great wooden toys on the market for them to play on and gnaw: a pirate ship, a mansion, tree houses, sterilised tree bark and nesting beds and they are really very cheap and last more or less indefinitely, even though they do end up looking a bit shipwrecked where they've been gnawed so much! We put loose bedding in around the place so that they have to make their own nests, which keeps them occupied. (We make sure they've always got one there to sleep in!) They love saucer wheels, even though it is a pointless exercise! Lol.

    We do find that we have to scrub the wooden toys often because they tend to wee on them, and I just use a mild dilution of vinegar in water, which seems to get rid of the smell quite well. We clean them out every two-three days anyway, so it never really gets dirty. I just line the levels with newspaper, which they enjoy tearing up. It soaks up the wee quite well.

    We also built a large playpen for them and take them out so that they get more exercise and variety. We bought a job lot of old wooden children's toys on eBay and use them in the playpen to give them a bit of variety. They come out more or less every evening and it breaks the day up for them. We're also training them (at least trying to train them!) to do simple tricks, which they really enjoy.

    Anyway, thanks for that great post. I hope all new rodent owners read it!
    #7 janecoram, Feb 16, 2014
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2014
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