The Bottom Line

Retailers should be sure to stock litter and bedding products, as they are staples that small animal owners must buy regularly.


Small animal products designed to be placed at the bottom of a cage are called “litter” or “bedding.” Generally, the purpose of litter is to absorb waste products, and it tends to consist of granules or pellets. Bedding tends to be a softer product meant to create a comfortable sleeping nest. However, even a product designed as bedding should have some of the characteristics of a litter, as many small animals will either purposefully or inadvertently soil their nest.

When marketing litter and bedding products for small animals, there are several factors to keep in mind. There is no such thing as perfect bedding or litter–each product will score higher or lower on various measures. Customers will pick a product based on which feature of the product is a higher priority to them.

The different factors a customer will consider when choosing a product include absorption, odor control, health effects on the animal, convenience, texture, the product’s scent, how messy the product is, and the price of the product. Some of these features must be weighed against each other. For instance, some products that are excellent for odor control can be a bit more messy than other products.

Retailers should offer customers a fairly large selection of bedding and litter products, including at least one in each category–wood shavings or chips, corn cob granules, ground walnut shells, shredded-paper products, paper pellets, and natural products (hay, straw, bark, wood, hulls) ground up and formed into pellets or granules.

The texture of a product will determine its perceived comfort factor among customers. Small animal owners often think pellet and granule litters are uncomfortable for their pets to walk on. While it is true that when animals are first exposed to these products they can be a little reluctant to walk on them, it doesn’t take long for them to adjust and become comfortable. When a customer is unsure whether to buy pellets or granules, retailers can suggest using only a one-quarter to one-half inch layer of the product at the bottom of the cage, which will allow the pieces to shift enough to provide cushioned footing when the animal walks on them. Using a thicker layer can also be wasteful, as it will get dirty just as quickly.

Shredded-paper products are perceived as attractive because they are soft and comfortable for the pet, and the new colors they come in are fun and fashionable. However, paper by itself may not control odor as well as some of the other products. Some manufactures of paper pellets have overcome this weakness by adding an odor-control ingredient to their product.

By combining two or more products, pet owners can take advantage of the best features of each. For instance, a layer of rabbit food (which actually makes good litter for rats, mice, gerbils and hamsters) on the bottom of a cage will do a great job of controlling odors, while a shredded-paper product can be placed on top for comfort.

Health Factors

A dusty product can sometimes be irritating to an animal’s respiratory system and can cause sneezing. Some shredded paper products can cause sneezing in rats, and I know of one particular rat that was sensitive to one brand of paper pellets. Obviously, if an animal is sensitive to a particular product, a different product should be used. Offer the owner a variety of options so he or she can find a suitable solution for the pet.

Marketing Ideas

Because cage litters and beddings are consumable staples that small animal owners must buy on a regular basis, they are ideal for a frequent-buyer program. Most programs of this type issue the customer a card, often called a Preferred Customer Card, a Frequent Customer Card or a Club Card. A store employee records each purchase by initialing the card and writing the date. The card can be marked for each bag of litter or bedding the customer buys, or the total dollar amount of the litter or bedding purchase can be recorded on the card. 

In many cases, the customer is given their card to carry in their wallet. In some cases, the store has the customer fill out a card that is kept at the store in an alphabetized file. This is not only a convenience for the customer, it also lets retailers examine the purchasing record of each of their small-animal clients. Such a system could also be computerized.

Pet retailers are probably most acquainted with this type of program for certain brands of pet food. Restricting a program for bedding and litter to just one brand, however, would be counterproductive. Customers need to try several brands to find the products that are right for them, and their needs or preferences may change over time.

When a certain number of bags are purchased or a goal dollar amount is reached on the card, the customer is rewarded for their loyalty. Rewards can range from a free bag of litter or bedding to a coupon worth 15 percent off anything in the store. These bonus rewards encourage customers to come back to the store each time they need litter or bedding. Of course, the more often they’re in the store, the more likely they are to make additional purchases.

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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