As children, most of us were told not to play with our food. And, while there are certainly merits in modeling proper dinnertime etiquette for our children, play at mealtime can be a highly enriching activity with multiple key benefits for our rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small pets. Let’s take a look at a few quick and easy tips for encouraging your pets to play with their food and the associated benefits of each.
1. Make Mealtime a Meaningful Foraging Experience
Small animals are foragers at heart. This behavior is linked to their feeding behaviors in the wild, which force them to search high and low for sustenance, all while keeping an eye out for any number of predators. As prey species, rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small pets are wired to search for the most calorically dense nutrition first. These survival instincts are hardwired and never go away, even as our pets have made the transition from “wild to child.”
Not All Foraging Experiences Are Created Equal
Foraging is a very enriching activity for our pets, but it must be offered in the right way to provide any benefit. While mix-based diets (including “foraging blends”) purport to support a pet’s instinctual foraging behaviors, they ultimately fail to deliver on adding any meaningful enrichment to mealtime. Instead, these typically unbalanced food options are likely to lead to unhealthy selective feeding behaviors. We’ll touch more on that in an upcoming article, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, here are some fun and easy ways to support your pet’s instinctual foraging behaviors at mealtime:
- Hide small amounts of healthy greens & veggies, fruits, or wholesome treats in their hay.
- Sprinkle uniform food or small bits of treats in a foraging mat and enjoy watching them search for them.
- Offer their food in an enriching foraging bowl to add an element of mental stimulation to mealtime.
2. Offer Your Small Pet’s Hay and Food in Fun Ways
We talk often about the important benefits of offering a variety of hays to your pet daily and how to make feeding hay more fun. When it comes to foraging, we’ve designed a variety of enriching products that make it easy to turn mealtime into an engaging foraging experience. Some of our favorites include:
Enriched Life Apple Stick Hay Feeder
The more ways you offer hay to your pet, the better. The Apple Stick Hay Feeder is a great way to add an element of fun and enrichment to your pet’s daily hay dining experience. In addition to offering a variety of beneficial textures, the feeder attaches easily to the side or top of the habitat.
Timothy Club Bungalow
The Timothy Club Bungalow is a favorite hideout for many pets. This 100% edible, all-natural Timothy hay item is also perfect for loading up with hay and tasty morsels of food or treats for burrowing and foraging.
Hide & Chew Roll
The open space at the center of the Hide & Chew Roll is perfect for stuffing with hay, as well as a few enticing treat pieces. Pets love interacting with this item and you’ll have an equally entertaining time watching them roll, chew, and forage the day away.
As its name suggests, our Forage Pot is designed to support your pet’s instinctual foraging behaviors in enriching ways. The high-quality clay pot can be filled with your pet’s pellets, in addition to his or her favorite greens, treats, veggies, or fruit pieces for an enriching foraging experience at mealtime. The forage pot can be easily attached to the side or top of the habitat to challenge your pet to stretch those limbs and get vertical at mealtime.
3. Pair Your Pet’s Favorite Loose Hay with Hay-Based Enrichment
Most of our rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas can’t get enough fresh, fiber-filled hay. That’s great news when you consider that hay is the single most important component of your pet’s daily nutrition. Hay is the fiber-packed forage that makes every herbivore’s digestive system “go” and it’s critical for every small pet parent to offer unlimited amounts of fresh grass hay daily to proactively avoid potentially life-threatening consequences of GI system stoppage.
Given that most small herbivores will happily munch on hay throughout the day, it’s no surprise that hay-based enrichment items are some of the most popular offerings amongst natural chews. These items offer a variety of textures by combining Timothy hay with appealing and beneficial chewing materials such as natural apple sticks.
One fun and enticing way to add a foraging element to your pet’s hay dining experience is to hide a hay-based chew (or two) in their fresh pile of hay. They will gladly forage through the hay for the items hidden inside, likely munching on their favorite hay along the way. Here are a few of our favorite and most popular hay-based chews:
4. Make Mealtime a Bonding Experience
Life’s always more fun when spent with friends, and our interactions with our pets are certainly no exception. While your pet may prefer some privacy while eating his or her core nutrition (i.e. hay and food) there are plenty of opportunities to add an element of social interaction and play when it comes to offering foods to your pet. Some fun, enriching examples of how to do this include:
Design a Favorite Foods Scavenger Hunt
Most small pets are active, inquisitive creatures with a penchant for exploring their surroundings. In fact, exploration (like foraging) is instinctual for all small animals. One fun way to harness your pet’s exploring instinct is to set up a simple scavenger hunt (obstacle courses are great too!) using their food as the “bread crumb” trail. Your hunt can be as simple as placing a line of pellets placed across the room (try placing a yummy treat at the end as a reward) or as elaborate as a maze or obstacle course incorporating some of your best friend’s favorite healthy greens and veggies.
Use Treats for Training and Bonding
As much as our pets might argue otherwise, treats aren’t a key nutritional component in their diet. However, this doesn’t mean treats don’t play an important role in strengthening the bond we share with our pets. In addition to celebrating those special everyday moments, treats also make great positive reinforcements and help with training activities such as litterbox training.
Engage in DIY Projects that Benefit Your Pet
Who said “Do It Yourself” projects have to be focused on home renovation or people crafts? DIY pet projects are loads of fun and come with the added “feel good” benefit of bringing happiness to your pet’s life. Come up with your own DIY masterpiece integrating your pet’s daily nutrition or try one of our fun DIY tutorials such as our DIY Snack Wreath or DIY Pot O’ Gold Hay & Treat Holder for inspiration!
Other fun DIY projects include:
Enjoying our favorite foods is one of life’s great joys for many of us, and the same holds true for our pets. Adding elements of play and foraging to your pet’s mealtime is a fun and easy way to make their daily routine more enriching and enjoyable each day!