Critter Litter

With the wide variety of litter products available, a retailer who understands the features of each is in the best position to advise customers.


The use of litter in small animal cages depends on the species of animal. Some animals, such as ferrets and rabbits, may only need litter in their litter boxes. Other small pets tend to be less discriminating about where they eliminate and need litter over the entire bottom of their cage. Different species also vary in the amount of waste they produce, and therefore the type and amount of litter they need. Guinea pigs and rabbits pass a copious quantity of urine, not only because of their larger size, but also because of their physiology. They must drink large amounts of water to help their bodies eliminate excess calcium, and what goes in must come out. Litter for these animals must be absorbent, plentiful and spot cleaned daily. In contrast, gerbils are desert animals that produce only small amounts of very concentrated urine, so their litter needs to be changed much less frequently.

Fortunately, there is quite a varied selection of litter and bedding products available for small owners to choose from. These products can be classified into different types: wood shavings or chips, corn cob granules, ground walnut shells, paper fiber products, paper pellets, and natural products (hay, straw, bark, wood, hulls) that are ground up and formed into pellets or granules. Each product will have its own characteristics with advantages and disadvantages. The characteristics that matter to customers include absorption, texture, appearance, odor- control ability and mess quotient, as well as price.

The Perfect Match
Each customer will tend to put more or less value on different product features. For one customer, absorption and odor control might be paramount. Another might choose a product based more on its appearance. Still another might want to select the product that will minimize mess in the home. Each product will be stronger on some features than others. Retailers should be familiar with the characteristics of each product so they can advise customers on the product that best meets their needs.

For instance, shredded paper products score high on absorption, texture and appearance, but they can be messy and score low on odor control. Paper pellets are less messy, and odor-control components can be added to boost that feature. Pellets of natural products (including rabbit food) are usually quite good for odor control, but because they tend to crumble apart when wet, they can be messy. Products that are in more natural forms, such as wood shavings, tend to have a lower price than those that are more highly processed. (However, rabbit food makes a great inexpensive litter for hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice on display in the store.)

Health Concerns
While price and performance are important factors in how small animal owners choose bedding, health concerns are bigger now than ever before. There are four common health concerns about small animal litter products: 1) Dust, which can cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract; 2) Harsh texture, which can abrade the feet, leading to sores; 3) The ingestion of inedible products, which can cause blockages of the digestive tract; and 4) Aromatic oils, which can irritate the respiratory tract and cause allergic reactions.

The first three factors are often only a problem for certain individual animals. For instance, most animals might do fine on a paper fiber product, but such a product might cause a few animals to sneeze. Most animals might do fine on a corncob litter, while others might persist in trying to eat it, getting it caught in their throats. Some animals can be more prone to foot sores than others. If a particular product seems to be a problem for an animal, advise the pet’s owner to try a different type of product.

Aromatic oils occur in pine and cedar shavings, and increasing numbers of small pet owners are avoiding these products in favor of other options. Hardwood shavings, such as aspen, do not contain these aromatic oils.   

Marketing Tips
Because each product has benefits and drawbacks, retailers can suggest customers use two different types  together to take advantage of the best qualities of each. For instance, a layer of pellets can be put down first, with a shredded product on top for added softness.

Brightly colored paper products are attractive to small pet owners, especially children, but tend to be more expensive. If customers express objections to the price, staff members can suggest they can mix the colored bedding with non-colored bedding to add a touch of color at a lower cost. Colored products can also be made more appealing by displaying different colors during different seasons. Not only will a fresh color attract attention just because it’s new, it will be more inviting if it ties in with a seasonal holiday.

Consider housing small animals for sale on different litter products. This will give customers the chance to see the products in action so they can see what the litter looks like in a large area, how the animals appear on the bedding, how the bedding smells, and how the animals seem to like it. If this proves too expensive, smaller samples of litter products can be displayed in cage setups, or even in an arrangement of bowls or litter boxes to allow customers to see the products out of the packages.

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

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