Bowl Them Over

Understanding small animals' needs, as well as the various features and uses of the bowls and bottles used to give them food and water, is key to boosting sales in this category.


Bottles and bowls for delivering food and water will always be staples in the small-animal department. However, that does not mean retailers should stock them and forget about them. To make the most of this product category, retailers need to understand small animals’ needs and be able to explain to customers the various product options available.

Among the first things for retailers to keep in mind is that in the case of food dishes and water bottles, one is great, but two is definitely better. Anyone buying a new small pet needs to purchase at least one food dish or hopper, and a water dish or bottle. As these products wear out or break, they will need to be replaced, leading to repeat sales. Even better, however, is to start out with two of each.

Retailers can increase sales of feeders and waterers by educating customers about the benefits of having spares on hand. Having two water bottles for each cage makes bottle cleaning easier, since one bottle can be cleaned while the second is in use. A second water bottle will also be available to use if the one on the cage springs a leak. A second bottle is also imperative when pet owners leave their pets alone for a few days or over a weekend. Sometimes a plastic bottle will suddenly develop a leak, allowing the water to drain out, or the ball bearing in the sipper tube may get stuck, preventing the animal from getting water. A back-up water bottle on the cage will ensure the animals won’t go thirsty.

Instruct customers to regularly check the sipper tube and watch the water level in the bottle to identify any problems and make sure animals are getting water. If a water bottle fails to work properly and the owner doesn’t notice, the results can be fatal. Some small pets can die after only three days without water. If a customer complains about a chronically leaky bottle, especially a glass bottle, the most likely cause is that they aren’t tightening the top enough, or the rubber washer is missing or worn out.

Each small-animal cage should be equipped with at least two food dishes: one for dry food and one for moist foods. It is also a good idea for pet owners to have a least one spare moist-food dish, so one can be washed while the other is in use. Feeders for small animals must be chew-proof, or at least chew-resistant, and they should be composed of hard plastic, ceramic or metal. Dishes should also be tip-proof or tip-resistant. Bowls that attach to the side of the cage fill this requirement. Dishes placed on the floor of the cage should sit flat, and the base of the dish should be as large, or larger, than the top for stability.

Food hoppers, since they generally hang on the side of the cage, are tip-proof and can be a convenient way to serve dry foods. Hoppers will generally hold enough food for several days, making them convenient for several animals, and also for leaving the animals alone over a weekend.

There are two basic designs of sipper tubes on small-animal water bottles. The traditional design contains one or two ball bearings that release a flow of water when pushed by the animal’s lips or tongue. In some sipper tubes, a spring is added so more pressure is needed to release the water, helping to reduce dripping—especially when the bottle is jiggled. A more recent design features a small lever that the animal must push aside to release the water. This design is also more drip resistant.

Convenient Solutions
The advent of water bottles with levers has allowed for the addition flip-tops, which lets the owner add water to the bottle without removing it from the cage. While this is convenient, it may discourage frequent cleaning of the bottle. Customers buying these bottles should be reminded that the bottle still needs to be cleaned periodically, and they need to watch the bottle for any possible algae or bacterial growth.

An oversized water bottle can also discourage frequent cleaning and can result in stale water. Retailers need to guide customers in buying the proper size water bottle for the type of pet they own. The bigger the animal, the more water it drinks, of course. Larger bottles usually also have larger sipper tubes, and if the sipper tube is too big, the animal can have difficulty moving the ball bearing to release the water. On the other hand, a sipper tube that is too small can be frustrating for the animal and result in the pet not drinking enough water.

The perfect add-on sale when a customer is buying a water bottle is a bottle brush. Wide-mouth bottles are the easiest to clean and can often be put in the dishwasher, but bottles with small mouths need to be scrubbed with a brush of the proper size.

Retailers should stock not only several sizes of bottle brushes, but also a tiny brush to clean the sipper tube. Most people forget to clean this part of the water bottle, allowing bacteria to flourish inside. A box of tiny brushes on the counter will cause customers to wonder what they are for and ask about them. A brush is an easy sale once a staff member explains how bacteria grows in the bottle and sipper tube unless they are cleaned frequently. Water bottles and sipper tubes for guinea pigs must be cleaned especially frequently, as the pigs have a tendency to back-wash while drinking. 

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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