Finer Dining

Retailers can boost sales by offering small-pet owners a variety of water bottle and food dish options and educating them on their pets' needs.


Food dishes and water bottles are essential items that small-animal owners must buy. However, that does not mean retailers have no influence in the category. Retailers can maximize sales potential in the food dish and water bottle categories by presenting an attention-grabbing product assortment, as well as by understanding what owners of various types of small animals will need.

Although most people think pets are colorblind, small animals can see more than once thought. Research shows that rats, mice and rabbits can see the difference between green and blue, and ferrets can see the color red. Other colors probably appear in different shades of gray to them. It is not known how much color vision influences their behavior, but experiments show that rats can be trained to discern colors in the blue-green range. Rats can also see ultraviolet light, and they can be trained to tell the difference between ultraviolet and visible light.

Rats’ retinas have fewer cones (color detectors) than rods (light detectors), so their color perception is probably muted compared to ours. However, this may also mean that pets see richer, brighter colors more easily than muted pastel colors. Retailers can capitalize on this knowledge by stocking and recommending cage accessories in bright greens and blues for rodents and rabbits, and bright reds for ferrets.

An endcap display featuring brightly colored food dishes, water bottles, hay dispensers and other cage accessories will draw customers’ attention—especially when paired with a sign that says something like, “Your Pocket Pet CAN See Color!” A smaller sign can explain the color perception for various pets. Staff members who see customers looking at the display can engage them in conversation, ask what pets they own and direct them to the assortment of colorful accessories their pets may enjoy.

If the customer protests that they already have a food dish for their rabbit, the employee can point out that it is a good idea to have at least two food dishes for each habitat, one for dry food and one for moist foods. It’s also a good idea for pet owners to have a least one spare dish for moist food so it can be washed while the other is in use.

Food dishes for small animals should be chew-proof or at least chew-resistant. Materials such as hard plastics, ceramics and metal are suitable for feeders. Dishes should also be tip-proof or tip-resistant. Bowls that attach to the side of the cage offer this advantage. Dishes placed on the floor of the cage should sit flat, with the base of the dish as large or larger than the top for stability.

Gravity food hoppers, since they usually hang on the side of the cage, are tip-proof and can be a convenient way to serve dry foods. Hoppers will generally hold enough food for a few days, making them convenient for several animals and also for leaving the animals alone over the weekend.

I use food hoppers to dispense food blocks in all my rat cages. The hoppers not only help keep the food clean, they also provide a bit of a challenge for the rats. Because the rats have to work the blocks out of the hopper one by one, it adds a bit of enrichment to their environment. The only drawback to food hoppers is that occasionally the food will become stuck, and the hopper must be shaken to get the food to fall to the bottom.

Bottle Basics

As with food dishes, it makes sense for small-animal owners to have multiple water bottles available, so one bottle can be cleaned while another is in use. A second bottle is also imperative if the pet owner plans to leave their pets alone over a weekend. Sometimes, a bottle will suddenly develop a leak and the water will drain out; or the ball bearing in the sipper tube may get stuck, preventing the animal from getting water. Customers should be instructed to regularly check the sipper tube and watch the water level in the bottle to make sure animals are getting water. A back-up water bottle on the cage will ensure the animals won’t go thirsty if the primary water bottle fails.

Retailers need to guide customers in buying the proper size water bottle for the type of pet they own. A water bottle that is too big can result in stale water and inadequate cleaning. Larger bottles usually also have larger sipper tubes, and if the sipper tube is too big, the animal can have difficulty moving the ball bearing to get the water out. On the other hand, a sipper tube that is too small can be frustrating for the animal and result in the pet not drinking enough water.

For smaller animals such as hamsters, mice, gerbils and rats, a four- to eight-ounce bottle is appropriate. An eight- to 16-ounce bottle is good for chinchillas, hedgehogs and larger groups of rats. Guinea pigs, rabbits and prairie dogs need a 16- to 32-ounce bottle. A 5/16-inch sipper tube works best for the smaller animals, while larger animals need the 7/16-inch sipper tube.

Some ferrets can use a water bottle with a large sipper tube, but others get frustrated with drinking from a bottle, preventing them from drinking enough water. For these ferrets, a water dish is best. Ferrets do have a tendency to play in their water dishes, but this can be reduced by using a travel water dish for dogs designed to prevent water from spilling or splashing out.

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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