It’s not enough to simply eliminate the negatives of wild living: drought, evading predators, weather extremes, struggling for food, etc. Getting rid of the negatives only makes something neutral (i.e. empty). We need to make captivity a rewarding, worthwhile experience for our pet reptiles — and that’s where enrichment for lizards comes in!
According to Assessing the Importance of Natural Behavior for Animal Welfare, animal welfare is not quality of life as dictated by humans, but as perceived by the animal in question. Their needs are not restricted to food, water, and shelter—the freedom and opportunity to exercise natural (or wild-like) behaviors is also an important part of welfare. This is supported by David Mellor’s 2016 paper, which expanded on the five freedoms of animal welfare to create the Five Provisions and Animal Welfare Aims.
These “natural behaviors” are what we are stimulating with enrichment. It’s how we can fill the gap created by the absence of negative environmental factors and make keeping reptiles in captivity a positive, more ethical practice. “Natural behavior is behavior that animals tend to perform under natural conditions, because it is pleasurable and promotes biological functioning.” (This excludes the negatively-motivated defensive, aggressive, and fearful behaviors that we’re already trying to discourage.) Although the definition of “pleasure” for a reptile is still a bit sketchy, Lori Torrini did mention that they do have dopamine, a pleasure hormone, in her recent interview on the Animals at Home podcast. If you find the word “pleasure” difficult to think about in the context of reptiles, this can be interchanged with the term “reward” and have the same meaning.
Reptiles with regular access to enrichment in captivity are likely to be more alert, more engaged in their surroundings, and physically more fit, which can positively affect long-term health.
There are two primary types of enrichment for animals:
- Environmental Enrichment – give them something to explore
- Enrichment Activities – give them a challenge
Environmental Enrichment for Lizards
Environmental Enrichment is about how an animal’s enclosure is laid out. Adding enrichment value to an enclosure means going beyond the basic necessities of food, water, and shelter.
Look at your current living space. Most likely, you’ve filled it with things to keep you entertained and help prevent boredom, as well as increase your comfort. Technically, a bare house with a functional kitchen, bathroom, bed, working plumbing, and a stocked fridge will keep you alive. But what did you fill your home with? Books? Video games? A TV? A couch? Exercise equipment? A computer? All of these things are not really necessary to survival, but they help humans thrive by providing ways for us to satisfy our instincts and fill up our free time.
Similarly, give your lizard ways to satisfy his or her instincts. Give them things to explore. Give them options, such as multiple hides (logs, plants with dense foliage, underground burrows, etc.). Encourage burrowing behavior with deep, natural substrate, like sand, soil, and leaf litter. Provide climbing objects like branches, hammocks, or well-secured rock stacks.
Changing up the enclosure every once in a while can also be a good form of environmental enrichment for lizards. I’ve heard of someone who does this daily for their bearded dragon, which might be a bit excessive, but you get the idea.
You can also create an out-of-enclosure “play area” full of items for your lizard to explore and interact with, including food treats. In some cases, supervised free roaming around your home may be appropriate.
Enrichment Activity Ideas for Lizards
When you’re trying to come up with enrichment activity ideas, one question you can ask yourself is, “How can I make life harder for my lizard?” This may seem cruel, but teaching your reptile to overcome challenges will make them smarter, more alert, more engaged with their environment, fitter, and just plain more fun to have.
The key is to start simple and gradually make it more complex as your lizard learns.
Recently I’ve started using small glass Pyrex food containers with my ocellated skinks at feeding time. The skinks can see the bugs from the side of the container and from below, but they have to figure out how to get in if they want the food “prize”. And then once they’re in, they have to figure out how to get out because while the glass is good at keeping the bugs in, it also presents a challenge for those tiny little legs!
Here’s another example: I found a woven cat toy at the pet store, and if I put a large dubia roach inside of it, my blue tongue skink is forced to work for his snack. As he grabs the ball and rolls it around, eventually the roach will fall or climb out.
Puzzle feeders designed for dogs and cats can be great. I’ve seen videos of large lizards in particular using them quite successfully.
But if that’s too complicated for your lizard right now, try hiding/scattering food around the enclosure to simulate foraging.
You can even use household “junk” like cardboard tubes, shipping boxes, plastic bags, stinky old tee shirts, whatever. My skinks love stinky things, like shed skin from another reptile. (however beware of ingestion hazards – and I’ll say more about that in a minute)
Tips for Success:
Don’t repeat the same old things over and over, or else they lose their enrichment value.
Enrich according to your lizard’s individual and species-specific capabilities. For example, my bearded dragon, Deliora, had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which reduced her ability to move around. So I simplified her enclosure far more than I typically recommend for a bearded dragon.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have my Merauke blue tongue skink, who is an unusually proficient climber. So I try to give him climbing opportunities when possible, such as having him climb up the mesh lining of my laundry basket.
When you’re struggling for ideas, Zoo Snippets has a really cool Enrichment Diversity Web that you can use to brainstorm enrichment activity ideas for your lizard (by the way, that site has TONS of helpful content on the basics of enrichment, training, and exhibit design).
Finally, never do something that isn’t safe for your lizard. Zoo Snippets provides this checklist: Always make sure that the lizard can’t…
- Entrap itself or its body parts in the enrichment item
- Get the enrichment item stuck in its mouth
- Hang themselves from the enrichment item
- Ingest or choke themselves with pieces of the enrichment item
- Cut or wound themselves on the enrichment item
- Use the enrichment item to escape from the enclosure
And of course, all enrichment items should never have the potential to cause disease, or be toxic or irritating.
This video was part of a collaborative effort with several fantastic reptile YouTubers. Watch the other videos in the Progressing Your Reptile Care series for more great info on how you can further your understanding and practice of reptile husbandry:
- Replicate, Emulate, Stimulate — Advancing Your Keeping by Pete Hawkins
- Does a Bioactive Vivarium Offer ANYTHING to a Reptile or Amphibian? by JTB Reptiles
- Keeping Reptiles Outdoors by Celtic Reptile & Amphibian
- Assessing Your Reptile’s Welfare by Reptiles and Research
- The Best Type of Reptile Setup by Animals at Home
- Progressing Your Reptile Care: Snake Enrichment by Lori Torrini