This post was coauthored by Beri Instone, a responsible mouse breeder and Alison’s mouse guru.
Mice, like many rodents, love to play and explore the world around them. Many pet mice will spend most of the day in their cages, so to give them a happy life, we need to make sure they have plenty of things to do and toys to play with.
When we talk about toys, it’s important to note that we’re not necessarily using it in the same way we would for a child. Mice love to play (especially with each other, so in some ways the best toy for a mouse is another mouse they are bonded with), but for me, the best toys are ones that stimulate the natural behaviors a mouse might otherwise miss out on living in a cage.
Here are some of my top picks for keeping mice entertained.
#1 Cardboard, paper, and hay
Yes, cardboard is a toy. In fact, it is one of the best toys. It can be chewed up, carried around, dug in, hidden under, or used as a nest. From the owner’s point of view it also has the big advantage of being free!
There are several different types of cardboard that can be offered:
- small cardboard boxes and packaging for the mice to explore,
- inner rolls from kitchen or toilet paper to use as tubes and foraging toys,
- shredded cardboard or cardboard squares that can be used for digging and foraging.
Paper is also good value. Paper towels, pieces of newspaper, or cross-cut shredded paper (making short pieces, not long strips) offer different options for nest building, digging, and generally letting the mice customize their own environment.
Mice take nest building extremely seriously and create complex 3D structures. So, a simple pile of hay placed in their cage makes for great engagement. It’s not only good for nesting – the mice will nibble it and the smell of the hay adds a different type of enrichment.
#2 Tubes and tunnels
Digging is a key natural behavior for mice. The cage should contain a thick layer of substrate to help provide this, but giving mice tunnels or other things to hide in can also help. As well as cardboard tubes and boxes, other good options include:
- hollow logs (see the next section for a list of safe woods),
- woven hay or seagrass tunnels that are sold for rodents and rabbits,
- cork tunnels (sold for reptiles and rodents),
- and wooden arches.
#3 Climbing toys – ropes, branches, ledges, perches and bridges
Mice love to climb, and giving them space and toys to allow this is really important for their health and muscle development. As well providing a barred cage, pet mice need a cage layout that includes toys suitable for climbing.
The most common options are ropes and branches
Other options include natural fibre rope (e.g. sisal and hemp) bought from the hardware store, or even strips of fleece or rag plaited or twisted together.
Branches provide a slightly different experience for the mice, so it is a good idea to offer both in a cage layout.
Safe types of branches and twigs include:
- hawthorn (remove any thorns),
- lime (also called linden)
…Along with fruit tree woods such as:
N.b. heat treated pine of the sort used in commercial small animal toys is safe, but natural pine branches pine shouldn’t be used.
Mice will chew their branches (which is why the wood needs to be a safe type), and another type on enrichment is to give them piles of small safe twigs to nibble at.
Ropes and branches should be positioned so the mice get to climb at different angles, and make good use of the space in the center of the cage. Mice are really good climbers, so some ropes should be vertical, as climbing these helps keep their tail muscles healthy. Short ropes meant for playing tug of war with dogs make good vertical challenges.
When fixing your ropes or branches to the cage, make sure that they aren’t pushing the bars too far apart – as that can lead to escapes, or a mouse getting stuck and hurt.
It’s also not necessary for a rope to be completely stable. Climbing a wobbly rope is really good for muscles and balance.
Ledges, perches and bridges
Ledges, perches and bridges are another type of climbing toy that add variety to the cage. They also give mice somewhere to sit in different parts of the cage and watch the world go by. Ledges and perches attach to one side of the cage, whereas bridges run from one part to another. Several different types of all three toys are sold by petshops.
A great hanging climbing toy can be made by wiring or clipping a reptile/small animal hollow play log to the cage roof. The holes allow the mice to play inside and out of the log, and the wobble provided by hanging is great fun.
#4 Food is fun – hidden treats and foraging toys
Everyone loves treats, but if there is one thing rodents enjoy more, it’s finding food for themselves.
The simplest way to make treats into a game is to bury them in the cage substrate, or hide them in other areas around the cage.
- For a bigger challenge you can make or buy foraging toys. Stuffing a toilet roll inner with substrate, shredded paper or hay and hiding treats inside is a simple cheap option – you can cut holes in the side of the tube to make it more fun.
- Foraging logs (a piece of wood with holes in for stuffing with hay and food), purchased from a pet shop or made at home from mouse safe woods work the same way.
- Another option is using kabobs to hang food in different areas around the cage.
Of course, when using food in toys, it is important not to overfeed – treats are best if they are healthy and low calorie, and the daily food intake should be managed to take account of the food the mice get from foraging.
A wheel can be a great toy to help mice exercise. The most important consideration here is safety. The wheel could be made of solid plastic, not bars (to make sure feet and tails can’t get trapped and injured), and it needs to be large enough to prevent spinal problems.
You might be surprised to learn that the 6.5 inch wheels sold for small animals aren’t large enough for most adult mice – it’s because mice are surprisingly long when stretched out. If the wheel is too small, they can hit their nose or have to run with an unnatural gait. An 8 inch or bigger wheel is a much better option.
As you can see, toys for mice don’t need to be expensive or come from the pet shop small animal section. The crucial thing is to give them variety, let them express their natural behaviors, and keep their minds and bodies fit.