Mealtime for Exotic Pets

Consumers have developed a big appetite for high-quality food and treats formulated for reptiles, birds, fish and small mammals.


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Ryan Boylan recently made national news when his Clearwater, Fla., condo board tried to evict him for having an “exotic” pet—a female squirrel named Brutis that he rescued as a baby during Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

While a squirrel may be an atypical companion, industry experts say an increasing number of consumers are becoming pet parents to an eclectic assortment of small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and birds.

“We are finding more and more interest in small animals,” says Teri Applegate, territory manager for Volkman Seed Company, based in Ceres, Calif.  “The small mammal customer is often someone who lives in an apartment, or military people who cannot have birds because birds can be noisy. So, the small animal is really the ideal pet for them. And there is a wide range of possibilities, including rabbits, rats and hamsters. Many small animals are low maintenance and quiet.”

Claire Hamblion, vice president of marketing at Supreme Petfoods, based in Hadleigh, Suffolk, England, concurs. “Across the board, we are seeing small pets like degus and chinchillas become really popular with adults—especially Millennials, who often live in small apartments,” she says. “These owners are usually highly educated about the needs of their pet and want to buy premium brands that have all the right credentials when it comes to health and nutrition.”

Because of the renewed interest in small animals, astute retailers are tailoring their product assortments accordingly and using small animal foods and treats as a way to lure customers back to their shops from supermarkets and big-box stores.

“Selling the pets and supplies together is a winning combination, especially if you can tie in additional services and loyalty programs,” says Peter Reid, president of Marshall Pet Products, based in Wolcott, N.Y. “By offering a unique mix and variety, they can have an advantage over larger format stores that don’t change their store sets often. Being nimble and quick can beat large and slow at almost every turn.”

Tom Roudybush, president and founder of Woodland, Calif.-based bird supplier Roudybush suggests showcasing inventory so consumers can see the breadth of selection.
 
“Retailers might also want to work with an avian veterinarian and offer occasional classes where people can come in and talk to the vet, and so forth,” he says. “It helps the veterinarian get a practice going and it helps the pet store teach people things of substance.”

Hamblion suggests retailers cross-sell hay and treats along with the foods.
 
“Treats form an important part of the bonding process between the pet and owner, and hay is an essential component of the herbivore diet,” she says. “One of the important things to get right is to keep the small pet category simple so that it’s easy for shoppers to select the food that’s appropriate to the species and life stage of the pet.”

Retailers would be wise to block their product assortments by species, instead of merchandising them by brand, suggests Angie Schmitt, senior brand manager at Kaytee, a Chilton, Wis.-based manufacturer of small animal foods. “That allows consumers to see what all of their options are and to potentially trade up to higher dollar ring items,” she says.

 

Ferret Out Quality
Consumers are taking an interest in high-quality, human-grade, organic and natural ingredients for their small animals’ diets, just as they are for their cats and dogs—and themselves—suppliers note.
 
“Because we have been breeding ferrets since 1939, we really understand and have a deep knowledge nutritionally of what works well and what doesn’t work well with a ferret’s biological system,” says Reid. “The basis of all of our diets is fresh meat. Our diets are made in small batches. By doing this, we can keep a close eye on producing exceptional quality. We primarily use fresh chicken as our protein source.”
 
Reid says that Marshall plans to launch a canned ferret food early this year and introduced freeze-dried salmon slices and freeze-dried minnows in 2017. “All have been thoroughly accepted by ferrets prior to the products’ release,” he notes.

For its part, Supreme Petfoods conducted a survey of 600 small pet owners and found that 97 percent want to feed natural, while 93 percent feel there is a benefit to feeding grain-free. “When it comes to what makes a food natural, pet owners said it should include hay or grass, wild or foraged plants and have nothing added—being made up of just plain and simple ingredients,” Hamblion says.

While its products are not necessarily organic, Kaytee works closely with animal nutritionists and veterinarians to ensure its products are of the highest quality.  

“Our facilities are basically food grade,” Schmitt says. “We are doing a lot of things that [human] food manufacturers are doing to ensure cleanliness of ingredients, no cross-contamination and that our products are of the highest quality and as safe as they can be when they leave our plant.”

Zoo Med Laboratories manufactures a wide range of high-quality small animal foods, including its newest items: Crested Gecko Food, which consists of a mixture of dried fruits and insects; Creatures Jelly Food Cups for insects and invertebrates; Avian Banquet Cuttlebone made with real cuttlebone powder and available in banana and tropical fruit flavors; and Can O’ Cockroaches and Can O’ Silkworms, which are designed to add variety to an animal’s diet without having to keep live feeder insects.

“We typically see small animal feed category trends mirroring those of other pets, such as cats and dogs, but at a slower pace,” says Bree Modica, MS, nutrition & regulatory specialist, R&D Food & Drug Division, at San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Zoo Med. “Many pet owners want to know where their pet’s food comes from, they want recognizable ingredients, and they like to see options available for their pets.”

It is important that retailers offer their shoppers these types of unusual foods because the nutritional requirements of these pets greatly varies, Modica notes. 

“The foods that we have available have been extensively researched to provide pets with the best nutrition possible,” she says. “Feeding animals isn’t just about feeding similar food items to what they eat in the wild; it’s about feeding similar nutrition.”
 
On the fish side, Zoo Med offers Can O’ Bloodworms, which, according to Modica, offers a more natural texture and shape for fish than freeze-dried or frozen alternatives. “It’s not often discussed with pet owners, but the presentation of food can be important for animals just as it is for people,” she says.

 

 

Tiny Treats
Volkman Seed Company manufactures bird products under the Featherglow and Avian Science Super Diet brand names, with Featherglow being the company’s premium line. The Avian Science Diet Super line is species specific, with mixes for lovebirds, parrots, cockatiels and finches.
 
“Consumers love seeing their bird on the bag. It is definitely a better connection that way,” says Applegate. 

The company also manufactures a complete line of products for small animals. Volkman’s newest offering is a line of individual ingredient treats, available in one- to four-ounce packages, which will formally be introduced Global Pet Expo.

“They include things like peanuts or sunflower seeds or pine nuts—just individual ingredients in a grab-and-go kind of bag that is perfect for clip strips and won’t take up shelf space in the store,” Applegate explains. “They are packaged for both birds and small animals, so the label features both a small animal and a bird, as the ingredients do cross over.”

The company is in the process of updating the packaging for many of its products. Avian Science was repackaged in 2016, while the small animal line was given a facelift in mid-2017. The Featherglow premium line is currently being redone.
 

Migrating to Birds
While small mammal and reptile ownership is on the rise, unfortunately birds have flown out of favor with some consumers.
“A lot of the bird people are aging out,” says Schmitt. “We have to appeal to that younger generation.”
 
To do so, she suggests stores selling birds have in-store events where shoppers can interact with birds and see how much fun they can be. “Retailers need to do things to create excitement around the category,” she says. “Maybe they can get an expert or someone from the local bird club to come in and talk about their love of birds and the joy their bird brings to them.”

“Breeding has fallen dramatically since I’ve started in the business,” notes Roudybush. “But birds live a long time, so we don’t need to breed very many to meet the demand.”

In addition to its Mainline, available in pet stores, Roudybush also has a Veterinary Line designed to reduce stress on specific organs, such as the liver. “When it comes to these products, we want a veterinarian in the loop to help diagnose the problem and choose the proper diet for the bird,” he says. PB

 

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