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December 02, 2021

How Much Exercise Does Your Small Pet Need?

by Dianne Cook, LVT

Nimble and aerodynamic, exotic companion mammals are built for speed. Despite their athletic predisposition, many small pets don’t get nearly enough exercise. As dedicated pet parents, it is our responsibility to ensure our furry family members have everything they need to live their very best lives, including lots of time and space to run around every single day. Keep reading to learn how much exercise time your small friend truly needs, and the steps you can take to ensure they remain just as safe as they are active.   

Why Is Exercise So Important? 

As prey species, our furry friends’ wild ancestors used their velocity and intrinsic athleticism to outrun even the sneakiest of predators. Despite generations of domestication, our beloved pets remain energetic powerhouses. Providing safe, engaging environments in which your little one can release all their pent-up energy will keep their bodies fit and functioning at peak performance. In addition, plenty of playtime also provides the following benefits: 

  • Guards against obesity and obesity-related health concerns 
  • Helps to keep arthritis at bay by building strong muscles and sound joints 
  • Mitigates boredom  
  • Aids in avoiding or redirecting destructive behaviors 
  • Examples: bar chewing, repetitive movements, over-grooming, aggression 

How Much Is Enough? 

While there are certain situations in which “more” does not equate to “better,” when it comes to exercise, it’s difficult to provide “too much.” Just like humans, the more active the pet, the healthier they tend to be, both physically and mentally. Providing your fur baby with 2 – 4 hours of playtime outside of their enclosure every day is a noble goal, but even an hour or so is better than no time at all. It is important to note that this time does not have to be consecutive. Your pet will get just as much benefit from splitting the time up throughout the day and will probably prefer having a mid-day break to nap and re-energize.  

As with all things, exercise time should be tailored to your pet’s unique species and individualized needs. It is always best to work with an exotics-friendly veterinarian to make sure you are adapting your furry friend’s playtime routine to their species and breed predispositions, current health status, and future goals (e.g. weight loss, building muscle, maintaining weight, etc).   

How Can I Encourage My Pet to Stay Active? 

Despite their powerful physiology and athletic ancestry,  it is not uncommon for our small, furry friends to have a predisposition for laziness. After generations of acclimating to life as a pampered house pet, the need to forage for food and escape predation has been completely removed from our fur babies’ lives. While keeping our little ones safe and well-fed is the privilege of every proud pet parent, keeping them active and spry should also be a top priority. The following suggestions will help keep your kiddo as kinetically inclined as possible.  

In-Home Entertainment 

Exercise and exploration should always be encouraged, even when your pet is hanging out in their enclosure or designated living space. As a result, it is important to make your pet’s habitat as stimulating as possible. Though not an exhaustive list, the tips below provide several ideas to ensure your kiddo remains physically and mentally active from the safety and comfort of their enclosure. 

  • Always provide the largest species-appropriate enclosure or living space possible. 
  • Multiple levels provide plenty of room for exploration. 
    • Especially important for “vertical species” such as chinchillas, rats, hamsters, gerbils, and mice who do best with plenty of space to climb and jump. 
    • As animals who do not climb, rabbits and guinea pigs do not require as much vertical space, but providing low, secure platforms and accompanying, slip-resistant ramps are a great way to keep your kiddo moving and using their body in healthy ways. 
  • Offer an assortment of species-appropriate chews and activity centers. 
    • Items that encourage foraging are a great way to provide both physical and mental enrichment. 
    • Give your little one access to a variety of chews and activity centers, but rotate each item routinely to avoid boredom. 
    • A species-appropriate wheel is essential for small omnivores. 
  • Food dispensers make your furry friend work for their dinner, helping to keep their brains just as fit as their bodies. 
  • Offer different styles of hideouts (i.e. interactivecozychewable, etc) to spark curiosity and allow for variety. 
    • If fleece or a similar bedding is used, consider using paper bedding or nesting disks under at least one of the hides to encourage nesting, digging, and tunneling. 
  • Use hay as a source of physical (and nutritional) enrichment. 
    • For small herbivores, a hanging hay feeder provides a healthy way to encourage a full range of motion by making your little one lift their head or use their body in unique ways to access their hay. 
    • In addition to a hay manger, offer big mounds of hay directly on the enclosure floor to encourage rooting, playing, and nesting. 
    • Though loose hay is not a staple part of a small omnivore diet, many small omnivores thoroughly enjoy using small handfuls for rooting, burrowing, and nesting. 

Exercise Alfresco 

Though a stimulating enclosure or living space is essential for your pet’s overall well-being, it is also important that they have a separate (and staunchly supervised) play area in which they can stretch their little legs. The following tips will help create an inspiring play space that will help your furry friend maintain peak physical prowess.   

  • Food/hay and water (preferably from two sources) should always be available and easily accessible.  
  • Provide plenty of hiding options in case your little one gets startled or needs a safe place to unwind during playtime. 
  • Make the space as fun as possible by providing species-appropriate chews and activity centers your pet does not have access to in any other environment. 
  • Cardboard boxes, paper bags, old phone books, or a heap of tissue paper will provide hours of chewing and shredding fun. 
  • Dig boxes are a safe, controlled way to give your kiddo an outlet for their natural digging/burrowing behavior. 
    • Fill a cardboard box with a thick layer of paper bedding, shredded paper, and pelleted litter then hide a few of your little one’s favorite treats, greens, or veggies to encourage digging, rooting, and one heck of a good time.  
  • When used properly, exercise balls are a great way to allow your small omnivore to run around to their little heart’s content. 
    • It is important to only use exercise balls designed for your pet’s species and size. 
    • Even though your little one is enclosed within the ball, it is essential to supervise them closely to prevent them from becoming entrapped, loosening the opening and escaping, or taking a tumble down the stairs. 
  • Use the time to build upon the special bond you share. 
    • Sit in or near your pet’s play space and allow them to approach you at their will. Never force interaction. 
    • Play games that encourage your little one to use their bodies and their minds. 
    • Keep the situation low stress. Return your pet to their enclosure, or otherwise quiet, safe environment, if they start to show signs of stress. 

Enlist the Help of a Workout Buddy 

Studies have shown that most humans are far more likely to exercise if they have the motivation of a workout buddy. The same is true of our small pets. Many exotic companion species are herd animals, making them notorious socialites who tend to do best when hanging out with friends of their own kind. Despite our pets’ ability to form a close human-animal bond with their favorite people, we cannot provide the same level of comfort and encouragement as a same species sidekick. Aside from the unparalleled acceptance and understanding that comes along with having exercise buddies who understand each other on an intrinsic level, keeping most of these unique species in pairs or small groups allows for interactive play both in and out of their enclosure(s).  

While having a fitness friend is a great option for many small mammals, it is important to note that it is not right for every species or every individual pet. One of the most notable of these exceptions are Syrian hamsters. These adorable little friends are fiercely solitary, territorial beings who do not appreciate the companionship of their own kind. While some dwarf breed hamsters (like the Roborovski) do well in groups, make certain to work with a trusted veterinarian well-versed in exotic animal care before enforcing joint playtime.  

As is the case with humans, our furry family members tend to live longer, happier, healthier lives when they engage in daily exercise. While daily time outside of their enclosure is important for your pet’s total health, make sure the environment in which they live is just as enriching to keep your little one as active as possible. It is always best to work with a trusted exotics-savvy veterinarian to help create the best exercise space and routine for your kiddo’s personal needs.  

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