Author: Micah Kohles, DVM
Chewing is an instinctual behavior of rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and other small pets. The many benefits of chewing include healthy dental wear, mental stimulation, preventing obesity and boredom-based behaviors, and the opportunity to build the bond with your pet. Learn more as Dr. Micah Kohles of Oxbow Animal Health provides helpful tips on how to support the healthy chewing behaviors of your pet!
All right, so let’s talk about chewing. We know that this is something that our little munchkins do all the time, all day long, and what’s important to remember is that there are some really important reasons that they do this. Chewing is a very natural behavior for small pets. Certainly, we understand the need for them to chew fiber in the form of hay, but chewing is also how these munchkins explore their environments, how they look at new things and kind of get a feel for changes in the environment or new things that we may be providing them.
What are the Benefits of Chewing for Small Pets?
So, what are some of the key benefits of chewing and why is it something that we want to talk so much about and make sure that we’re thinking about in their homes?
First of all, it’s important to remember that rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas have what we call open-rooted teeth. This means their teeth grow throughout their entire life, and that’s not just their front incisors, that’s all of their teeth. This is essential to their ability to break down the different plant materials and chew up these coarse hard fibers, plant materials like fibers and hays that they naturally need. So those constantly growing teeth allow them to chew these types of plant materials, but it also facilitates their ability to explore by chewing on other types of things, whether that be wood, bark, or whatever the case would be.
Some of the other benefits when we think about with chewing is it’s very mentally stimulating for these guys, right? As they explore their environment and they look to explore what else is new and what it means to them, this provides mental stimulation to them, whether they’re chewing on a wicker ball, a hay enclosure, or any number of other appropriate items. All of this provides not only mental stimulation but behavioral and physical stimulation as well.
The more activity we can encourage, the more movement we can stimulate. We all know the benefits of that as well. So, providing food items that stimulate that natural chewing behavior that allows them to move these items around at the same time, you know, ties directly to that physical improvement, that physical movement as well.
How to Promote Chewing in the Habitat
When it comes to habitats, no two are usually exactly alike. It’s always important to start by providing as large of a habitat as possible. Within that habitat, we want to be sure to provide ample amounts of appropriate chewing materials in order to provide the physical and mental stimulation we’ve discussed.
When animals are provided small habitats, we unfortunately commonly see boredom-based behaviors transpire. For this reason, it’s important to provide as much habitat space as possible and to accessorize that space with enriching chew accessories and materials that stimulate the mental enrichment and physical activity that we know prevents these boredom-based behaviors. In additional to preventing boredom, chewing provides physical activity that helps prevent obesity and other health-related issues as well. Last, but not least, actively providing enrichment in the habitat helps strengthen the bond you have with your pet. The more you interact with your pet when providing chew items or other forms of enrichment, the stronger that relationship will be.
Chewing Checklist for Small Pets
As we think about chewing, we understand all of the mental and physical benefits, including critical dental health benefits. So, what does a chewing checklist look like?
Hay All Day for Healthy Chewing
What are the things we always want to keep in mind with chewing? Number one on the list should always be hay. The bigger the diversity of grass hays we feed, the better. More variety leads to more interest, interaction, and chewing.
Offer Up Natural Chews
Next, I want to encourage you to think about some all-natural types of chews. Willow and wicker are great chewing materials, and there are many others. Hay-based chews are great for obvious reasons. Even clean, untreated cardboard makes a fantastic, easily-accessible chewing material. Oxbow offers a wide variety of safe, all-natural chew toys that are specifically designed with the needs and preferences of small pets in mind.
Choose Chewable Hideouts for Rest and Relaxation
We can also think about woven hay habitats like the one featured in this video. These items provide multiple benefits. Timmy the guinea pig is able hang out in a place where he feels comfortable as a prey species. Feeling comfortable and safe, he’s going to naturally chew on the hay that surrounding him. When it comes to selecting this type of enclosure, always be sure to choose items with no wire, string, or other materials that could present any choking hazards or other dangers.
Unsafe Chew Materials to Avoid for Pet Health and Safety
If we’re giving these munchkins the opportunity to get out in the home, we need to think about things they may chew on that may potentially be harmful. This includes common household objects like electrical cords, or really anything made of plastic or metal. These materials are obviously not in line with what their dentition is built for and can cause all kinds of different problems. We also want to think about house plants. We know that greens and veggies are naturally for these guys, so they’re going to naturally be attached to other greenery as well. And unfortunately, many of the common house plants that we have are potentially toxic, so we want to be sure our plants are not accessible when our pets are roaming freely about the house.
Simply put, anything our small pets can access, they will likely chew. This can be the carpet on the floor. It can be the leg or your couch. It could be the trim on the outside of the room. All of those things. If they can get their mouth around them, they may potentially chew on it. So just again, be aware and be thoughtful. If you’re sitting and hanging out with them, you can certainly catch them doing those things. But if they have access to parts of their home that may be unsupervised, we want to be thoughtful in what they can potentially interact with.
In summary, chewing is vitally important for small pets in terms of nutrition, mental stimulation, and physical enrichment. And, fortunately, there are many safe, nutritionally-appropriate chew options that exist. You job as a pet parent is to think of creative ways to encourage your pet to chew on appropriate materials every day. If we tie this to proper nutrition, we are setting a strong foundation for the health and happiness of our pets.