The Lure of Litter

With the range of small pets that use litter boxes growing, pet stores can expect an uptick in litter sales.


Two converging trends seem poised to shake things up a bit in the small animal department, as one of those trends gives the other some serious traction. On one hand is the growing trend of housing small pets in larger habitats, which is leading to a broader use of litter boxes for animals that traditionally were not litter trained. This, combined with the fact that pet owners are increasingly on the lookout for new alternatives in the litter category may inspire a change in buying habits, and retailers will want to be prepared.

Inside the Box
One style of large cage that is growing in popularity features big doors that take up the entire front of the cage. Originally marketed for ferrets, this design is now also being sold for rodents such as rats and chinchillas. Luckily, manufacturers are producing deeper pans to better suit these cages. The original pans were quite shallow, and trying to use bedding or litter to cover the pan was quite messy, because the bedding was just kicked out.

Some rat owners deal with this problem by putting litter boxes in the larger habitats. It has long been known that rabbits and ferrets will use a litter box, but rats (and even guinea pigs, some say) can be litter trained, too. This training tends to be most successful with rats that are specifically raised to be pets in a large cage with a litter box, and less successful with rats that were raised in tiny cages. However, nearly all rats will use a litter box to some degree. It took my rats a few weeks to consistently use their litter boxes, and the placement of the boxes was very important.

Expect the trend toward litter boxes to change how pet owners buy litter and substrate for cages. Small-animal pet owners who are successful in training their animals to use a litter box will buy less substrate overall and will tend to switch from buying soft bedding to buying pelleted products. While it’s hard to know how much impact this trend might have on the market, retailers should know how their customers are housing their pets. Not only will this knowledge help retailers advise customers on the best products for their needs, it can also help determine what products the store should carry.

Customers looking for a product to use in a litter box are likely to look for different properties than customers buying bedding to cover the entire floor of a cage. Factors they will consider when choosing a litter or bedding include absorbency, texture, appearance, odor control, health concerns and price.

Pet owners usually prefer softer products for bedding, while hard pellets are well suited for litter. Wood shavings or soft paper products tend to stick to a litter box when wet, while products like paper pellets are more likely to come out easily when the litter box is dumped. In addition, the heavier paper pellets are more likely to stay inside the litter box if a pet digs in the box or pushes the litter around. This makes paper pellets especially well suited for use in a litter box. Corn cob granules and ground walnut shells can also work well in a litter box. Pellets of ground up hay, straw, bark, wood and hulls can also perform well in the litter box, although most of these pellets will crumble apart when wet, making them messier than paper pellets.

Retailers need to keep in mind that while many of the alternative products have good odor-control properties, and therefore don’t need to be changed very often, they do tend to cost more. This makes it more expensive to fill a large cage. Still, quality and effectiveness will be important to many customers.

Because rabbits and guinea pigs produce copious amounts of urine, the most important quality in their litter is absorbency. Rats, hamsters, mice and gerbils produce much less urine, so other properties of litter and bedding can take priority over the absorbency when choosing their litter.

Odor control is a highly desirable property for bedding used in the whole cage to maximize the time in between cage cleanings. But odor control may not be as high a priority for a product used in a litter box, since it is much easier and cheaper to change a litter box more often. However, the odor-control effectiveness of a product can depend on the pet and the pungency of its waste. For rabbits and rodents, the strongest smelling excretions tend to be the urine, while the droppings tend to be relatively dry and odorless. This is especially true for mice, which have strong smelling urine. For ferrets, it’s the opposite, with their smelly feces and less odiferous urine. The bottom line is that different products will tend to work better for different animals.

Retailers can help customers make the decision about which product is best for them by becoming familiar with the properties of each product on the shelf so they can make suggestions based on the customers’ biggest concerns. Staff members can talk to shoppers looking at litter boxes to find out what animal will be using the box. When buyers bring a small animal litter or bedding product to the checkout counter, after asking about their pets, follow up questions can include: Is this your regular product? It is working well for you? Are there any problems with it? Is there anything you would like it to do that it doesn’t? The answers can help guide suggestions for other products that might work as well or better for the customers and the pets.

Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.

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