Larger cages for small animals are trending up, but retailers will need to be prepared to answer customers' many questions about suitable habitats and their features.
Small animals may not take up too much space all by themselves, but when it comes to small-animal habitats, it seems bigger is indeed better. Larger cages that more closely resemble a pet’s natural habitat are trending up these days. Of course, the larger the cage, the more expensive it tends to be, so retailers should be well versed on the many features these habitats offer and the host of reasons pet owners should consider them.
While roomy cages are a hot item in all segments of the small-animal category, options vary depending on the animal. Habitats for hamsters and gerbils often include a deep bottom that can be filled with bedding to allow the animals the opportunity to burrow. The walls of these rooms are clear, so the owner can observe their pet as they dig.
The trend for rat housing, like that for ferrets, is large cages with fully opening front doors that provide unrestricted access to the cage, making it easier for pet owners to clean or add and rearrange accessories. Meanwhile, rabbit owners are increasingly choosing large hutches that are designed to fit in with living-room furniture.
The trend for guinea pig housing is large, open habitats that are more like corrals than cages. Since guinea pigs don’t jump or climb, they do not require closed-top enclosure, which effectively reduces the cost of the housing and gives owners more opportunity to interact with their pets.
When selling habitats, there are four major things to look at: species suitability, ease of cleaning, accessibility and aesthetics. Retailers will have to ask themselves or the customer several questions in order to appropriately match a pet to a suitable habitat. Is the cage suitable for the species in question? Is it safe? Are there any sharp edges or points that could cause injury? Is the bar spacing close enough to prevent the animal from escaping or getting its head caught?
Another important question: if there are upper levels, are they safe for this particular pet? Upper levels do not work well for all small pets. Rats and mice are good climbers, but hamsters and gerbils are not. Climbing for hamsters and gerbils should only be available inside tubes, to prevent them from falling.
Rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets are not climbers, but they can manage upper levels, as long as the ramps to them are not too steep, and the edges of the levels are protected to ensure they can’t fall off. Sugar gliders are expert climbers. Chinchillas don’t really climb, but they are fantastic leapers and do well with upper shelves and perches. Also consider if the floor and upper levels are solid or made of wire or bars. Most small pets do best on solid floors as wire floors can cause injury to feet and legs.
Next, how easy is the cage to clean? While solid floors do not allow waste matter to fall through, they are much easier to clean, as they can just be wiped. Wire floors, on the other hand, need to be scrubbed to remove any hair and grime that may be stuck on them.
It is helpful if all solid floors, including upper levels, have sides that are high enough to allow litter or bedding to be placed on the floor. If an upper floor is too shallow to contain litter, then it is a good idea to have drainage holes to prevent the pooling of liquids.
When considering the cleaning process, customers should also consider the size of the cage doors and how accessible the interior is. If access is limited, is it simple to take apart for thorough cleaning? Pets that produce the most waste—rabbits and guinea pigs—need habitats that are especially easy to spot-clean on a frequent basis. On the other hand, hamsters and gerbils, being desert animals, produce less waste, so their cages do not need to be cleaned as frequently.
Owners will also want to consider whether the cage allows for interaction with their pet. Is the door large enough for the owner to reach in and lift the pet out? Does the door stay open on its own, or must it be held open?
Some cages are designed with a drop-down door that allows the pet to exit the cage on its own. Such a door is particularly suited for rabbits, chinchillas, and perhaps guinea pigs, but it should be made of material safe for the pet’s feet. If the cage has upper levels, is there a good size door for each level? Are there corners of the cage which are inaccessible where a pet can hide?
While form and function are certainly key factors in determining a habitat’s suitability for any pet, the cage’s aesthetic appeal may be top of mind for many customers. Small pets are not just for kids anymore, hidden away in a child’s bedroom. Adult owners of small pets are more likely to put the habitat in a main living area, and they want it to look pleasing and complement their décor. Cages made of metal and wood tend to look more sophisticated than those made of plastic.
Different features will appeal more to different people. Some shoppers will put more value on the appearance of a cage, while others will be more interested in the ease of cleaning. When employees are familiar with the features of each product, they will be better able to recommend the right habitat to each customer.
Higher-end habitats should be displayed fully assembled and accessorized, which will make them appear much more attractive and desirable. It is also important to make it easy for shoppers to find the price. If they don’t see a price, they may assume that it is higher than it actually is and leave without buying.
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.