Enrichment for Captive Species


It is important to recognize that in addition to providing for the basic needs of the pets (shelter, food, water) pet owners need to ensure that these animals are able to freely express the natural behaviors inherent to the species.

Published: Saturday, Dec 3, 2022

Updated: Tuesday, Dec 6, 2022

Throughout history humans have shared their homes and hearts with a variety of domestic species. We have made meaningful progress in terms of understanding the importance of nutrition and preventative care. It is equally important to recognize that in addition to providing for the basic needs of the pets (shelter, food, water) pet owners need to ensure that these animals are able to freely express the natural behaviors inherent to the species.

The act of foraging for food is one activity that is universal among species. In nature animals spend a large part of their time actively searching for and acquiring food. It is a behavior that engages them both physically and mentally. When we simply fill a bowl with food every day we are depriving them of this valuable exercise. This inadvertently promotes boredom and obesity. When it comes to the way we provide food we can really be creative and have a lot of fun providing opportunities for captive foraging. Here are a few notable examples of how this can be done:

Rats are highly intelligent and actually quite agile. Rather than putting kibble in a bowl you can teach them to “fish” by filling a shallow container with river rocks and hiding bits of food like frozen peas among the stones. You can also create elaborate climbing gyms for your rats with small stashes of food hidden in different areas for the rats to find as they explore.  

Parrots are probably the species where we see the most obvious detriment when they are not allowed to express inherent behaviors. Feather plucking for example (while multifactorial) often can be reduced or eliminated by increasing the amount of time per day a parrot can forage for food. Dr. Scott Echols (see his DVD Captive Foraging) teaches owners how to build foraging trees. A foraging tree is a structure that you can build and hang favorite food items either alone or encased in some workable material that the bird has to figure out in order to get the prize. I must admit that I have just as much fun watching them as they probably do playing the foraging game!

Different species have different needs when it comes to their social systems as well. Thoughtfully creating an appropriate living situation for the animal can improve their quality of life dramatically. Guinea pigs for example are a prey species that requires an environment that provides areas where they can seek refuge should they become frightened. One of the things I counsel guinea pig owners about is how to create a play space that they will actually enjoy and use. Simply fencing in a large open space is not sufficient. The vast majority of guinea pigs fear open spaces and will either stay still or try to hide by some stationary object. Simply adding some tubes and tunnels throughout the space with various treats hidden about will allow the guinea pigs to utilize that space much better.

Parrots are a social species and generally thrive best when they are allowed to be in a location where they have frequent contact with their flock or human family. Interestingly, recent studies have shown that captive parrots do better when their cage is not up against a wall. When a cage is positioned in close proximity to a wall it may make these birds feel more isolated from their human flock and also more vulnerable to predators by limiting their open sight range.

When our captive species are able to freely express natural behaviors it results in a significant decrease in undesirable behaviors such as aggression, inappropriate elimination, and attention seeking nuisance behaviors (such as shrieking by parrots). Reducing stress translates to positive impacts on their overall health and well being. Informed management of captive animal environments enhances the human animal bond which promotes a sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship to be enjoyed far into the future.

Enrichment for captive species is a topic that I am very passionate about. I hope that after reading this you will be inspired to come up with your own ideas to create a more stimulating environment for animals in your care. The possibilities are endless! Below I have included some photos of good examples. Some I have taken and some I have found by perusing the internet. I hope you enjoy them!

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Cats really enjoy access to vertical living space.  Providing such spaces has been shown to lower stress hormones and can be a useful tool to combat many behavioral problems. theverticalcat.com

Cats can forage too- here is a cat figuring out how to get the kibble to fall into the tray.  easemymindpetsitter.com 

If you have the space and resources, fencing in a secure outdoor space for your cats is a great way to give them access to all the stimulation of the great outdoors without risking their health or safety. rspcanswblogspot.com
Window bird feeders are sure to capture the attention of your feline friend. Just be sure to use a one way mirror or it may not be quite as fun for the birds.  
Here is a clever custom foraging tree for a guinea pig. guineapigcorner.com

Very small mammals have to stay in cages for their safety but you can transform the cage in such a way that it doesn't feel quite like a cage by providing exercise options and plenty of room to explore. smallanimalchannel.com

Foraging for food is an activity that all birds should have the opportunity to enjoy. conciouscompanion2012.com 



Smaller birds satisfy their urges to chew with the ‘kabob’ gardenfeathers.co.uk

I thought this foraging tree for the bunnies was a fantastic idea!  Each paper bundle contains a yummy treat and the wood is safe and edible for chewing as well.  maddie365.wordpress.com

This image was taken at Brook Hollow Farms in Boonton, NJ.  The rabbits here enjoy plenty of space to dig and burrow.

This photo was also taken during my visit to Brook Hollow Farms. The goats there enjoy an aerial view from their lofty jungle gym. Climbing is a regular activity for goats in the wild.

Bobbing for toys anyone? holisticferret60proboards.com

Rats are incredibly intelligent and agile little creatures and will benefit from having their food offered in novel ways. Here is a rat fishing for some corn in a home-made creek.  The treat ball shown above is perfect for their little paws. fishing: dapper.com.au    treat ball: rat whisperer.net 

Fish need enrichment too! Here is a great concept for a tank that allows fish to travel into various “apartments” What a great design idea! But I have no idea how you would go about cleaning it… mentalfloss.com

The owner of this Monitor Lizard has the right idea! She hid frozen roaches in a paper towel roll and he was totally engaged in the project of getting them all out. Yummmm.  VaranusTalk.com

Owner of a high energy dog?  Let him or her put all that energy to good use on a custom backyard agility course!  If he gets really good you can invite your friends over for a show… littlecreekfarmagility.com

Treat balls are fun way for your dog to work for goodies.  opensky.com

Just for fun here are some zoo otters playing some music on an electric piano. Quality zoos are always working to come up with new ways to keep their animals stimulated and entertained.  iflscience.com

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If enrichment interests you, check out Wild Enrichment. They provide enrichment and behavioral husbandry support for a variety of animals.