Running wheels have been a staple pet rodent supply possibly since before the 1950’s and were in use for laboratory animals earlier than that. You can’t walk down the small pet aisle in any pet store without seeing hamster wheels in various sizes and styles. Many different animals use exercise wheels. Syrian hamsters have been found to run up to 5 miles and hedgehogs can run for 12 miles each night just on an exercise wheel! With so much use, these wheels need to be sturdy and -more importantly- safe. Pets are diverse and wheels are too! How do you know you are purchasing the proper one for your pet? What are the things to watch out for when shopping for the perfect cage accessory for your companion?
Why Do Animals Use Wheels?
Some make the argument that they are only used by animals bored with captivity and that it is unnatural, but a 2014 study done by Johanna H. Meijer and Yuri Robbers showed that wild mice, rats, shrews, even frogs and slugs use wheels when one was placed in the environment. Some studies indicate that the behavior of wheel-running is actually rewarding. Rats were found to press levers for access to a wheel only; not for food, water, or treats. Why is this? Like us, animals can get a ‘runner’s high’, or a release of endorphins after physical activity, which would make running on a wheel a form of positive reinforcement. Regardless of why some animals seek to use running wheels, the exercise they get from them prevents obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and a myriad of other health issues. Despite this, some wheels have been a source of injuries and ailments for many pets. It is important to know what to avoid when shopping for this popular accessory.
Use With Caution
Not every wheel is going to be appropriate for every species. In fact, some wheels on the market are dangerous and have been associated with all sorts of injuries from minor to life threatening.
One major issue with many wheels found on the market is their size. Many are much too small to be comfortable or even safe for pets. Though specific studies on how small a wheel can go have not been done, a study on Syrian hamsters and one on mice showed a definitive preference for larger running wheels when given access to different sizes. Not only is it presumably more comfortable but many pet owners and breeders report that a wheel that is too small can cause spinal injuries. If your pet has to contort his body to use his wheel, then we know there is a lot of pressure on the spine. This pressure makes it easier for an injury to occur.
Not only should the size of the wheel be considered but the style of wheel is a potential injury factor. Wheels with a mesh running surface should be avoided for most pets, as even the most agile animals can slip a toe, foot, or leg through at some point and give themselves a serious injury. Bars in the center of the wheel have been a source of severe tail injuries and could potentially hurt the spine or neck of the user. Bars on the side of a running wheel can also catch legs, heads, and tails. Be sure to make your considerations carefully before purchasing your wheel.
Our Chin Spins
Though they all share the same name, not all of our Chin Spins are made just for chinchillas.
Our 15” Chin Spin was designed for chinchillas and meets the minimum size (14”) recommended for chinchillas and prairie dogs. These have even been used by small armadillo species for enrichment!
Our 13” Chin Spin is our recommended size for degus, rats, and hedgehogs.
Our soon to be introduced 11” Chin Spin is great for Syrian and dwarf hamsters, mice, gerbils, and other similar sized pets.
You can always go up in Spin size for your pet, but we never recommend going smaller.
When Not to Use a Chin Spin
As much fun as it is to see your pet run like the wind on a wheel you provided, wheels are not suitable for every kind of pet, nor every individual.
Guinea pigs have a very delicate spine. Even steep ramps are not recommended due to the risk of injuring their back when getting on. Guinea pigs would enjoy a play pen, or spacious cage to popcorn to their heart’s content.
Rabbits are not as delicate as guinea pigs but still are sensitive to skeletal injuries. The way they move and run is not compatible with the shape of a wheel. Like guinea pigs, rabbits would enjoy a play pen to binky around in and would benefit from that more so than from a Spin.
Ferrets are pretty flexible. They were designed to go after small rodents in their burrows and can seemingly twist every which direction. Still their natural gait typically includes an arch in their back. While bending towards their stomach is really easy for them, bending back isn’t so easy and puts them in an unnatural position. Potentially a very LARGE wheel might be okay for a ferret to use, but ferrets don’t have the same drive to use wheels that rodents tend to possess. Ferrets enjoy tunnels to squeeze through and space to play with other ferrets.
Sugar Gliders have specific needs for their wheels that the Chin Spin does not meet. Gliders need a sturdy plastic mesh on the running track of their wheel to allow them to grip. Otherwise, the same safety issues from some wheels apply here. No center or side bars. Sugar gliders are recommended to have at least a 12” diameter wheel.
Young chinchillas and prairie dogs should not be given wheels until they are adults. The main reason for this is the energy they expend on the wheel is needed for their body to grow and develop.
Animals that need to gain weight or heal from health issues may need to limit their movement and also should not be given free access to their wheel.
Obsessive Wheel Use
Rarely, pets can become obsessed with wheels. Because using the wheel is a rewarding experience, some individuals can become addicted to running on it, to the point that it becomes detrimental to their health. If your pet forgoes eating, drinking, and sleeping to run on the wheel, you’ll have to cut them off and give limited access daily.
A Note on Exercise Balls
As popular as they are, exercise balls were not designed with your pet’s safety at the top of the list. Exercise balls of all sizes have poor ventilation and have been nicknamed ‘death balls’ by many different kinds of pet owners. Toes and feet get caught in the slats on the balls. Pets have poorer perception inside the ball and often crash into walls or furniture, causing traumatic injuries. As fun as they may seem, they are best avoided.
Chin Spin Maintenance and Troubleshooting
The Chin Spin is built to last a lifetime but the bearings won’t last forever. If your Chin Spin is making noise, you may need to replace the bearings. They typically need replacement about every 6 months depending on how heavily the Spin is being used. We carry the replacements and have a video on how to replace them!
The Chin Spin is going too fast/ too hard to spin
The center nut may be too tight or loose and typically loosens over time. Take a wrench and tighten or loosen about a ¼ turn at a time until it spins with the desired difficulty.
Chinchilla will not use the Chin Spin
Putting a lure on the running surface of the wheel can get your pets to at least stand on it. Our favorite lure for chinchillas is a spoonful of dust. They will roll in the dust and cause some wheel movement that seems to help them figure everything out!
The Chin Spin rattles the cage
The Chin Spin itself is very quiet. It is heavy and a pet’s heavy use can cause some cage rattling. To minimize this, place your wooden ledges for the chinchilla mansion in strategic spots to stabilize the enclosure as much as possible. One 30” ledge about an inch or two directly above the chin spin helps reduce noise. Some of our genius customers have muffled the sound with fleece coverings on the accessorries that rattle!
Exercise wheels remain to be one of the most popular things to buy for small pets. Make sure to choose an appropriate one that will keep your little friends safe and healthy!
Belke, Terry & P Wagner, Jason. (2005). The reinforcing property and the rewarding aftereffect of wheel running in rats: A combination of two paradigms. Behavioural processes. 68. 165-72. 10.1016/j.beproc.2004.12.006.
Meijer, Johanna H., and Yuri Robbers. “Wheel Running in the Wild.” Proceedings: Biological Sciences, vol. 281, no. 1786, 2014, pp. 1–5. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43600528.
Novak, Colleen & Burghardt, Paul & Levine, James. (2012). The use of a running wheel to measure activity in rodents: Relationship to energy balance, general activity, and reward. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. 36. 1001-14. 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.12.012.
Reebs, Stéphan & St-Onge, Philippe. (2005). Running wheel choice by Syrian hamsters. Laboratory animals. 39. 442-51. 10.1258/002367705774286493.