Keeping pet reptiles isn’t just about putting them in a suitable enclosure and ensuring they have enough heat, food and water to survive. Pet reptiles, like most other animals, need some form of mental activity to keep them active.
This activity, known as reptile enrichment, is important for your animals. It keeps them happy and can lead to longer lives. In addition, enrichment can also be a crucial factor in preventing snake escapes. A snake that is happy and has lots of entertainment in the enclosure, is not as likely to find a way to escape out of pure boredom.
So, what can you use for reptile enrichment? Here are some great suggestions for you to use.
1. Deep Substrate
Many reptiles love to bury in the substrate. Most snakes we have will bury at least some of the time. This can be very hard when Mr. Hissy (aka Bob) decides to dig himself in as he is the same colour as the substrate and it can seem as if he has disappeared.
Snakes burying into substrate isn’t a surprise. It’s one of the main theories about the evolution of snakes (the other being that they took to the water and swam). However, there are also other reptiles that enjoy digging in the substrate, our Berber Skink for instance, will bury most of the day and many mammals bury for at least part of the year.
Learn more about snake evolution in the video from PBS Eons above.
2. A Varied Live Insect Diet
If you were told you could only eat pizza for the rest of your life, and it could only be a pepperoni, you’ll probably be bored soon enough, even if you do love it. The same can be said for reptiles. Many reptiles, and we’re not talking about snakes here, will thrive better on a varied diet than they would living on a single prey item.
Each prey item offers something unique to the reptile, for instance crickets are great for hunting, mealworms look interesting, dubia roaches are nutritious and waxworms are like the chocolate of the reptile world. A varied diet is also more natural and creates a range of behaviours and responses that are a joy to watch.
The only problem is that you shouldn’t offer variety to many snakes. While switching between rodents is okay, there have been some reports of snakes that are switched between chicks and rodents to have ‘upset stomachs’ and massive (and messy) stomach reflex reactions.
For reptiles that need to have a more vegetarian diet, we recommend that the same principle is followed. Bearded dragons will eat most salad items and offering variety is a great way to keep them interested in food, add reptile enrichment into their lives and balances nutrients.
This isn’t a great suggestion for all animals kept in captivity. There are certainly some species that are display only. However, many reptiles do seem to crave the handling experience and it can be used as a way to add reptile enrichment into your routine as well. There are several reasons why this is. They might associate time with keepers with food and therefore handling could be linked to a food reward.
Or they could enjoy the different environment for awhile. While some might suggest that their reptile just loves them, this is probably not the case. At most, reptiles probably appreciate their owners. There are probably a few exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between.
Some people will suggest that you take your pet for a walk. Some large reptiles, like monitors, can be taken on leashes and others, like bearded dragons, are taken outside by some owners. However, I don’t always recommend this. For one, reptiles outside are exposed to diseases and parasites that can be harmful to their health. Another problem is that not everyone loves reptiles and they may harm your reptile.
Finally, nothing is really secure. Our Dalmatian, April, will go out of her way to prove that her harness and collar aren’t escape proof. If a reptile escapes while you’re out, it’ll be hard to recapture it.
4. Plastic Plants
One of the top toys of our baby snakes are plastic plants. These decorative items are there to look pretty in vivariums, but snakes do like to weave their way through them. In fact, when Gumball, our male corn snake got his first plastic plant, he wouldn’t leave the thing alone for weeks. He slept on top of it and took his food underneath to consume.
Plastic plants are a cheap, easy to clean accessory that should be part of any snake exhibit in my opinion. Even a large Dumeril’s Boa loves to hide under the plastic plants at times. You can also have several plastic plants and rotate them regularly for the snake to get a super reptile enrichment experience.
Snakes aren’t the only ones that enjoy them either. Many geckos, I’ve found, will enjoy the plastic foliage in their enclosure. You can also use real plants in any enclosure, but this can require significantly more work to keep them alive, including specialist equipment.
5. Changing The Environment
One of the biggest reptile enrichment opportunities available to you is changing the layout of enclosure. As previously mentioned, you could swap plastic plants around or you could move furniture around the enclosure to create somewhere new for the reptile to explore.
This is great for many individuals, but some just don’t adept well. Babe, one of our male House Snakes, completely rebelled when we last did this and skipped his next meal and was restless for days. When we reverted to the old design, he calmed down and returned to normal behaviour.
Other animals that have done well include leopard geckos and bearded dragons.
Bearded dragons are known to enjoy watching television. Some will even choose which are their favourite programmes and which they hate. Television is an interesting idea but it is only really a plausible plan if you have your reptiles are living within line of sight of a television.
Other possible options include radio or computer games.
7. Toilet Rolls
This one comes from Wally, our Kenyan Sand Boa. He loves to play with a toilet roll from time to time. However, you have to be careful with it being in the enclosure too long. Wally would wrap himself around the roll and then push it into his water bowl.
Toilet rolls can also be used as hides. Most of our baby snakes, especially the two Hognose snakes have used toilet rolls as hides when young. However, they would need to be regularly replaced as snakes can make them very dirty. One of our House snakes had a particular love for relieving himself in a toilet roll while he was younger.
8. Wooden Tubes
These are natural wooden tunnels, often with holes in the side. They are a great enrichment for many snakes. Not only do they allow for better shed by offering the snake a rough surface to rub against during a shed, they also act as a mini gym.
Our largest House Snake, Scratch, loves his wooden tube. When he first got it he wrapped around it and had at least a part of his body touching the wooden tube for about a month or two. If you wanted to take him out of the enclosure, you were better off carrying him out in the wooden tube.
Eventually he did learn to let go, but he isn’t the only snake that loves his wooden tube. In fact, he is one of three snakes that will regularly eat their food in the wooden tube. Acorn, a House snake will carry her food into the tube; as will one Hognose.
Other reptiles would also enjoy a wooden tube too. For instance, many smaller geckos might enjoy a wooden tube as well as would many invertebrates.
9. Regularly Changing Light Patterns
Daylight hours change across the world regularly. Even near the equator there are slight changes to the length of a day. So why aren’t these simulated in the home environment? For instance, having times when the lights are on for 8 hours and other times when they’re on for 14 hours. These changes might stimulate more natural behaviours within your animals.
This might also help with breeding. I was watching a breeding video on YouTube and the ball python breeder said it wasn’t temperature that improved the breeding success of his collection, but the amount of light within the room. He said he reduced the daylight down during the winter and then increased it before breeding season.
This may or may not be accurate, but it’s an interesting aspect.
This is a hard one to do with some reptiles, but others can be worked with to learn simple tricks to making care for them easier. For instance, Gerald, our Dumeril’s Boa needed to be trained to know when we were feeding and when we were handling. His breeder used a snake hook, but Gerald didn’t acclimatise as well as we would have liked when he arrived. He took three weeks to feed and was very nervous.
So we started by tapping the side of his enclosure three times for food. As a result, he started to associate tapping with food time. He became easier to handle and more relaxed about resting outside of his hide. This was crucial in the first couple of months as he is a big snake and a bite from him would cause serious damage.
We have changed his training since then, so he now associates a mug we use to defrost his food in with food coming. Other training can be done with other reptiles. For instance, many monitors are known to be highly intelligent and can be trained. However, this doesn’t always work.
The Final Word On Reptile Enrichment
Reptile enrichment is a great way to ensure that your animals remain mentally healthy while in your care. It can help keep them stay active and interested and help with their longevity. The process can also be rewarding for you, helping you feel more connected with your animals and enjoy the time you spend with them.