Small pet owners now have options when it comes to feeding their pets, thanks to innovative manufacturers that offer new formulas and ingredients.
In terms of diet, small pets can be divided into three categories: carnivores, herbivores and omnivores. Ferrets are strict carnivores, so their diet must consist mostly of meat. Any fiber in their diet must be easily digestible. Manufacturers have been improving ferret diets to meet these highly specific needs, and some are increasingly turning to rice as a highly digestible ingredient in ferret food.
By contrast, rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus and prairie dogs are strict herbivores. In the wild, their diet consists mostly of high-fiber grass. Fiber keeps molars from overgrowing and sweeps ingested fur through the digestive tract.
It is almost impossible for herbivores to consume too much fiber. This is why it is imperative for them to have free choice of timothy or grass hay. Alfalfa hay can be fed as a treat, but it should be limited because it is high in protein and calcium. Pellets can be fed free choice as well, although some individuals may need to have their pellets restricted to prevent obesity.
Because herbivores digest their food with the help of special bacteria in the intestines, too much food that is high in starch or sugar, such as grains or fruit, can upset the balance of these bacteria and result in digestive upsets or obesity. In the case of degus, too much sugar has been linked to diabetes.
The other small rodent pets (mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils) are omnivores, with a wider range of dietary options. While a packaged food containing a mix of grains, seeds and fortified nuggets is appealing to these pet owners, some pets will only eat their favorite pieces, leading to nutritional imbalance and waste. For these animals, a pelleted food is preferable.
Food As Fuel
All small animal pets have fast metabolisms, much faster than that of cats and dogs, and burn calories at an incredible rate. In addition, rabbits and rodents are nibblers, with a need and desire to eat at frequent intervals throughout the day and night. 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. Herbivores should be eating hay most of the time, while small rodents should be eating low-fat, low-protein pelleted foods. 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.
There have been exciting new trends in small animal foods over the past few years. One of the most innovative is the use of herbs in hay and treat products. Hay is a food staple relished by rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus, but many pet owners see hay as boring and tasteless. Adding herbs to hay not only makes the product more attractive to owners and pets, it also adds nutritional variety to the diet. Some of the omnivores, including gerbils and hamsters, may also enjoy eating this hay.
Another trend is the introduction of life-stage food for small animal species. It is now possible to buy ferret foods 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 as many calories.
There are also many different specialty diets available, including those that help promote tooth health and those that help reduce shedding and hairballs. There is even a hypoallergenic diet available for ferrets with food allergies.
Retailers can differentiate themselves from competitors by stocking specialty foods and by educating owners about how these foods benefit small pets.
The Food Market
Giving away free samples of food is a marketing technique used extensively for dog and cat diets, but rarely used for small animal foods. Small animal owners are just as concerned about their pets liking a specific food, and a free sample can eliminate their reluctance to try something new.
A fun marketing campaign idea is to host an eating contest, which can be held over a period of a week or month. Owners can bring their pets into the store, where the pet will be allowed to eat as much of a food as it can in a certain time frame, say one minute. The food sample is weighed before and after the contestant’s effort to determine the amount consumed. The winner will receive a prize. This is a fun way for retailers to educate pet owners about the benefits of different types of 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.