Enrichment for Small Animals and Birds in Shelters: Often Overlooked But Much Needed

Written by Dot Baisly, MS, CPDT-KA

Animal shelter staff members often find themselves caring for (and rehoming) many animals besides cats and dogs. Though many of us have come to realize the importance of enrichment for the small and exotic animals in our care, it is often left on the back burner because everything else we do is so important. Due to time and financial constraints many a shelter struggles to provide enough behavioral care and enrichment, especially for the small animals, such as rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, hamsters, and birds, that find themselves in our care.

Having worked in animal shelters for well over 15 years, I can attest to the difficulty of finding the time, human resources, and money that are required to provide basic enrichment. For the past almost two years I have had the privilege of working for the Animal Rescue League of Boston as the shelter behavior and enrichment manager. In this role, I oversee the behavioral care of all animals in our three shelters. I work with staff and volunteers to provide the highest quality care possible for our animals. One of the aspects of my job I find the most rewarding is small and “miscellaneous” animal enrichment, because these animals are often the hardest to provide the high-quality enrichment they need. I am proud of our organization because the Animal Rescue League of Boston sees behavioral and medical health as equally important.

Budgeting for enrichment

Because it is considered a necessary part of animal care, we do not have issues budgeting for enrichment and ensuring that staff and volunteer time is devoted to this. Many of the items needed for enrichment—toys, treats and the like—are listed on our Amazon Wish List, and thus get donated by the public, so the cost is kept to a minimum. We also ask staff and volunteers to collect items like cardboard boxes, old phone books, and paper towel rolls to use for toys and hiding places for our rabbits and guinea pigs. Over the years we have collected a lot of cages, ferret and hamster balls, toys, and other small animal supplies—keeping these items clean and organized can be a challenge, but it is worth the effort and I find it a very useful way to utilize some volunteers who enjoy this kind of organizing.

Time is a rare commodity in any shelter, so ensuring that the staff and volunteers can budget for this in their day is essential. We make it work by assigning a staff member to oversee enrichment for all species each day. It is not their job to do all of the enrichment tasks themselves, but to work with volunteers and myself to ensure that all tasks are completed. They have a list of tasks to complete; for the animals we categorize as “miscellaneous” this includes:

Rabbits and Small Animals

Daily Enrichment

  • Make and give out toys—add hay to paper towel rolls, small boxes, etc.
  • Feed species-specific salads and treats.
  • Provide cardboard boxes and other paper products to rip apart.
  • Rotate toys.

As Needed:

  • Add scents to kennel area.
  • Give cage-free time (check the log sheet to keep track of who receives it).
  • Use hamster balls and other exercise for pocket pets/ferrets .


Daily Enrichment:

  • Feed salads or other species-specific special diet.
  • Make sure they have access to sunlight.
  • Rotate toys.
  • Play some music.
  • Handling if appropriate.
  • Leave the radio or TV on.
  • Hang jungle gyms for appropriate species.
  • Share your lunch (if appropriate).

Edible enrichment

One of the easiest aspects of small-animal enrichment is providing them with salads and making sure we meet their other species-specific dietary needs. Our kitchen has a list of fruits and vegetables appropriate for the most common pets: rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, hamsters, rats, degus, gerbils, parakeets, and cockatiels. Once a week, we send a volunteer or staff member to the market down the street to buy the week’s supply of ingredients. All animals, including the livestock we have at two of our locations, receive some sort of array of yummy treats.

For rabbits and small animals we include all sorts of vegetables and, on occasion, fruits. We try to encourage foraging by placing the salads in toys, or hiding in boxes or other objects. Ferrets are obligate carnivores, so they get cat or dog treats hidden in toys for them to “hunt.”

The birds are given vegetables and nuts depending upon the species; often these will be placed in food puzzles just like we do for our dogs. We had one African Grey parrot that would actually say, “Time to go to work,” then forage her pistachios out of the toy they were placed in. Not only was this enriching for this animal, but I think it was also enriching to the staff, volunteers, and clients of our shelter to watch her enjoy her foraging time.

