October 11, 2021
How to Create a Safe, Free Roam Environment for Small Pets
By Dianne Cook, LVT
All small mammal species, from the smallest hamster to the largest rabbit, benefit from time outside of their enclosure. The ability to roam freely around the home (or in designated spaces) allows these naturally curious species to express their inherent exploring behaviors and provides loads of mental and physical enrichment. Whether you have a furry friend that roams freely full-time or a little one that enjoys shorter bursts of supervised playtime, it is essential to consider the health and safety of your pet before giving them free rein of your home.
Let’s face it, exotic companion mammals are notorious chewers and can be quite destructive when left to their own devices. Beyond their potential to chew up your home’s intricate moldings or your favorite pair of sneakers, many species can squeeze into tiny spaces and may find themselves in a dangerous predicament. As a result, it’s imperative you take the following considerations to heart.
Supervision, Supervision, Supervision!
While some small mammals can earn their pet parents’ trust and eventually live a full-time, unsupervised, free roam lifestyle, some species (and individuals) may never be able to go without constant adult supervision. Before letting your little ones out to roam, make sure you have the freedom to keep a close eye on everyone. Exotic species are quite curious and can quickly find themselves in compromising situations if not supervised closely.
The amount of space you provide your small pet will vary depending on their species, individual needs, and preferences. While many rabbit parents share their home with full-time free roam bunnies, for many species (and even some rabbits), it is not safe to allow unsupervised free roam access to large spaces. Instead, designating a specific room or setting up a large exercise pen will provide your furry friend with the room they need to explore while ensuring they can play safely under adult supervision.
For especially small friends like hamsters, it’s best to provide them with a species-appropriate fitness ball that will keep them safely contained while still allowing the freedom to run around and scout out their environment.
Make it Fun!
Small mammals are intelligent, observant beings and will often get bored with the same environment day in and day out. If your little one doesn't have access to an engaging, stimulating area to roam, they will likely make their fun by chewing on anything they can get their mouths on. To limit destructive behaviors, provide a free roam space filled with species-appropriate chews and activity centers. Rotating enrichment items will also help to prevent boredom and will keep your little one engaged and mentally sharp!
This is also the perfect opportunity to foster that oh-so-important human/animal bond. Sitting on the floor as your furry family members roam is a low-stress way to spend some quality time with your small pets. Keep a few healthy, species-appropriate treats or a few favored greens and supplemental foods close by to make the experience as positive as possible for all involved.
As prey species, exotic companion mammals need to feel safe and secure in their environment. As a result, it is essential to provide your small friend with a choice of comfortable, covered places for them to hide should they become frightened or overwhelmed while out and about. Also, make sure to provide a feeding station with plenty of food and fresh water. For small herbivores, a few piles of hay will not only act as a yummy fiber-packed snack, but many little ones also love to root around, burrow, or take a nap in their hay.
Preparing the Space
Once you’ve determined the best space for your kiddos’ free roam adventures, it’s time to “pet-proof” the area. Look at the environment from your pets’ perspective. What items can be chewed on (and potentially ingested)? Is there any way for your little ones to make a grand escape? The following list outlines the most common household risks for free-roaming small pets and a few tips on how to secure them.
Exotic companion mammals are master chewers and can gnaw through an electrical cord in no time flat. This behavior can lead to potentially fatal electrocution, serious burns, and ruined electronics, not to mention a serious fire hazard. Luckily, there are a few tried and true ways to keep curious mouths at bay.
- Ultimately, it’s best to choose an area of the home with minimal to no exposed cords. If you’re unable to do this, try and rearrange your furniture and/or electronics to help limit the cords your little one may find.
- Use durable, chew-proof items to block access to cord bundles (like those often found behind televisions and computers). Panels from exercise pens, baby gates, room dividers, or wire grids can keep both your pet and possessions safe.
- Use PVC piping, cord concealers, or flex tubing to cover exposed wires that can’t be moved or kept out of reach.
