Rattie enrichment: Dinnertime puzzles

I often make my ratties “work” for their dinner. I’ll take their dinner, divide it into several portions and then make it into some sort of puzzle. For example, I often hide their rat blocks and dry food in boxes, toilet tissue rolls, or egg cartons. Then, they have to chew through the paper and cardboard to reach the food.

Chloe the rat chewing through some boxes to get to her dinner

In the photo above, Chloe is working hard to get her dinner. I took her rat blocks and a bit of cereal, divided it into two portions, and wrapped each portion of food in a couple of paper towels. Then, I stuffed the bundles into two small aspirin boxes. Finally, both aspirin boxes got stuffed into the yellow Robin Eggs carton. In the photo, she has already chewed several holes in the Robin Eggs box and you can see the aspirin boxes underneath.

Actually, right when the photo was taken, she was trying to pull the whole thing into her house! Rats often will stash their food for later and, most likely, if there were any bits she didn’t want to eat, she would spend some time finding a great place to hide her leftovers.

In the wild, animals have to forage for food. They don’t get food handed to them in a bowl. Making my rats work for their dinner helps increase natural foraging behaviors, such as searching for food and chewing through things to get to food. Also, since it takes them awhile to solve a food puzzle, my rats spend more time being active and engaged, and less time being bored.

Working for food for is one type of what animal trainers and zoo keepers call “enrichment.” Enrichment basically refers to any environment, object or activity that provides additional stimulation or that increases natural behaviors. When we keep animals in captivity, whether it’s a pet rat at home or a lion in the zoo, it’s important to pay attention to not just the animal’s physical health, but also the animal’s mental and emotional health. Food puzzles are one way that I can make dinnertime more interesting for my ratties.

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  • Joy

    Maybe we all should have to work for our dinner! We might lose a few pounds.

  • Hertha

    Loved the rat pic working for her dinner! I agree that enrichment is probably the most important thing in life for all of us. We all need something to look forward to. Just as important for our captive animals as it is for raising children.

    With the horses, it is a bit harder. I try to divide their day into ‘first thing hay’ (fortunately not many neighbours so I can go out in my pajamas and then come back in for breakfast in bed), half hour on green grass while I clean their ‘track’ paddocks, 1 to 2 hrs going for a walk and/or working out in the horse gym, small bit of mature forage along move-able electric fence, nibble on short grass in their ‘track’ for the rest of the day, late afternoon special feed, then new strip of mature forage for the night.

    Sometimes we do a bit more gym-time in the afternoons or go for a walk. I feel for all the horses and other animals just left to moulder away in small enclosures with nothing to look forward to.

    • Hi Hertha,

      That’s neat that your horses get to experience several different environmental settings throughout the day. Even in a big pasture, I’m sure horses get a bit bored if they are always in the same pasture. I’m sure your horses enjoy the change of scenery and that keeps them more active.


  • Gwen Lindsey

    Once, I spent about 15 minutes wrapping a treat inside something inside something inside something or other – paper towels, lunch bags, cardboard bits, cardboard box. Got a whole complex puzzle thing set up. Was very proud of myself for my tricky mind. Gave it to my four girl rats … and and … they sat there and stared at the box speculatively, took about 5 seconds to think about it, and then went bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZ and gnawed a tiny hole in one spot straight through to the treat. Pulled it out and that was it for that puzzle box. Rats, mathematically attuned to the shortest distance between two points. My 15 minutes of huffing and puffing set-up were trumped by 15 seconds of drill-down by the rats. This is partly why they are so hard to keep amused. They’re too clever. Love the story, Mary.

    • LOL, Gwen, that is too funny. 🙂

      For awhile, I had one who was really good at solving food puzzles and a couple others who were really good at watching the first solve the puzzle and then helping her eat the food!



      • Gwen Lindsey

        Too funny. I think that’s what my girls did as well. 3 of them sat in a row and watched the 4th do the drill-down. I swear I heard one of them say to the others, do you think one of us should relieve her now? Nahh, they said. Lazy opportunists, another finely honed rat skill. 🙂

  • Very funny and exciting blog… thanks for sharing…