To ensure that this is a part of daily cleaning and feeding, the staff member assigned to cleaning the small animal holding room is in charge of ensuring that all animals get their salad or special diet. It takes about half an hour to prep and give out the salads but again, because the time is budgeted for that task as a part of the daily cleaning and feeding, there’s no pressure to skip it in favor of other tasks.

Volunteers help

It can be hard to find volunteers who enjoy small animal enrichment, but I have seen those who do take to it become diehard fans of one species such as the rabbits, ferrets, or birds. Once they’re hooked on one species, I find they will usually spend time and effort with the other “often forgotten” animals housed close by. At one location, we have a volunteer who works on clicker training the rabbits and guinea pigs. She came to this because she is allergic to cats and dogs, so she needed to concentrate on those animals that did not cause her an allergic reaction. She has found this to be a very rewarding job, and started teaching dog volunteers about clicker training—this also roped a few of them into practicing with a new species.

Whenever possible we have our volunteers prepare and feed salads, take the animals out for walks if appropriate (we do have a stroller that one volunteer loves taking ferrets for a long walk in), and switch rabbits from exercise pens so that all animals get a chance at exercise time.

Room to exercise

We will also leave the rabbits and guinea pigs out in visiting runs overnight, so they can stretch their legs in a larger space when we are closed to the public. During the day these runs are used by adopters visiting with cats, and once we close they become “bunny hopping zones.” The chairs and other equipment used for cat visiting are cleaned each day and left for the rabbits to enjoy hiding under or jumping on.

Almost every day, we place the rabbits and guinea pigs in ex-pens or visiting runs for extra room to play.

We are careful with where we place them in these out-of-cage romps and monitor each individual for signs of stress. Some rabbits and guinea pigs get overwhelmed out in the ex-pen, but if the individual is generally interactive and playful, I do think the extra stimulation is enriching for them.

Outdoor time

Natural sunlight is a must for all animals and can be hard to provide in a shelter; for the birds, I insist it happens as often as possible (minimally twice a week and more frequently in the summer). In the winter we make sure we put them in the window, so they get sunlight and the visual stimulation of the outdoors.

Without fail when placing a bird or group of birds outside you always see increased singing and activity, usually in the form of wings flapping and dancing. Many times this is the first time you will see a bird interact with the environment. I think of three cockatiels that came from a hoarding case that were huddled together in the back of their cage not moving. We placed them outside, and instantly they flapped their wings, moved away from each other, used the entire cage, and began to sing.

Does it work?

We know that our enrichment is working because we see natural behaviors from our small animals: they play, hop, run, forage, or build nests. Too often you will see animals of any species in a shelter acting lethargic or hiding most of the day. Because we provide them with the opportunity to stretch their legs or wings and interact with appropriate environmental stimulation, we do not have this issue. We encourage the birds to sing, and often play them music to sing along with. We dance and act silly in with the exotic birds and this usually encourages dancing on their part.

In the following video, you can see our Umbrella Cockatoo, Mayfield, who was found in a terrible condition by a law enforcement officer. She had been very quiet since intake—I had not seen her move much or interact with people. This video shows the first time she went outside: Suddenly I saw a bird swaying, singing, and watching and moving with the people around her. She even tried to wash herself in her water bowl for the first time.

Though it is sometimes the last thing shelter workers have the time or ability to do, enrichment is essential to high-quality care. This is especially important for those animals that are quiet and easily over looked in our hectic and emotionally draining days.

Small and miscellaneous species can often be those animals that end up with the longest length of stay in shelters due to the difficult task of convincing the public to adopt them instead of purchasing them from stores. For this reason, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters, and birds, and all the other little critters, have an even greater need for enrichment. With a small investment and the right budgeting of time—and a great reliance on volunteer involvement—the miscellaneous animals in our care can benefit from enrichment as much as the dogs and cats do, and shelter staff, volunteers, and the public will also enjoy seeing happy, active animals.

Dot Baisly, MS, CPDT-KA, is the behavior and enrichment manager of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. She has been working in animal welfare and behavior for over 16 years, both in animal welfare and rescue organizations all over New York and New England, and with private clients as a consultant.