Micah Kohles, DVM, MPA
Vice President of Technical Services & Research
Foraging has become an increasingly popular concept in the small pet community, and for great reason. When supported in healthy and meaningful ways, foraging is a beneficial and instinctual activity for small animals including rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, and others.
As “foraging” becomes a popular marketing term being attached to small animal products ranging from daily diets to habitat accessories, however, it’s become clear that not all foraging products are created equal. Furthermore, research has shown that some of these products can have negative health impacts on small animals.
The good news is that you can successfully support your pets’ foraging instincts in a variety of healthy, interactive ways that offer the added benefit of helping to build the bond with your pets. To help set you up for a successful foraging experience with your little loved ones, let’s take a closer look at the following important questions:
- What is foraging? Why do wild animals engage in foraging behaviors?
- Is foraging important for domesticated pets?
- What are foraging mixes? Do they really promote foraging in healthy ways?
- What’s the best way to promote foraging for small pets?
What is foraging? Why do wild animals engage in foraging behaviors?
Simply put, foraging refers to the act of searching widely for food. Rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and other species explore their wild surroundings daily in search of sustenance in the form of grasses, clover, wildflowers, and even less nourishing options like twigs and bark when necessary. This instinctual activity is directly tied to an animal’s ability to survive in the wild. In native environments that can be very sparsely vegetated, animals have no choice but to search far and wide for sustenance.
Is foraging important for domesticated pets?
While their wild cousins engage in daily foraging as a means of survival, most of our pampered pets have the great fortune of having their daily nutrition delivered on the equivalent of a silver platter. Food for our pets is predictable and guaranteed, oftentimes with little to no foraging required. Without having to forage as a necessity, the instinct to hunt for sustenance fades and, in the process, most pets miss out on the substantial benefits linked to this instinctual activity. These benefits include daily physical and mental enrichment, two important contributors to overall health and wellbeing in pets.
The good news is that the foraging instincts never completely go away, even if they’ve never been properly fostered. For pets, this is the equivalent of remembering how to ride a bike they’ve never actually been on before. With a proper environment and proper support, small pets will instinctually engage in beneficial foraging behaviors.
What are foraging mixes? Do they really promote foraging in a healthy way?
In recent years, the market has welcomed a number of small animal foods marketed as “forage mixes” or “forage blends.” The specific ingredients in these products vary, but what they all have in common is that they contain a variety of components and are marketed with the claim that they encourage the natural favoring behaviors of small pets. But, do these products deliver on these claims?
Selective Feeding: Where Mixes Miss the Mark
For many of the same reasons that small animals instinctively forage in their native environment, prey species such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, and others are wired to consume the most calorically dense nutrition available first. This behavior (also known as “concentrate-selecting”) is directly tied to the survival instinct. By consuming as much energy possible (as quickly as they can) small animals are more likely to meet their daily calorie requirements while surviving the imminent threat of predators.
Fast forward to life in the average cozy two-story or apartment. There are no coyotes or raptors to be seen (we hope!), but the instinct to selectively feed remains hard-wired in our beloved couch-dwelling pets. So, what does this mean? It means that, when offered a mix-based diet, most small pets will selectively eat the most calorically dense (and, unfortunately, least nutritious) components first. This includes ingredients like dried fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, and extruded bits.
The Nutritional Impact of Selective Feeding
Not only do forage mixes fail to inspire meaningful foraging behaviors, but many of the popular options are also nutritionally imbalanced at a formula level – too high in starch and too low in fiber to support the unique digestive tracts of small mammals.
When pets selectively eat the least nutritious components from these foods, they leave behind a majority of the high-fiber, vitamin and mineral-rich pellets. This exacerbates nutritional imbalances, leading to potential micronutrient deficiencies in the process. To make matters worse, feeding mixes has been shown to result in animals consuming less hay and drinking less water, increasing chances of digestive, dental, and bladder issues.
What’s the best way to inspire instinctual foraging behaviors in small pets?
