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Exclusive Habitrail® Report - An interview with Louise Bauck BSc, DVM, MVSc.

Hagen is proud of its commitment to enhancing the quality of life of all pets. We lead the way in providing information in North American lay and trade publications about environmental enrichment and successful pet ownership (success for both pets and owners!).

Hagen also sponsors breeder, retailer and veterinary education in this field at many venues throughout Canada and the US.

One of the most important new issues faced by zoos, pet owners, farmers, and animal laboratories is environmental enrichment. Animal rights activists have long criticized farms and laboratories for confining animals, such as chickens and rabbits, to tiny uninteresting enclosures that prevent normal exercise and expression of natural behaviors. Imagine a laboratory rabbit confined to a small, square, wire-bottomed cage for extended periods of time, with no objects available for interaction other than a water bottle and a feeder. Pet animals usually have a more interesting ("enriched") environment, including objects to climb, move, and chew. However, exercise can still be problematic for the busy pet owner. An important issue for quality of life in a pet hamster situation is that of interaction with the owner (often a child). Children sometimes lose interest in the new pet after they tire of the novelty.

If a child loses interest in its hamster, the pet may lose opportunities to come outside the cage and obtain some healthy exercise and attention. The cage may not be cleaned as often, and in extreme cases, the young owner may forget to feed the hamster or provide water regularly.

All of these issues can often be minimized by the use of an interesting, exciting environment, with plenty of safe opportunities for both supervised and unsupervised exercise. This kind of environment, as well as exercise or play devices, not only interest the pet, they interest the young owner! Construction and imagination skills are given ample opportunity to be expressed by the owner, while providing enrichment for the pet, and enhancing its overall quality of life.

In their natural (wild) environment, hamsters live in elaborate multi-chambered burrows connected by tunnels. Captive hamsters enjoy artificial tunnels and will readily enter them when given any opportunity. A network of tunnels and chambers not only gives the hamster both exercise and interest in their environment, but also offers an opportunity for the hamster to express entirely natural behaviors, such as designating various connected chambers for different purposes. Wild hamsters have separate chambers for sleeping, food storage, and elimination. In a conventional square cage, this kind of tunnel and chamber system is not possible.

What about safety issues? As a full-time exotic pet veterinarian with over 10 years of experience in the field of hamster medicine, I can state with surety that these tunnels and exercise devices do not pose any hazard to the hamster when used with common sense and as directed.

On the other hand, hamsters exercised "loose" in the house are susceptible to a great many dangers, even when supervised. Escape after entering an inaccessible alcove or area, an unexpected attack by a family pet to the unprotected hamster, electric shock after chewing on cords, or poisonings are all quite common.

The use of an exercise device like the hamster exercise sphere is much safer, as long as directions are followed. Parents should ensure that hamsters are not left in the device for an extended period of time, and that the sphere cannot fall or bounce. My own personal pet hamster is always eager to enter his hamster exercise sphere and seems to enjoy some time spent away from his cage. I usually have more of a problem convincing him to come back out of the sphere!

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