Meal Planning

Retailers can educate small-pet owners on the best way to purchase food to ensure quality and freshness.


Buying food for a small animal may seem as simple as purchasing a product off a shelf and then pouring some kibble into a bowl. However, small-animal experts know that there are a few things pet owners need to know when they stock up for their pets, and retailers can be instrumental in helping shoppers determine what food to buy, as well as how much and how often.

small animalThe one thing all small pets have in common is their size. Even the largest rabbits weigh no more than 15 to 20 pounds, and mice and dwarf hamsters can weigh just an ounce or two. Small animals eat less food than larger animals, a fact that may seem obvious. However, smaller animals tend to have a faster metabolism than larger animals, burning calories more quickly. They therefore need to eat more food per pound of body weight, and more often. Retailers should keep this point in mind when selecting the size of packages to display on their shelves.

Bulk packaging of human foods has taught shoppers that a larger package is usually more economical than a smaller package. So, price-conscious customers tend to buy larger packages, even if their pet is tiny. However, food doesn’t stay good forever—which is why packaged foods feature expiration dates.

Retailers know that they need to rotate their stocks of food and keep track of the expiration dates to ensure only food that is still good is being sold. Sales need to be tracked to prevent either running out of a particular brand of food, or ordering more than can be sold within the expiration date. However, pet owners don’t always know that they also need to keep track of the amount of food they buy to ensure they buy only the right amount. Retailers are in a prime position to help customers make the most appropriate choices for their pets.

Retailers may want to start by explaining to customers that even pet food has a shelf life. While many shoppers know to look for the expiration date on packages of human food, not all pet owners realize the same can be applied to pet food. Some pet owners may not know that even dry foods will eventually lose quality through the degradation of vitamins, and that the fats in the food can become rancid. Rancid fats affect the odor and flavor of the food, and they produce free-radicals, which are thought to promote aging and health problems.

Expiration dates aren’t always a guarantee either. An occasional batch of food can go bad early, due to factors such as exposure to air and light—which is why resealable bags for pet food is a welcome advance in packaging. Rancid fats can be the reason that pets start to refuse to eat their food. In this case, the food should be discarded and replaced with fresh food.

The higher the fat content of a food, the higher the chance that the fat will become rancid. In the small animal category, ferret foods are the highest in fat content, followed by foods for hedgehogs. Next in line are foods for omnivores, including small rodents and exotics such as sugar gliders, and finally, foods for herbivores. Retailers may consider telling customers that if a food goes bad before its expiration date, the bag should be returned to the store for a replacement.

Retailers can also educate customers about the amount of food that they should be giving their pets. Because small animals have fast metabolisms, it is important that they have constant access to food. But this doesn’t mean just keeping a large bowl full of food. Topping off the dish with new food every day can result in the food underneath going bad, and even becoming moldy.

Most packages of food include guidelines for how much to feed, depending on the size of the pet. Pet owners need to understand that these are just guidelines, and they should pay attention to how much food their pets are actually eating. Rather than just putting in food once a day, owners should check their pet’s food twice a day to see what has been eaten and what is left. If a lot of food is always left over, they should give a little less each a time. If all the food is gone, they need to give more each time. This twice-a-day feeding time is also an opportunity for owners to give supplemental foods such as fruits and vegetables—to appropriate species—as a treat.

Lastly, retailers can help customers keep track of the last time they bought food and how much they bought to help them plan their purchases. One way to do this is to establish a frequent-buyer food program. Every time a customer makes a food purchase, the information, including the date and the size of the package that was purchased, is entered into their file, either electronic or paper. Over time, this record will tell both retailer and customer how much food the customer’s pets are eating. Once this is identified, the retailer is in a position to possibly suggest to the customer a way to improve their buying habits. If the customer is buying enough food, it might save them money to buy larger packages more frequently. Or, if too much time passes between food purchases, the retailer can suggest to their customer that the food would stay fresher if he or she purchases smaller packages of food more often.

Sharing information with customers in this way helps form an ongoing relationship and makes the shopping experience more personal. This establishes the retailer as an expert in the mind of the customer and encourages customer loyalty.

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! and The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.

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