One evening, I was relaxing on my couch with a group of my rats, when we heard something. One of my other rats, waiting in his cage for his turn to come out and play, was chewing on a piece of wood. There is no mistaking the resonate crunching sound of rodent teeth gnawing on a piece of wood, and it’s a good sound—it means that the rat is working on a chew toy instead of trying to destroy his plastic exercise wheel or dish.
Rats and other rodents, more than any other animals, are programmed to gnaw on things. The incisors of rodents grow continuously throughout their lives, replacing the enamel and dentine that is worn down by gnawing. However, that doesn’t mean they have to chew on hard things to keep their teeth from overgrowing. The teeth stay the proper length and sharpness by grinding against each other, and they only get too long if there is a medical problem. But rodents do have an instinctive desire to gnaw, and that means that chewing on things is an activity they enjoy. Some species of rodents tend to chew more than others. Gerbils and degus tend to be power-chewers and need a steady supply of new chew toys, while most guinea pigs prefer to spend their time eating rather than gnawing on toys. Rats, mice, hamsters and chinchillas usually fall somewhere in between, with each individual more or less prone to chewing.
Manufacturers offer a large selection of different chew toys for rodents. Most chew toys are made from wood because this natural product is hard enough to offer a real challenge yet soft enough to avoid most chances of injury to the animal, and it is generally safe if eaten. Most rodents prefer pieces of wood that retain a layer of bark, which they like to peel off and either eat or toss aside. Many also like to chew and shred toys made from grass or cornhusks. Smaller rodents, in particular, like to build nests from the pieces they tear off of toys made from grass or cardboard. The cardboard toys that tend to work best for rats are those, like tubes, that offer a surface from which the rat can peel off strips. Some rodents will eat the cardboard, but as it is made from wood, it is also safe for them to eat.
Although rabbits aren’t rodents, they have the same sort of ever-growing incisors that predisposes them to gnawing, so many rabbits also enjoy chew toys. Rabbits also appreciate twigs that still have their bark because bark is a natural rabbit food. Small balls made from willow twigs are especially popular with rabbits because not only can they chew on twigs, but they can push and roll or toss them around the cage.
Ferrets also like chew toys, especially those with a rubbery texture, but because they always swallow what they chew, they must only be given digestible chew toys made specifically for them. Ferrets are carnivores, so they have the same type of teeth as cats and dogs, and the same need for dental hygiene. Some ferret owners report that chew toys help to keep their teeth cleaner, as they do in dogs. But chews suitable for dogs, such as rawhide, cannot be given to ferrets as they can cause an intestinal blockage. Chew toys made for ferrets come in a number of flavors, including not only beef and chicken, but also carob, molasses, raisin and spice.
Of the exotics, sugar gliders appreciate chew toys in the form of eucalyptus branches. In the wild, sugar gliders chew holes in trees to exude the sap and gum, which they then eat. In captivity, they may enjoy chewing the bark of the tree to simulate this instinctive behavior.
Chew toys are ideal for add-on sales. Small animal owners may not always remember to get their pets a new chew toy, and asking a customer about the last time they bought their pets a chew toy can stimulate a sale. Because chew toys tend to be less than $6, they are also good impulse buys. Consider keeping a basket of chew toys at the register.
A chew toy should always be included in every starter kit. Another good way to market chew toys is to include a coupon for them as a bag stuffer for customers buying other small animal supplies.
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.