Baseboards are installed at a tempting level for small mouths. Many styles also have edges that entice chewing. Not only can chewing on baseboards cause extensive damage and require expensive repairs, but it can also risk the health of your fur baby. Some baseboards are made from unsafe wood varieties, or they’re covered in paint that would be less than ideal if ingested. Help keep your roaming companion (and baseboards) safe using the following tips.
- Flexible, all-natural sisal cat scratchers can be wrapped around the perimeter of the room and provide a natural look that is a bit more attractive than other options. It is important to ensure they are firmly affixed and that you check on them regularly to make sure your furry friends haven’t chewed through any sections.
- Build a fence! Square metal grids are a great, inexpensive option. They can easily be set up, taken down, and moved around. It’s best to set them up a few inches from the wall to prevent small mouths from being able to reach your word work.
- Hard plastic or metal corner guards often work well to conceal tantalizing baseboards. Affixing corner guards with removable sticky pads makes them easier to move or replace, but make sure to watch your little one close to ensure they are unable to pull the covering off. For a more permanent and secure option, fastening the guards with hardware is suggested.
Your beloved couch and your grandmother’s china cabinet may be among some of your most cherished possessions, but in the eyes of your furry friend, they’re just great big chew toys. To keep your furnishings safe, the following suggestions may prove useful:
- Using flexible sisal material or fencing can work just as well protecting furniture as they do to protect baseboards.
- If your little one isn’t interested in nibbling upholstery but goes straight for those wooden furniture legs, PVC piping or flex tubing often works well to protect them.
- If your furry friend has decided they enjoy digging at your furniture, covering your couches and chairs in moving blankets or heavy throws can offer quite a bit of protection.
As burrowing animals by nature, small mammals also love to dig. They often target the corners of the room or confined spaces (like under couches and chairs). While this natural behavior should never be entirely discouraged, there are ways to protect your carpet from your little ones’ excavation attempts.
- Provide a dig box! Filling a large cardboard box or with a thick layer of paper bedding, shredded paper, pelleted litter, and hay can provide hours of fun for your small friend and supply a healthy outlet for their natural digging behavior. Hiding pieces of treats or favorite species-appropriate greens or veggies is also a great way to encourage foraging.
- If your kiddos are still digging at the carpet despite having access to a dig box, you can cover the area(s) with untreated, all-natural grass mats or ceramic tiles.
Household Plants and Toxins
Though some household plants are innocuous, it is always safest to assume all houseplants pose a risk to your furry friends. All household chemicals, even those touted as “pet safe”, should never be left in an area your pet can reach. Keep all plants well-trimmed and off the ground, and all household chemicals safely stashed on a counter or in a secure cabinet your pet cannot open by themselves.
Clothing, Shoes, Important Documents, Etc.
Though it may go without saying, keep things you’d like to stay safe off the floor! This includes clothing, shoes, books, mail, etc. Very few objects are naturally safe from meddlesome mouths, so it is best for your furry friend (and your belongings) if their environment is free from temptation.
Escape and Entrapment
Make sure there are no small spaces or gaps your little companion could squeeze into and end up lost or stuck. If using a closed door as a barrier between a pet-proofed area and the rest of your home, make sure your pet cannot squeeze underneath or get stuck in a closing door as they try to follow you out of the room. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on the space under rockers and recliners. This area is often dark and secluded, making it a great hiding spot, but it can be incredibly dangerous for your small pet if they should become entrapped in the gears of the footrest or under the rockers. Before sitting down (or getting up) make sure your little ones aren’t hanging out beneath.
Other Household Pets
Social media is bursting with pictures and stories of cats and dogs living harmoniously with their small mammal housemates. While it is true that mutually beneficial inter-species friendships can (and do) develop, it is generally safest to keep your little furry friends separate from your larger furry friends while free-roaming. Even the most mild-mannered cat or dog is still a predator at heart, and the unpredictable movements of prey species can trigger these inherent behaviors. It only takes a second for a seemingly calm introduction to result in a tragic accident. Additionally, the stress of being in the presence of a predatory species can result in substantial health concerns for your small pet.
Pet-proofing a free-roam environment for your furry family members does take extra time and effort, but the benefits are worth it. Small pets who free roam, even if not full-time, live happier, healthier, more enriching lives.