Playing with Your Food

A strong, diverse assortment of chew toys for small animals can encourage pet owners to shop regularly for these essential items.


When customers buy consumables such as food and litter, they do so understanding that they will soon have to buy more. Yet, when it comes to chew toys, many small-animal owners fail to realize that these items are consumable too. Chews come in two categories: those that are meant to be destroyed quickly, and those that are meant to last a while longer—either way, retailers should encourage small-animal owners to replace them regularly and as needed.

How long a chew toy will last depends on its size and construction. For instance, a cardboard tube is designed to last a while, to give the pets a chance to run through it or sleep in it until it is chewed apart. A large wooden chew, or one made from interlocking pieces of wood, is also meant to last. Others toys, such as small twigs, will be quickly chewed up by the pets. A solid chew toy assortment will offer a variety of both types. 

The selection of chew products grows every year. Chews have evolved from the basic block of wood to more sophisticated options that incorporate a wide variety of materials, including cardboard, paperboard, grains, minerals, and natural substances such as coconut husks and cactus skeletons, as well as nuts, wood and twigs. Many are brightly colored with non-toxic vegetable-based food colors. They also come in just about every shape you can think of, like houses, ladders, teeter-totters, jungle-gyms, fruits and vegetables, baskets, tubes, erector sets and even Christmas ornaments.

While attractive colors and shapes appeal to many pet owners, most rodents and rabbits actually seem to prefer natural twigs and sticks that still have the bark attached. Bark is a natural food for rabbits, and rodents also seem to enjoy nibbling off the bark either to eat, or just for the satisfaction of peeling it from the wood.   

Rabbits and rodents are not the only small pets that enjoy chews. Carnivorous ferrets also enjoy chewing.  Ferret owners must select chew toys carefully. Unlike rabbits and rodents, which generally carefully chew everything before they swallow, ferrets will gulp down chunks of whatever they chew apart. Ferret chews must either be digestible or indestructible. Toys made of vinyl or foam rubber should never be given to ferrets, because these materials can cause a fatal intestinal blockage if ingested.

There are safe edible chews made specifically for ferrets that are manufactured from protein and have a rubbery texture that ferrets love. There are also toys made of hard rubber that can be safe for ferrets. Ferret experts say that the best way to test a product is with a staple remover. If the sharp teeth of the tool can penetrate the toy, then a ferret would eventually be able to chew off and swallow pieces—therefore the toy is not safe for ferrets. If the staple remover cannot penetrate the rubber, then the toy is safe.

Chew toys are ideal for add-on sales. Small-animal owners may not remember to get their pets a new chew toy, but a gentle reminder can stimulate a sale. Because chew toys tend to be less than $6, they are also make for perfect impulse buys. Consider keeping a basket of chew toys at the register.

Another effective way to market chew toys is to include a coupon as a bag stuffer for customers buying other small-animal supplies. It is also helpful to put chews in the habitats of the small animals that are for sale. This has two benefits. First, it gives the pets on display something to do, which will encourage them to be more active and therefore more attractive to customers. Second, seeing the chews in the cages will tell shoppers that these products are necessary for the pet’s well-being, and encourage 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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