Fantastic Feasts

Offering customers as wide a variety of small animal foods as possible can help expand sales in this market.




Every time a manufacturer introduces a new type of food, retailers must decide whether or not to carry the new product. If the food offers customers a new benefit, then it may be worthwhile to find room for it on the shelves. But that means making another choice: replace a current line of food, increase the shelf space devoted to food or try to squeeze in the new line on the existing shelf space. This challenge has only grown as the variety and selection of foods continues to increase in the small pet market. 

The variety of ingredients being used in small pet foods is mind-boggling. There has been a trend toward life-stage foods for small animal species with formulas tailored for babies, active adults and less active seniors. Such foods can optimize health and growth in youngsters while helping to curb weight gain in older animals that don’t burn quite as many calories. Specialty foods for small pets are also on the rise, such as diets for both rabbits and ferrets designed to minimize hairballs, diets that help to promote tooth health in ferrets and special foods for ferrets with allergies. There is also a soft-moist diet available, marketed especially for older ferrets that might have trouble eating harder foods. Retailers can encourage small animal owners to shop in their store by not only carrying some of these specialty foods, but also educating owners about how the foods can benefit their pets.

When it comes to displaying all these products on the shelves, some trial and error might be necessary to find the best solution for each location. One rule of thumb to keep in mind is that products displayed at eye-level tend to sell better. This suggests that it might be better to place staples lower down and specialty items up higher. But keep in mind the height of the person whose interest you want to attract. Colorful foods and treats for smaller rodents such as hamsters, gerbils and mice might be best displayed just a couple feet off the floor, at eye-level for the children who often own these pets. 

Food as Fuel
All of the small animal pets have a very fast metabolism, much faster than that of cats and dogs, and therefore burn calories at an incredible rate. Rabbits and rodents are nibblers with a need and desire to eat at frequent intervals throughout the day and night. Even ferrets like many small meals scattered throughout the day. This means all small pets need to have free access to food at all hours of the day.

This does not mean that all animals should be eating foods with a high density of calories all the time, though herbivores should be eating grass hay most of the time. Owners of these pets need to think of their food pellets as a supplement, along with a variety of fresh greens. It is best for small rodents to eat a low-fat, low-protein pelleted food most of the time. More high-calorie foods, such as nuts, seeds and fruits, should be given as treats only a few times a day and in limited quantities. Offering too much variety of calorie-dense foods can lead to obesity in small pets.

A Green Diet
The natural diet for almost all small pets other than ferrets would include some fresh plants, and increasing numbers of pet retailers are selling fresh sprouts of wheatgrass to fill this need. Fresh greens don’t have the high-fiber cellulose content that makes hay indigestible for omnivorous rodents, so sprouted wheatgrass can be sold for both omnivores and herbivores. Growing plants provide an abundance of nutrients like vitamins and minerals, as well as enzymes, antioxidants and other components that might be missing from processed foods. Not only can wheatgrass add taste and nutritional variety to a pet’s diet, it can also give pets mental stimulation as they dig into and pull apart the clumps of grass.

In addition to fresh greens, grass hay should be fed free-choice to all herbivores. The fiber in hay is necessary for the proper operation of their digestive system. Not only does it keep food flowing properly through the intestines, the tough fiber also helps wears down their molars, which grow continuously. While timothy hay has long been a staple for small herbivores, some companies also offer different types of grass hay, such as orchard grass hay. Other options, which can provide more variety in the diet of herbivores, include packages of hay with a mixture of tasty herbs that add new flavors and additional nutrition. Such products also provide behavioral enrichment since they give a pet the opportunity to search through the hay for the more desired morsels, imitating natural foraging.

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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