The primary goal with foraging is to encourage pets to move in search of components of their daily nutrition. With that in mind, there are many great ways to inspire your pet’s instinctual foraging behaviors in healthy ways. In addition to the direct benefits to pets, many of these activities offer the bonus of helping build the ever-important bond between us and our pets. Ready to promote foraging?
Start Simply with Hay
Fresh grass hay should always be available in unlimited amounts for small herbivores, ideally in multiple locations in and around the habitat. Many pets will instinctually forage within their hay. Oat hay, for example, often contains tasty seed heads that small pets love seeking out. In addition to foraging in the process of eating their daily hay, many pets will take the opportunity to burrow inside.
Offer a Variety of Hays to Stimulate Foraging Daily
Beyond the basics of offering hay daily, everyone’s favorite high fiber staple can be used in other fun and enriching ways to promote foraging. Simply offering a variety of hays is a great way to stimulate instinctual foraging in small pets. Interacting with a variety of tastes and textures is a great way to engage a pet’s senses while encouraging them to physically interact with their hay every day.
Forage with Food the Right Way
While mix-based foods miss the mark on promoting meaningful foraging, there are still some great opportunities to utilize a nutritionally appropriate fortified food to inspire this instinctual behavior. Some easy, effective ways to encourage small animals to forage for their food include:
- Scatter feeding is an effective and enriching way to encourage pets to physically and mentally work for their food. This activity is as simple as spreading a pet’s daily food out over a greater surface area to force them to spend more time and energy to locate and consume it. Scatter feeding can be especially beneficial for pets who are inclined to eat too quickly.
- Hide nutritious food in engaging locations throughout the habitat. A pet’s food doesn’t need to include sugary dried fruit or mystery bits to be enticing. Small animals will hunt for their food instinctually, experiencing valuable mental and physical enrichment in the process. Most pets enjoy utilizing their highly perceptive sense of smell to locate and consume their uniform pellets in hidden locations, such as within a pile of hay or at the back of their hide space.
Use Enriching Accessories to Promote Foraging
As we’ve discussed, the act of foraging is directly tied to survival for animals living in the wild. In the domesticated home setting, however, foraging can be considered a direct form of enrichment. The good news for pet parents and their furry friends is that there are a growing number of fun and exciting accessories specially designed to encourage foraging and make the activity enjoyable for pets and pet parents alike.
- Forage Bowls: Helping Pets Slow Down at Mealtime
- For pet parents who like the idea of scatter feeding but are concerned about their pet’s food getting soiled or lost, forage bowls are a great option. These bowls are specially made with safe, rounded nubs designed to slow down the feeding process.
- Enriching Feeders: Adding Motion to Every Meal
- “Pet-powered” accessories like Oxbow’s Enriched Life Wobble Teaser and Rolly Teaser are great for adding physical activity and mental stimulation to the act of eating. Food is dispensed gradually when pets roll or push these items, making them the poster items for the motto “will work for food.” Adjustable openings allow you to control the flow of food.
- Hide & Seek Mats: High Fiber Foraging at Floor Level
- Dog owners are likely familiar with the enriching benefits of snuffle mats, which are often made of fleece and designed to stimulate pets to forage for food or treats. Oxbow’s Enriched Life Hide & Seek Mats are designed with the same goal in mind, with the added, species-appropriate benefit of being made of 100% Timothy hay. For fiber-loving herbivores like rabbits and guinea pigs, this is a win/win. As pets hunt for food or treats, they will enjoy and benefit from munching on the mats themselves.
- Puzzles, Games, and More
- There are a wide variety of additional accessories that can be used each day to support the beneficial foraging instincts of rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small pets. Accessories with lids or drawers can be filled with rewards in the form of food and are great for stimulating pets mentally. Similarly, species-appropriate hides (like Oxbow’s Timothy Club Bungalow) make a great option for hiding food and treats inside a generous pile of hay and provide the added benefit of providing a safe place to engage the natural hiding instinct while foraging for food.