Making a Mark
A new discovery makes it even more clear how important gnawing is to rodent pets.
I recently realized something about the behavior of rats—and after being “The Rat Lady” for nearly 30 years, that’s saying something. I have a new understanding about their need to gnaw. In my living room, where I let my rats out to play in the evening, there is a futon-style couch, with a wooden frame supporting foam cushions. My rats have always liked to chew on the wood frame, and over the years, I have tried various methods of discouraging this, with little success. I’ve tried spraying them with water, throwing soft balls at them, putting them in time-out in their cage and using nasty-tasting products designed to deter them from chewing on the wood, all without permanent results.
I finally noticed that they weren’t chewing on the frame just anywhere. They usually wanted to chew in the same spots that other rats had chewed in the past. It suddenly hit me—the chewing was a form of graffiti. The rats were leaving their mark. They were literally, saying “Gilroy was here,” or Rex, or Shadow or Fergus, as the case may be.
This knowledge gave me a new idea for how to deal with their gnawing. Rather than fighting it, and trying to prevent it, I would give them a permissible alternative. I nailed wooden chew toys to the frame of my couch in the most popular chew spots, encouraging my rats to chew on the toys instead. This solution has been much more successful, and an aggravating problem has been transformed to an interesting behavioral experiment.
Of course, rodents are well known for their tendency to chew on things, but this experience shows just how deeply ingrained their need to gnaw truly is. Many people think rodents need to gnaw to keep their teeth from overgrowing, but that isn’t true. Healthy rodent incisors grind against each other, keeping them the proper length and sharpness. When rodents are quiet and contented, you can often hear them grinding their teeth. Only if there is disease affecting the incisors—most commonly malocclusion—do they overgrow. But, although rodents don’t have a physical need to gnaw, they definitely have a psychological need to do so.
There are more opportunities to satisfy the rodent’s need to gnaw than ever, as manufacturers continue to offer new products every year. While the basic chew toy is still a block of wood, chew toys are also made of a wide variety of materials, including cardboard and paperboard, grains, minerals and natural substances, such as sisal, loofah and cactus skeletons, as well as nuts, wood and twigs. Many are made bright and colorful with the addition of non-toxic vegetable-based food colors. They come shaped like houses, ladders, teeter-totters, jungle gyms, fruits and vegetables, baskets, tubes, erector sets, and even Christmas ornaments.
While the attractive colors and shapes appeal to pet owners, and especially children, most rodents and rabbits actually seem to prefer natural twigs and sticks that still have the bark attached. Bark is a natural food for rabbits, and rodents also seem to enjoy nibbling off the bark either to eat, or just for the satisfaction of peeling it from the wood.
When small-pet owners shop for chew toys, they usually prefer either colorful and whimsical creations, or more natural versions. Retailers should consider displaying chew products in two sections and keeping these disparate designs separate, so that customers don’t have to wade through all of the chew toys looking for a particular style.
One way to attract attention to a display of chew toys is to use a sign that says something like, “Has your hamster left his mark on the world lately?” Staff members can then explain to customers how chew toys can not only give their pets the opportunity for mental and physical exercise, but they can also give pets a way to influence their environment, which has been shown in scientific studies to increase happiness.
Providing chew toys to the animals on display in the store will let customers know that these products are necessary to the well-being of the animals and also encourage sales.
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.