It’s wonderful that pet rat guardians, often try very hard to create a pleasant and interesting environment for their rats. However, dressing cages can sometimes become as much about our preferences, as theirs. So I thought it would be helpful to think about enrichment for rats – in the cage and external environment – more from a rat’s perspective.
Why is enrichment a positive thing for rats?
In a nutshell, quality enrichment alters behaviour and increases (the rat’s) control over the environment.
Behaviours can increase or decrease, depending on their nature and cause. Natural behaviours (such as foraging) are given a means of expression, while behaviours driven by anxiety and stress (such as bickering and fear responses) are often reduced.
A caged rat without enrichment has very little control over her environment. She cannot determine when or how food arrives, and may not even have a safe shelter to use to avoid cagemates or visitors if she chooses.
This lack of control extends to the wider environment surrounding her cage, and she will be affected (in terms of stress) by the lighting, temperature and noise she experiences. Enrichment considers these aspects of the environment too.
The goals of enrichment for rats
The goals of enrichment for rats could therefore be summed up as:
- Promoting pshychological well-being.
- Promoting physical well-being.
- Allowing for natural behaviours.
- Allowing for control over the environment.
- Allowing for mental stimulation.
- Allowing for social interaction and avoidance.
Enrichment stimulates a rat’s physical abilities, mental ablities (eg problem solving) and senses. It’s doesn’t over stimulate, as this can increase stress.
Increasing psychological space
Increasing psychological space is a concept that has been developed in respect to all kinds of animals in captivity. It involves using the available space (however small), so that more of the actual space is used for activities that are meaningful to the animal. It aims to fill ‘dead’ space with the potential for stimulation.
This is a tool that is already often employed by rat owners, as without it, most cages are often more dead space than usable space. But there is another clause in there that may not always be fully explored – “activities that are meaningful to the animal.”
In my last blog post I listed many of the activities that rats naturally engage in, in the wild. Let’s look again at that list:
- Building and maintaining nests
- Moving materials around
- Social interaction
It’s very clear when reading that list that not all of these activities will have equal meaning to the average domesticated rat. Take a look at the list and pick out the six that you feel have the most meaning to your rats. That’s a tough one, but I’ll have a go.
- Social interaction.
- Problem solving.
This would make a great discussion topic on Facebook, and I am sure there is no definative right answer. So here’s my explanation for my choices.
Foraging – Any species specific, food seeking behaviour that has been established over milennia, is going to be hardwired within an animal. It is unlikely that 120-ish years of domestication has impacted it much. Foraging is the number one food finding behaviour of wild rats, and is extremely likely to be meaningful to our own.
Sleeping – All mammals seem to be biologically programmed to sleep, and without sleep will experience stress. Sleep is therefore a meaningful activity.
Social interaction – As colony dwelling social creatures, rats are strongly driven by relationship with each other. This impacts many areas of their lives including which foods are safe to eat and how stressful they will find a situation. Social interaction is meaningful to a rat.
Grooming – One part of social interaction, which specifically helps to maintain connections and hierarchy within a group, is grooming. This is an essential rat behaviour that has a greal deal of meaning.
Problem solving – There is convincing research to demonstrate that rats have cognitive and reasoning abilities, at least to a degree. They are excellent problem solvers, and stimulating these abilities relieves bordem and enhances psychological well-being.
Climbing – Rats are agile and physically robust. They fully explore their environment and make use of height, even if only given cage bars to climb. The addition of branches, ropes and other similar cage furniture serves to fill up the dead space and create psychological space. Climbing increases fitness more than most other in-cage activities and therefore boosts physical well-being
The benefits of an enrichment for rats, are directly proportional to the degree that it allows the rat to engage in a meaningful behaviour. Therefore, to benefit the rat greatly and increase well-being significantly, we should probably aim to provide for the most meaningful behaviours first. As many natural behaviours as possible should probably be offered, but it would be somewhat topsy turvy to provide a rat with the opportunity to swim, while only feeding food from a bowl.
Stress and control
Whilst we can’t replicate truly natural surroundings, we can offer the important componants of that environment. Additionally, we can aim to reduce stresses to healthy levels. Note that seemingly positive things, like having a cagemate, can also cause pressure on an individual, if relationships are strained. Providing enough shelters and hideouts can reduce stress in such circumstances, because it allows the rat to take back control of her environment and escape unwanted attention.
A great question to ask about any enrichment for rats is, “does this increase the rats’ control of their environment?” In measurable terms, this really means, are the rats now more able to:
- get where they want to go?
- avoid contact (rat or human) if they wish?
- find (discover) food (in a variety of ways) when hungry?
- sleep (undisturbed) when tired – alone or in a group?
- engage in a meaningful activity when bored?
In the wild, a rat would have some control over many of the variables in her environment. For instance she could move away from a noise that she found disturbing, or choose to trail a smell she found intriguing. Control reduces stress and lack of control increases stress.
Take a minute or two to consider how you might increase the control your rats have over their in-cage and wider environment. Do they have choice? There might be times when you will need to take action for them. For instance, if they are sleeping, reduced lighting and protection from sudden noisy stimuli mimics, what they would try to achieve for themselves during a daytime sleep in a wild environment.
Archer, J. (1979). Animals Under Stress. London, Edward Arnold.
Environmental Enrichment: A Review, A.S. Chamove, Stirling University Psychology Dept.
Chamove, A. S. (1989). Cage design reduces emotionality in mice. Laboratory Animals, 25: 215-219.