Supplements by Species

Learning about the supplements available for small animals puts retailers in the best position to guide customers to products that can boost their pets’ health.




More dietary supplements are now marketed for small pets than ever before, but with the wealth of products on offer, customers might be confused about which ones can actually benefit their pets. Most commercial foods currently sold for small pets have been carefully formulated to contain all the nutrition needed for that particular species. However, some of the most popular small animal pets have special problems that the addition of a supplement can help solve. 

Rabbits tend to do well on a diet of mostly grass hay, which is high in fiber, and just enough pelleted food to supply the needed vitamins and minerals. However, their digestive system is pretty specialized, and sometimes problems occur. One of these is hairballs, especially in long-haired breeds. Rabbits groom themselves like cats and often ingest some of their own fur. A high-fiber diet usually does a good job of sweeping this fur through, but their digestion was not designed to deal with a long-furred coat. Unlike cats, which can vomit up hairballs, rabbits can’t vomit, so there are a number of supplements that are designed to prevent hairballs or help them pass to prevent a blockage. Some contain psyllium, a natural fiber, and some contain petrolatum products. Rabbit owners can also give their pets papaya tablets, which contain a natural enzyme that can help dissolve the hair.

Guinea pigs are the only mammals besides primates that cannot produce their own vitamin C and must get it from their food. While all commercial guinea pig food includes vitamin C, this vitamin deteriorates over time. Guinea pigs should also have fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet and can get vitamin C from some of these, but it’s impossible to know exactly how much they contain. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to give guinea pigs a vitamin C supplement. They are available as drops designed to go in the drinking water, but this can have drawbacks. Vitamin C placed in the water rapidly deteriorates, and some guinea pigs drink less water because they don’t like the taste of these products. This can be dangerous because guinea pigs need to drink a lot of water to flush out excess calcium they absorb from their diet. Instead, I recommend chewable vitamin C tablets, which are a wonderful treat for the animals and fun for owners to give.

There are four different types of supplements that can be helpful for ferret owners. Fatty acid supplements can be highly beneficial for the skin and should be used for animals that have dry skin or fur. Ferrets love these products so much that they can be used as an aid for grooming. A few drops on a ferret’s stomach will keep it occupied licking up the tasty liquid. Like rabbits, ferrets can get hairballs, so they can also benefit from a product to help ingested fur pass through their digestive tract. There are also supplements that are meant to reduce the amount of fur they shed in the first place. Ferret owners might also appreciate a supplement designed to reduce body and waste odors emitted by their pets.

There are two supplements I recommend for rats. Older rats often go through a progressive deterioration of the motor nerves running from the spine to the hind legs, resulting in gradually advancing paraplegia. I have found that a B-vitamin complex supplement can slow or even stop the progression of the paralysis. The amount given should be calculated by the B12, with five micrograms of this vitamin given twice a day. 

One mineral, chromium picolinate, has been shown in a laboratory study to increase the lifespan of rats. Chromium helps regulate blood sugar levels, which can damage the body if they get too high, and chromium picolinate is more easily absorbed by the body than some other forms of chromium. In the lab, rats given this mineral at 189 micrograms per pound lived an average of one year longer than rats who received a less easily absorbed form of chromium. Unfortunately, neither of these supplements are commercially marketed for rats at this time, so human products need to be used.

On Display
Although many retailers put supplements in a separate health-focused section of the store, another idea is to stock the supplements that are the most useful for each species in the department for that particular animal. Consider having a small section for hairball remedies alongside rabbit food, or place them next to rabbit grooming products. All four supplements useful for ferret owners could be displayed next to the ferret food: hairball remedies, anti-shedding products, fatty acid supplements and odor-reducing products.

Chewable vitamin C tablets for guinea pigs should be displayed on the shelves with guinea pig food. To help introduce this product to customers, staff members can give free samples of the tablets to shoppers buying guinea pig products. Once owners see how much their guinea pigs like these yummy tablets, it is an easy sale. 

Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of three books about rat care, health, and training, and was a consultant on the movie Ratatouille.


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