Mice can survive in tiny, barren, cages. I’ve seen as many as thirty-two mice (including juveniles) living in standard lab bins about the size of a small shoe box, with only food, water, and a small wooden block to climb on. Many people house their mice in small tanks which allow for little more than a water tower, a food bowl, a wheel, and a hide. And the mice survive.
But we can do so much more than merely allowing them to survive.
I build my girls complex, ever-changing environments. Some of these were made by my friend Kayla, a.k.a. #MumblebeesMouseHouse, a talented artist that got addicted to "Mouse House" building with me (click here to see her amazing Etsy shop where you can buy foraging walls and other enrichment items). She made most of these for me:
1. Physical health. Good food, fresh water, and a clean tank are not enough for keeping a mouse fit and healthy. Mice are extremely agile, athletic animals. They are meant to use their bodies, balance, scale, and climb. Providing mice with a complex environment allows them to use their muscles, keeping them trim and fit.
2. Mental health. Mice are born to behave. Like all animals, mice come pre-programmed with a set of behaviors that they enjoy performing, and with the ability to learn and adapt to their environments. They need to have their behavioral needs met in order to be happy. Mice are curious, active animals. They love to explore novel items, sniff, dig, burrow, tunnel, run, climb, and carve out new holes and passageways. Mice have excellent spacial memories, and they spend time every day walking the perimeter of their territories, memorizing escape routes, and searching for food.
3. Aggression. Mice are territorial, and they will fight over good nesting spots. For this reason, people often overcrowd mice into small tanks. When there’s no territory, there’s nothing to fight over. It’s all too common to see 4-5 mice in a 10-gallon tank, and hear that the reason is that it keeps the mice peaceful. Peaceful, or depressed? I’ve seen the same with cichlids, a territorial fish that guards a nesting cave. Cram 30 fish in a small tank, and they stop fighting. They survive. But it’s a sad, dull life. A proper large vivarium with enough hiding spots, escape routes, and many more nesting sites than there are mice, will prevent aggression. The bullied mouse can always escape. Mice will bicker occasionally— it’s part of their feisty charm— but true damage will usually only occur when there is scarcity of resources. (This applies to mice of the same colony, and not to introductions of new mice, in which case *temporary* small-space housing is OK.)
4. Entertainment. While you can tame your mice and teach them to climb on you, and even allow to be touched, most mice don’t appreciate petting. A mouse raised in isolation may be desperate enough for human cuddles, but for the most part, they enjoy each other’s company, and don’t need your petting. This quality makes them especially bad pets for small children, who desperately want to hug and squish their animals. The solution? Building enrichment items and watching the mice explore. I spend hours watching “Mouse TV,” seeing the different personalities and relationships, watching my mice “spark” with joy (a special hop they do when excited) when they discover something new, seeing them dig, climb, and parkour across their enclosure.
Let’s go beyond survival, and give our mice rich, happy lives.
Coming next: four ways to enrich the lives of your mice