6 Fun Ways to Make Your Small Pet Work for Their Food

Written by Oxbow

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June 21, 2022🞄

by Dianne Cook, LVT

If you’ve ever witnessed a rabbit or rodent eating in the wild, you’ve may have noticed their meals don’t always come easy. Instead, they use their keen senses and naturally athletic bodies to seek out and dig up or stretch to reach the very best morsels. On the opposite spectrum, our domesticated house pets have come to expect routine access to their favorite foods with minimal effort.

While every pet parent delights in providing their furry family members with a comfortable life free from hunger, it is important to still encourage your little one to use their instincts and physicality as much as possible – even during dinner time.

Why Should I Make My Pet Work for Their Meal?

Exotic companion animals may have made the transition to life as a pampered house pet many generations ago, but they need to use their powerful bodies and sharp minds in meaningful, natural ways has not diminished.

Encouraging your beloved furry friend to put in a little extra effort for their meals is a great way to help keep them fit and trim, while also providing an easy outlet for continued dexterity and mental acuity as your kiddo ages. Luckily, there are numerous ways you can add an extra (and fun) challenge to your pet’s daily dining routine.

Will Work for Food

Below you will find several options to make your fluffy little friends put more effort into their feedings, but they certainly aren’t your only options. For even more ideas on how to combine playtime with dinner time, check out our previous article, Fun Ways to Encourage Your Pet to Play with Their Food.  

It is best to observe your pet when first attempting these suggestions to ensure they are properly interacting with any enrichment items and that they are capable of safely reaching and/or “un-earthing” their food.

See How Their Meals “Stack” Up

One of the easiest ways to get small herbivores to work for their food is to provide a 100% all-natural, compressed hay product, like Oxbow’s Harvest Stacks. Harvest Stacks are tightly compacted into conveniently portioned “pucks.” These pucks can be broken up into an impressive volume of loose hay, but when provided in their pressed form, your pet will be forced to tear and dig at the puck to loosen the hay. Many small herbivores also find great joy in flinging Harvest Stacks around their environment, making this unique product just as enriching as it is nutritious.

Can You Dig It? Your Pet Can Dig It!

It’s no secret that exotic companion mammals love to dig, so why not use that to your (and your pet’s) benefit? Oxbow’s Enriched Life Dig Box is a fun way to hide your pet’s pellets or favorite greens, thereby encouraging your furry friend to unearth their meal one mouthful at a time.

Don’t have a Dig Box? Never fear! Scattering your pet’s pellets throughout their enclosure, or in unexpected places throughout their secure play area, encourages your small friend to use their senses and natural exploring behavior to find all the stashes of food.

Think Vertical at Dinnertime

It’s important to frequently challenge your pet’s natural range of motion to keep arthritis and age-related muscle wasting at bay. Reaching above their heads (either by standing on hind legs or extending their neck) to eat low-hanging vegetation is a common movement exhibited in the wild by many small mammals. Unfortunately, this natural behavior is not always well supported in a domesticated setting.

By hanging greens, species-appropriate veggies, or small pieces of fruit from the ceiling of your pet’s enclosure (or at various heights throughout their living space), your little one will be encouraged to fully extend their spine as they reach up to sample their favorite goodies.

You can easily replace the balls and blocks that come with Oxbow’s Enriched Life Natural Kabob with fresh produce and hang it at a height that encourages your pet to reach for it. You can achieve the same effect by hanging small bunches of greens or herbs that have been tied and hung with all-natural sisal rope.

Rabbits eating pellets from wooden puzzle

Provide Puzzles for Mental Stimulation

As naturally inquisitive animals, our small pets love to explore their environment. If they happen upon any hidden food, this love is magnified. Oxbow’s Enriched Life Wooden Puzzler is a fun and easy way to turn dinner time into playtime. Use the cups to hide small piles of pellets, chopped herbs, or one of your pet’s favorite all-natural, species-appropriate treats. Your little one will have such a great time flipping each of the cups over and eating the reward within, they’ll have no idea you’ve put them to work.

Give the Gift That Gives

As we’ve established, our small furry friends love to dig, chew, and unearth. One of the easiest ways to support this behavior during mealtime is to add a few pellets, a handful of hay, and some of your little one’s preferred fresh produce or supplemental foods to a small, all-natural paper bag with the top tightly rolled over. Allow your little one to shred and dig at the bag to their heart’s content. Once your little one has reached their meal and has finished gleefully shredding the paper bag, remove any remaining pieces to avoid excess consumption.

Delight Them With the “Dine and Dash”

This trick is commonly used to help your pet learn their name and to establish a strong human-animal bond, but it’s also a great way to get your little one moving during mealtime. As it is low impact and very food-focused, it’s also an easy way to keep senior pets moving. Gather a handful of your pet’s favorite food, hay, or supplementary food, then sit across the room from your pet. Hold up the food and softly call their name. Once your animal comes to you, allow them to take a few nibbles, then quietly get up (careful not to startle your little one), and move to another spot, again holding the food out for your pet. Continue this pattern, moving after each interaction until your pet has finished their meal or has lost interest in the game.

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