Diet Directions

There is now a greater variety of food manufactured for small pets, and retailers can increase sales by recommending these diets to customers.


The pet industry’s current trend toward natural products is reflected in foods for small pets. Manufacturers are offering choices that are as close as possible to the diets of the animals’ ancestors in the wild because these diets are healthier for pets.

Another trend in the small pet food department is an increase in the variety and selection of foods available. For instance, in the ferret department, owners can now choose between diets that mimic a natural raw-food diet, as well as holistic-based foods, and products that include probiotics, alongside more traditional diets. There are also special ferret foods designed to help prevent shedding and hairballs, and diets for ferrets with allergies. There is also a soft-moist diet available marketed especially for older ferrets who might have trouble eating the harder foods.

There is also a greater choice of food for herbivorous pets. For instance, when commercial food pellets were first made for rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, they were composed primarily of alfalfa hay. But timothy hay is higher in fiber and lower in protein and calcium than alfalfa hay, and manufacturers started recognizing the benefits of using timothy hay in diets, especially for older animals. Now pet owners can choose between traditional pellets and those made with timothy hay. Pelleted rabbit food is now also available for different life stages, and there is even a diet designed to minimize hairballs.

A Green Diet
The natural diet for almost all small pets would include some fresh plants, and increasing numbers of pet retailers are selling fresh sprouts of wheatgrass. 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 and pull apart 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. It not only keeps food flowing properly though the intestines, but the tough fiber also helps wears down their molars, which grow continuously. Companies that package hay for small herbivores are now offering more types of grass hay. Besides timothy hay, other varieties of grass hay such as orchard grass are now available. Other options include hay with a mixture of tasty herbs, which not only add new flavors but additional nutrition as well.

An innovative product available for herbivores is a package that mixes treats with chopped hay. This not only adds variety to the animal’s diet, it is also another way to provide behavioral enrichment, as it gives a pet the opportunity to search through the hay for the more desired morsels, imitating natural foraging.
With the increased availability of new diets, retailers should consider using sampling as a marketing tool. Giving away free samples is a tried-and-true way to introduce new foods.

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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