Food Facts

When retailers give small-pet owners great advice on the healthiest food they can buy for their pets, everyone benefits.


Small-animal pets fall into three groups when it comes to diet. Rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus and prairie dogs are herbivores. Ferrets are carnivores, and the small rodents—rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils—are omnivores. Most small, exotic pets are omnivores, with a few exceptions. Knowing the natural diet their ancestors would eat in the wild provides a guideline for a healthy diet for each pet species.

Wild herbivores eat mostly high-fiber grasses, and fiber is necessary to the proper functioning of their digestive systems. For instance, rabbits ingest a certain amount of hair while grooming themselves. Fiber in their diet helps to sweep the hair through the digestive tract for elimination. Without enough fiber, hairballs can form and cause a blockage.

Fiber also keeps herbivores’ molars from overgrowing. Because their natural diet is abrasive, the cheek teeth of herbivores are designed to keep growing throughout the animal’s life; otherwise, the teeth would quickly be worn away. So, without enough fiber in the diet, the teeth can overgrow and rub on the inside of the mouth, causing injury and pain. The animal will have trouble eating, causing weight loss, and may also slobber or drool.

It is almost impossible for these herbivores to have too much fiber in their diet. Not only should their food pellets be high in fiber, it is also imperative for them to have free-choice timothy or grass hay. Alfalfa hay can also be fed as a treat, but it should be limited because it is high in protein and calcium. Pellets can often be fed free choice as well, although some animals may need to have their pellets restricted to prevent obesity.

The high-fiber diet is digested with the help of special bacteria in the intestines, especially the cecum. Too many foods high in starches or sugars, such as grains or fruit, can upset the balance of these bacteria and result in digestive upsets, as well as obesity. In the case of degus, too much sugar has been linked to a common problem—diabetes.

In sharp contrast to the herbivores, ferrets are strict carnivores and need a highly restricted amount of fiber in their diet—only about 1.5 percent. Any fiber in their diet must also be easily digestible. Like herbivores, though, ferrets should not eat too many foods high in sugar or starches. Too much sugar can cause digestive upset, diarrhea and obesity.

Although ferret-specific foods have been available for many years, some owners might be tempted to give their ferrets cheaper cat or kitten food. Retailers should explain that feline foods are too high in fat, starches and fiber for the ferret’s system. Even though ferret food might be more expensive, it is a good value because the ferret needs to eat less. This also reduces the amount of feces.

The most common mistake in feeding ferrets is to give them treats too high in sugar.  While ferrets are fond of raisins and other sweet foods, these are not appropriate for their diet and may cause digestive upsets and other health problems. The best type of treats for ferrets are high-protein foods, such as treats made from meat.

While many pet owners think that the small rodents are mainly vegetarian, that is not true. In the wild, insects and other animal foods form part of their diet. Rats, especially, are actually predatory and require nutrients best gotten from animal sources.

While a packaged food containing a mix of grains, seeds and fortified nuggets is appealing to both pets and owners, retailers should keep in mind that some pets will selectively eat only their favorite pieces, leading to nutritional imbalance and wastage. Retailers should ask customers buying these grain and seed mixes if their pets are eating the entire diet. If not, suggest they try switching to a pelleted food.

The biggest mistake owners of small rodents make when feeding their pets is to give them too many treats. Fatty foods are especially bad, as the small rodent diet should contain only about five percent fat. Retailers can educate small-rodent owners that a commercial food should compose at least 80 percent of the diet, with a variety of fruit, veggies and treats making up the rest.

Hedgehogs, short-tailed opossums and sugar gliders are all insect eaters, although their diet in the wild also includes other items—for instance, sugar gliders also eat tree sap and gum. Many medical problems in exotic animals are directly caused by an inappropriate diet, so it is fortunate that there are now species-specific diets available for most of the exotic animals kept as pets.

Giving away free samples of food is a marketing technique used extensively for dog and cat foods, but it is 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 help customers overcome their reluctance to try something new.

Retailers that have a small-animal club or rescue in the area could consider working with them. Offer to sell them food at a discount if they will recommend your store as a source of food and other supplies to club members or adopters. The benefits include not only, but also the goodwill that comes with supporting organizations such as these. Be sure to post a notice in the store such as “We Support the Bouncy Bunny Rescue.”

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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