More than just a pet in a cage—exotics need enrichment too

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More than just a pet in a cage—exotics need enrichment too

For exotic pets, enrichment can mean the difference between staying in the home and surrender to a shelter.
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Jun 17, 2017

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Exotic pets, typically defined as anything other than a dog or cat, are part of more than 19 million households in the United States, according to the American Pet Products Association. While birds, small animals and reptiles can’t readily hop in the car to head to the dog park, they still need interaction with their owners and time out of their cages. A lack of environmental enrichment can lead to behavioral and health issues, which often end with the pet being relinquished to a shelter or rescue because the pet owner can’t handle the pet anymore.

“Surrender is absolutely preventable”

Surrender doesn’t have to be the ultimate outcome, as many of these issues can be prevented through enrichment, says Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP (avian), who owns Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York.

The most important thing you can do when clients come to your clinic for help with their pets is to know what’s normal and what’s not, says Hess. If you don’t know what’s typical for that species, how will you then recognize abnormal behavior, she continues.

“The pet is outside of its normal habitat and it has often been taken out of its normal social group, like a flock, and it’s been put into a foreign environment,” Hess says. “That can be stressful.”

In the wild, these animals might spend a good part of their day foraging for live food, making a home and looking for a mate. In a human home, those activities may not occur on a daily basis, but they can be recreated through enrichment items.

“This is particularly an issue with birds. Sometimes they’re good for the first few years and then the bird reaches sexual maturity and then it starts screaming and biting because it’s frustrated and wants more attention,” Hess says. “The bird isn’t fun anymore, so the pet owner doesn’t want to be with it as much, which leads to more cage time. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.”

Hess says putting birds on a schedule from the start can help. Provide them with toys and let them hear the TV, or put their cage near a window (as long as there’s nothing scary outside of it), and give them a schedule. The bird then knows that it’ll have cage time when its owners are gone where it can eat and play with toys, and time later when the pet owner is home to be out on their perch. Then it’s more comfortable in the cage and doesn’t view it as a prison.

All species benefit from foraging for food. Food can be hidden in crumpled paper, stuck in the bars of a cage or even buried in material on the floor of the cage. The pet then has to work in a way that’s mentally challenging and fights boredom to find its meal.

“Pet owners may be grossed out by the thought of live mealworms (versus purchasing dead ones), but reptiles, sugar gliders—even chickens love foraging for live mealworms. They like to catch them and discover what it is and it’s a tasty meal for them,” Hess says.

More than meals

Besides foraging opportunities, one of the best things to provide the animal with is variety in its environment. Just like people, Hess notes, animals like different textures, shapes, smells and colors. Variety allows the animal to choose what it likes best.

Rabbits need to run around and have different levels to hop up and down on in their cages, while reptiles like to dig.

“Give lizards an opportunity to dig with pelleted cage flooring,” Hess says. “They also like to have different levels to climb, versus being horizontal, like tree limbs.”

Reptiles are a prey species so they like to have an area to hide in that’s private and dark, like a tunnel, tube or cave. Tubes and tunnels are favorites of hamsters and ferrets as well.

“Ferrets need to run and be crazy. They’ll play with a ball if penned off in a safe area,” says Hess.

Birds need to stretch their wings and get exercise outside of their cages. Pet owners can put perches in different areas that the bird can fly to and feed from.

All of these species need to have time out of their cages in a safe area.

Education is key

Education can be the key. If you have the chance to counsel your clients before they bring their new exotic pets home, take it. Hess says people don’t know what they don’t know—but should—until after they’ve gotten the pet. Advising them to conduct research before making a purchase can make all the difference in the success of the pet in the home.

“Does the client have the space and the financial and physical resources to take care of the pet? Do they have the time to provide the best environment for the animal? It’s learning and researching before they have the pet. The best environment isn’t necessarily what you see in a pet store,” Hess says. “After the owner has the animal and they’ve spent the money and committed to it, maybe it’s not going how they thought it would. That’s disappointing to the owner, and that’s when these pets end up in shelters.”

Dr. Laurie Hess owns Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, New York. She is also a regular online and TV contributor as well as the author of the book Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (or, What Friends Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me about Life and Love). Hess is a past president of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and is now their social media chairperson.