Foraging is one of many instinctual behaviors commonly exhibited by small companion mammals. Pet parents should do their due diligence in providing fun, nutritionally-appropriate foraging opportunities for their small pet! Here are some of our suggestions.
For many pet parents, this is one of the easiest go-to forms of enrichment to promote foraging.
- Mix It Up— We can’t say it enough—variety is the spice of life! Providing more than one variety of hay can create the perfect forage opportunity for your little one, while also promoting the fiber intake that is essential to the diet of a small herbivore. Providing grain hays, such as oat hay, provides a forage to search for tasty immature seed heads. Visit our Fun Ways to Feed a Variety of Hays blog post for some examples of delicious hay mixes.
- Treat in the Haystack— Hiding your pet’s favorite treat in hay can create an enticing rooting and digging game. Break or cut the treat into small pieces, and hide the pieces throughout a pile of hay. Hiding multiple pieces can help lengthen the entertainment time for this foraging activity, meaning more fun for your pet!
Foraging for Treats
While treats should be a tiny amount of your pet’s daily food intake, they can provide limitless opportunities for enrichment!
- Treat in a Blanket— Find a clean fleece blanket and hide your pet’s favorite treat within the folds of the blanket. Your pet will have tons of fun rooting around to look for their snack! You may have to visually show the treat to your pet before trying this out. Once they catch the scent of a hay-based treat like our Simple Rewards, or a fruit or veggie slice, it’s game on. For ideas on appropriate greens and veggies, visit our blogs about Best Vegetables and Leafy Greens for Rabbits and for Guinea Pigs.
- Pick the Cup— Either three plastic cups or small Tupperware containers without lids will be needed for this activity. Show your pet their favorite treat, then hide it underneath one of the three cups flipped upside-down. Keeping the treat hidden, shuffle the cups and let your pet use their nose to discover which cup the treat is under!
Foraging for Fortified Food
Fortified food is an essential part of your pet’s daily diet, but that doesn’t mean you need to present your pet’s food the same way every day! Encouraging your pet to forage for fortified food can help ensure that your pet’s mind stays active and senses stay sharp.
- Sprinkle It!— If your pet can’t seem to get enough of their fortified food, you can present their daily pellets by sprinkling them throughout their habitat or in their hay. This will make your pet use their stellar sense of smell to find tasty food, while also not overdoing it on calories through treat-based enrichment.
- One at a Time— When you have time to sit with your pet, hide your pet’s fortified food one piece at a time in easy-to-find locations (such as under a toy or an unfolded blanket in front of them). Wait for your pet to find the piece before offering more in the same location. Some pets may need help finding the food at first, but will usually catch on to this game quickly. Once your pet has learned the hiding spot, change it up by using a different object or material to hide the fortified food under. Not only will this activity involve a repetitive action that can help your pet prepare to learn simple tricks, but it significantly increases the time you spend with your pet, strengthening the human-animal bond.
Foraging with Enrichment
To add another level of foraging fun in your pet’s life, consider how enrichment items like natural chews and hides can play a role. For some straightforward enrichment that promotes foraging, take a look at our Forage Pot and our Hide and Seek Mats.
- New Digs— Many small animal pet parents know that our little guys can be wary of new items in their habitats, and new hiding places are no exception. If you have purchased a new hide and your pet is unsure of it, utilizing your pet’s foraging behavior can be a great way to get them accustomed to the new hide. After placing the new hide in your pet’s enclosure, add a few pieces of your pet’s fortified food or broken-up favorite treat into the hide—one close to the entrance, one towards the center of the hide, and one as far back into the hide as possible. Cover the treats with a light sprinkling of your pet’s favorite hay. Your pet may still be wary at first, but they will search for the treat pieces and follow the trail into the hide, allowing them to realize that the hide is comfortable and safe. If your pet grabs the treat and runs out of the hide, don’t get discouraged! Your little one is simply shy and may require some extra encouragement when exposed to new things. Repeat this activity daily until your pet decides to get cozy in their new hide on their own.
- Hay Feeders Galore— There are so many kinds of hay feeders to choose from! If your pet has had only one type of hay feeder, it might be time to invest in a new one. Not only does a new feeder mean something that’s visually new and interesting is in your pet’s living space, but it also means that how your pet forages for the yummiest hay strand will also change. For some ideas, check out our Hay Forager or our Apple Stick Hay Feeder.
Get Creative, But Keep it Safe!
Opportunities abound for pet parents to nurture foraging behaviors but always keep safety in mind. Don’t force your pet to search for treats in areas where their heads or legs could become entrapped. If your pet is showing signs of physical or emotional discomfort during an activity, such as turning away from you or making whining sounds, end activities immediately and calmly praise them for expressing their needs without exhibiting destructive behaviors such as biting.
We’ve outlined many great techniques to provide new foraging opportunities, but as prey animals too much change can quickly become overwhelming. Only make one or two changes to your pets’ habitat or feeding technique at a time to avoid stress and anxiety. As they get more familiar with change it will be easier to introduce new things!