Pet bird in cage

In the exotics world, foraging — defined as wandering in search of food or provisions — is now a big buzz word among veterinarians and enthusiasts used to describe how animals’ lives can be enriched if they have something to do each day.

Keep in mind many species we keep as pets — birds, rodents, even some reptiles — are very social in the wild, living with many (sometimes even hundreds) other similar-species animals in large groups with whom they spend all day. They have daily tasks in the wild — looking for food, nest sites and mates. They are not programmed to live as we keep them — alone, restrained in cages and with nothing to do all day but sit and eat. When they are unnaturally isolated and bored, captive animals often develop behavioral problems such as pacing, screaming, twitching or even or self-mutilation in which they chew on their fur, feathers and skin. To help alleviate these problems or to try to prevent them from occurring in the first place, exotic pets as much as possible should be given jobs to do that are similar to those carried out by their wild counterparts. For different species, this means providing different kinds of activities, but the principles are the same for all: Offer some form of enrichment, and your pets’ lives will be happier and more fulfilled. To get you started, here is a quick sampling of some specific foraging activities you can use to help entertain your pet.

Fun for Feathered Friends

Foraging is particularly important for parrots, because they are extremely smart and get bored and frustrated easily. For birds, foraging can be as simple as hiding food in bird-safe containers that they must chew open in order to reach the items. Although most birds are very adept at this skill, monitor your bird to make sure he is successful in getting his food out of the container. If not, you may need to also provide some food on the side. Small cardboard boxes with slits in them to provide a peek inside are commercially available for parrots and can be filled with favorite dry treats (nuts, dried fruit, seeds) for the bird to reach after it chews through the box. Foraging boxes like these also can be made inexpensively from simple household items, such as tissue boxes and paper towel rolls. Favored treats used for foraging should not be offered to birds at any other time, so that they have incentive to spend time chewing to reach them. Bird-safe inedible items, including strands of colorful paper, also may appeal to birds and may be placed inside balls of crumpled tissue paper that birds can rip apart to reach. Or the items may be woven through holes in hard plastic inedible items, like Wiffle Balls, for birds to pull on and shred. Regardless of the foraging toy offered, these items should be replaced regularly and rotated to keep birds interested and stimulated.

Parrots aren’t the only birds who benefit from foraging. Waterfowl and chickens, as well as flock animals commonly kept as pets, can also be encouraged to forage. Hide mealworms — a favorite treat of many chickens and ducks — in small holes in a hollow log, plastic toy, or mixed in a shallow trough with several wooden sticks (too large to swallow), so that the birds have to dig around in the log or the trough to reach the insects. These mealworm feeders can provide hours of stimulation for captive birds that would naturally forage to find insects in the wild. You can also sprinkle feed or vegetable pieces around the pen for them to hunt.

Gerbil in a tunnel

Rodent Revelry

Pet rodents such as hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats and guinea pigs also enjoy foraging. Like birds, they enjoy chewing dry treats out of cardboard or paper wrappers. They also love to burrow through boxes of shredded paper and fabric to look for treats. Plus, they are terrific at learning to run through obstacle courses made from cardboard boxes, tubes, and baskets to reach food rewards at the end — although be sure your pet cannot escape or get trapped in your “maze.” On warm days, they can be offered small pieces of frozen vegetables and fruits in shallow pans filled with water or pans covered with sheets of paper that they can dig through to find their treats. In addition, small rodents love to hunt and gather, so providing them with piles of hay, bits of shredded paper and small pieces of soft, untreated wood gives them an endless supply of material from which they can build nests and hiding places.

Reptile Rapture

Believe it or not, reptiles, too, enjoy foraging. Many herbivorous (vegetable/fruit-eating) reptiles, such as iguanas and many tortoises, or omnivorous reptiles, such as bearded dragons and water turtles, love to eat leaves or other vegetation when it is hung above them, as if the material were growing from trees. Insect-eating reptiles (tortoises and bearded dragons) like to dig through piles of vegetation to go after mealworms, and even turtles have fun pulling pieces of vegetables and pelleted food from plastic dog toys (try hard, perforated Kong balls). Vegetation can also dangle from leather strings that are floated on the water surface in their tanks or affixed inside their tanks with stainless steel clips, so that the material hangs above them.

In general, most vegetation is fine for rodents or reptiles, but be sure to consult your veterinarian first before offering any vegetation, hay or wood to your pet. For example, garlic, onions and many household and outdoor plants can be toxic. Any soft, untreated wood pieces given as foraging items should be large enough that the animal cannot get the item into its mouth where it could be ingested accidentally.

Foraging: It’s Fun!

When you think about it, we all love to forage. Isn’t visiting the buffet at a restaurant to sample small amounts of several types of food more fun than eating just one or two things served to you at the dinner table? Don’t we all love to smack a piñata at a party to reach the candy inside? Just like us, our pets are curious and need stimulation, and they love the reward of a tasty edible treat. So why not challenge your pet’s body, as well as his mind, and provide him with a foraging toy? He’ll be entertained while interacting with it, and you’ll be entertained watching him do it.

More from Vetstreet: