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Keep Lab Animals from Boredom with Environmental Enrichment

The purpose of environmental enrichment is clear; offer the animal ways to occupy time, exhibit normal behaviors and remain engaged. Often, our first thought for environmental enrichment is a toy of some sort, however, the value of a toy may diminish over time. Novelty is important to most animals. The longer the animal is exposed to the same toy, the less interested it is; the animal becomes bored with it. Using enrichment toys to provide feed or treats may further degrade the enrichment; it becomes, in effect, only a feed container. This is why multiple environmental enrichment devices are used and rotated in and out of cages.

Devices should be rotated on a schedule. This serves multiple purposes. The items can be sanitized and new items offered. It is easy to do this on the same schedule as changing out wire bar lids, for example. It does require two different items-perhaps one that sits on the cage floor and another that hangs from the cage top, or provides a new shelter for privacy. Vary both type and location for the ultimate novelty experience.

Click here to read about the benefits of Environmental Enrichment.

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Poultry Benefit from different types of Enrichment

Poultry benefit from several types of environmental enrichment. Perches and nest boxes provide structural interest. Perches are used primarily by younger birds, as larger birds may have difficulty alighting due to their body size. Perches should be free of sharp edges, and made of non-slip materials that can be sanitized.

Nest boxes are important for laying hens. Nesting and egg laying involve a complex series of behaviors; lack of a nest box can cause frustration in the form of agitated pacing.

Different types of bedding on the enclosure floor allow opportunities for foraging, which can decrease the incidence of pecking and cannibalism in a flock. Scattering feed in the bedding increases foraging behavior, which is a pleasurable, time consuming activity.

Dust baths provide opportunity for improving feather conditioning. Some birds will interact with ropes, hanging chain, and other objects. The presence of novel objects may evoke interest or fear, so monitoring the response to new objects and understanding bird behavior is important. There is some research that indicates birds respond to bright, moving video images, which in turn, reduces their fear of new places.


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Shepherd Shacks are great for Environmental Enrichment

Introducing the revolutionary rodent environmental enrichment product that has become an industry standard. Let your laboratory mice live the American dream with this revolutionary enrichment item. The Shepherd Shack comes in a variety of styles to suit every one of your mice.

Take a look at the whole line of Shepherd Shack.

Learn how mice preferred the Shepherd Shack over other enrichment devices.

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Swine Challenge Animal Enrichment Plans

Swine have a number of intriguing behavioral traits that challenge animal enrichment plans. They are intelligent and social animals; they will associate by choice with particular individuals. Housing should be structured to allow this association and choice. Animals will naturally identify different functional areas if enough space is provided. If swine must be individually housed, developing a relationship with caregivers becomes more important, as does the ability to hear and smell other animals.

Occupational swine enrichment includes opportunities for exercise, foraging, exploration and manipulation. Providing a substrate to support foraging not only encourages natural behaviors, it also prevents many unwanted behaviors including damage to housing. Straw mixed with chewable or ediable items encourages the animal to explore its surroundings. Foraging also occupies time and tends to maintain the animal’s interest over the long term. Bedding also provides warmth during cold seasons and a more comfortable resting surface. Mats can also be used to provide a more comfortable resting surface.

In breeding situations, providing earth or sand substrate and twigs, straw and other nesting materials encourages nest building, another natural behavior. There is some evidence that this may contribute to piglet survival

Pigs enjoy environmental enrichment items that can be chewed and destroyed. If indestructible items are presented they need to be changed out periodically to minimize boredom. Environmental enrichment items designed for destruction can hold treats; the animal will focus on retrieving the treat until successful.

In group housing situations, be sure to provide multiple items with treats to minimize aggressive behavior.

In the absence of enrichment , the signs of stress in swine include aggression, fear, ear and tail biting and destructive behaviors.

Check out our enrichment products for the pigs in your facility.

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Dogs benefit from a complex environment

Almost everyone has a soft spot in their hearts for dogs. Dog enrichment is especially fulfilling since dogs are companion animals, with an innate affinity for humans. Human interaction is one facet of an overall enrichment program, and can enhance the other types of enrichment we provide.

Dogs benefit from a complex environment. The inclusion of a private den area provides a separate sleeping area. This also provides “choice” to allow animals to be social or to be alone. The addition of an opaque panel between runs or cages can provide this private area.

Dogs are intelligent and derive pleasure from exploration and problem solving. Presenting treats in a novel fashion that requires the animals to extract the treat stimulates those instincts. Positive reinforcement training also involves these skills. Complex toys provide problem-solving practice and the opportunity to develop dexterity, coordination and balance.

Many dogs are “oral”, and will always have something in their mouths if it is available. Bones and toys that can be carried, licked or chewed will satisfy these behavioral activities. While there are certainly breed differences in preferences, chewing is a universal dog behavior. Enrichment focusing on chewing can provide countless hours of enjoyment. Items designed for chewing need to be durable, non-toxic, and able to pass through the digestive system without damage if they are eaten.

Dogs are pack animals, with a hierarchical social structure. This is an important consideration when providing any enrichment treats and objects, as dominance issues could result in fighting and injuries.

Click here to see enrichment ideas for your dogs.

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Ideas to Keep Rabbits from Boredom

Behaviorally, lab rabbits are very close to the wild relatives, so environmental enrichment can focus on natural behaviors. They spend most of their time underground in burrows, and venture out at night. They maintain a stable social order, and fighting is rare. Social groups usually contain both males and females. The ability to dig, forage and allogroom are often missing from the lab environment; a wide-ranging environmental enrichment program can provide balance for what is lost.
As with most small animals, foraging provides a time consuming activity. Providing straw or hay sprinkled with treats allows rabbits to engage in that activity. While most lab rabbit cages do not use bedding, some institutions either group house animals or allow for an activity pen where rabbits can explore and play with a number of toys. Forage materials presented in this environment provide an additive enrichment benefit. Rabbits are explorative; providing toys and novel objects , gnaw sticks, and manipulative items allow for exercise and exploration. Rabbits are a natural for group housing, based on their behaviors.
Whether group or individually housed, a shelter allows the animal a degree of choice and an escape. It can also provide additional comfort in a stainless steel cage. Providing fresh fruit and vegetables or hay blocks introduces variety in the diet, alleviating boredom, and reducing stress.
With rabbits, presentation can make the difference for animal acceptance. Suspending small toys on a chain provides some cage complexity, encouraging animal exploration. Since rabbits are manipulative, toys that they can rattle or push with their nose engage them for long periods of time.
Boredom shows up as over or under-grooming, leading to hairballs, weight loss and obesity. Stereotypic behaviors may also occur.
Click here to see enrichment ideas for your rabbits.
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What sort of enrichment items are effective for cats?

Walk into any pet store, and you will find a lot of items that pass as toys for cats. Many of them are brightly colored, clearly meant for owners rather than cats. Some of them appear to be downright silly. What sorts of enrichment items are effective for cats, and suitable for the laboratory setting?

First, some basic cat behaviors; they like complex environments, elevated perches, soft sleeping surfaces, hiding spaces, and things to stalk and hunt. They are equally comfortable being either solitary creatures or part of a structured social group. Perches serve multiple functions; they allow cats to observe their environment in safety and provide a secure sleeping area. Since cats sleep a lot, roughly 65% of the day by some estimates, a soft pad or pillow added to a perch is irresistible. Scratching posts provide the opportunity to express natural behavior and allow cats to sharpen claws, shed old claws and stretch.

When selecting toys, bear in mind that cats like movement. The most interesting self play toys dispense treats or move. Cats will also chase light beams, reflected sunlight and anything else that catches their attention. Avoid static toys unless a person will be interacting with the cats. If catnip can be used, remember that cats will react to it for a short period of time and then ignore it, so use it strategically.

Videos developed for cats may work for individual cats, but real life movement is much more interesting. If there is a window, exploit nature with a bird feeder or bath and add a shelf or perch for the cats.

Change out enrichments and vary the locations of perches, scratching posts and other enrichments. Cats get bored, and bored cats may become aggressive to people and other cats. They may breed poorly, go off feed, and display self-injurious or repetitive behaviors.

Check out our cat enrichment.

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Addressing animal enrichment

The new Guide addresses animal enrichment in a number of ways. The guide is more clear about the role of enrichment in maintaining animal health and well-being. Well planned enrichment for any animal involves choices for the animal; to socialize or not, to be active or not, be seen or not;-in short, to have control. The expectation is that enrichment allows for expression of species typical behaviors.

Enrichment should be reviewed by the IACUC and veterinarian to assure well being and appropriateness and should never introduce additional stress to the animal. The Guide also acknowledges the concerns of researchers about the potential effects of enrichment on the outcome of research studies by introducing a variable.

Both structural and manipulative elements are addressed. Structural elements include perches, shelves, shelters and visual barriers; manipulative items include opportunities for foraging, toys, chew sticks, and novel objects. . The Guide also discusses consideration of vertical space in addition to floor area when housing primates. According to the Guide Complexities of the animals needs must be considered; vertical and spatial arrangements may be as important as floor area (p. 56). There is a strong narrative throughout the document for social housing unless the research precludes it. This is a departure from previous versions.

The American Association for Laboratory Animal Science has posted a document comparing the new version of the Guide to the previous version. You can access the free download at

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Primates and Food Enrichment

There are two types of behavior focused on feeding- appetitive and consummatory. Exploring, hunting, foraging, stalking and pouncing are appetitive behaviors; eating is consummatory. According to Viktor Reinhardt , many primates may spend more time foraging than any other activity. For example, marmosets will spend 50-60% of the day foraging, but when food is presented on a plate, the feeding (consummatory) activity lasts only a few minutes. Many substrates can be used to allow foraging; wood chips are just one example. The secret to keeping it interesting is to introduce novel items as forage, not just standard biscuits.

To be interesting, feeding should require some effort and skill. The act of gathering and processing is pleasurable on its own and animals will choose to work for feed rather than simply accept feed even if the same feed is available without effort. (Reinhardt and Roberts, 1997). Probe feeders allow the animal to probe with fingers or an object such as a stick in order to find food hidden from view in a chamber or compartment. Puzzle feeders require manipulative skills in addition to the collection of food. Animals will employ a number of strategies to remove the feed from the feeder.

The use of whole foods provides a focus on the preparation segment of normal feeding. This involves providing foods whole, with rinds, shells, husks and hulls that allow the animals to prepare food by removing the non-edible parts, another time consuming appetitive activity.

Care must be taken to assure that the novel feeders do not lose their novelty and revert to fancy food bowls. Rotation and randomness will keep the feeders fresh and interesting. Variety is also a consideration in the type of treats used for snacks and foraging grains.

And finally, when using foraging as enrichment, the food should not be present at all times, introducing randomness to feeding patterns. This requires the animals to be more attentive to items introduced into their environment.

In a research setting, the dietary requirements are controlled, but can become routine and boring to the animal. Retrieving food daily becomes a process of picking up biscuits and eating them. Animals whose feed is too easily obtained may be more prone to obesity. More importantly, the lack of challenge and occupation may lead to aberrant behaviors.

Check out some of the fun food and treats we carry for Primates.

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The Use of Mirrors as Enrichment

Mirrors are a commonly used enrichment item for primates.  They allow the animals to observe their environment, other occupants of the room and themselves.  In rooms where the layout may not allow for direct views of other animals, a wall mounted mirror can be used. The downside of such a mirror presentation is that it may cause stress for some primates who could feel threatened by the other primates they can see. Cage mounted mirrors can be manipulated by the animals in order to safely explore their surroundings and observe activity.

As an enrichment device, the effects do not diminish over time, since they are able to handle and move the mirror themselves; this activity provides a sense of control over their personal environment. Primate behavior with mirrors spans the gamut from aggression toward a strange animal to flirtatious or even self aware behaviors.  There have been some studies that suggest primates recognize themselves in the mirrors, not just as any primate, but as a reflection of themselves.  Many of the studies focused on chimpanzees, and there is some question about the ability of “lower order” primates for self-recognition. An interesting article on this subject can be found at .

Since mirrors have proved useful for individually housed primates, providing comfort and companionship, some researchers postulated they might also be useful for singly housed mice.  However, the results of that experiment were not promising; mice decreased feeding time when a mirror was close to feeders and, when able to do so, they removed themselves from the proximity of mirrors.

Take a look our our mirrors for your Primates.