Natural Nibbles

Retailers are in the best position to guide small-animal owners toward the healthiest foods for their pets.


Like many dog and cat owners, small-pet owners are becoming more concerned about the ingredients in their own diets, as well as those of their pets. They are increasingly looking for pet foods that are healthier and all natural. Manufacturers of small-pet diets have responded to this market by offering a wider variety of natural foods.

However, not every “natural” ingredient is suitable for all species of small pets. Knowing the natural diet of the wild ancestors of small animals helps retailers evaluate the suitability of a food for each species of pet. By educating customers, retailers can also help foster retailer-customer relationships based on trust and mutual concern.

Green Growth

In the wild, herbivores such as rabbits or guinea pigs mostly eat grass, which is low in protein and high in fiber. The best way to imitate this diet for domestic herbivores is to feed them mostly grass hay such as timothy, and use pellets as only a vitamin and mineral supplement.

In the wild, these animals eat a wide variety of other plants, including green, leafy vegetables. Kale, parsley, turnip, mustard, and collard and dandelion greens are high in vitamin C, making them especially good for guinea pigs. Retailers can sell sprouted wheat grass to encourage customers to feed their rabbits and guinea pigs fresh greens.

Grains, root vegetables and small amounts of fruit, such as low-growing berries, are another natural part of a small herbivore’s diet. Rabbit and guinea pig owners can treat their pets to small amounts of fruit, carrots and oats. On the other hand, nuts and fatty seeds are not part of their natural diet and can cause digestive upset and obesity in these animals.

Retailers and their small-animal customers should also be aware of the way rabbits and guinea pigs metabolize calcium. Most animals only absorb as much calcium as their bodies need from their food, but rabbits and guinea pigs absorb all the calcium they ingest and excrete excess amounts in their urine. This is why their urine often looks cloudy white. It is important that these animals don’t get too much calcium in their diet. Since alfalfa hay is fairly high in calcium, it should only be fed in small amounts as a treat.

Rat Rations
One of the most common health problems in female rats is mammary tumors. About half of all female rats will suffer from mammary tumors, which grow huge and require either surgery or eventual euthanasia. While spaying is the best way to help prevent these tumors, studies have shown that a diet high in soybean products can also help prevent these tumors. Rodent blocks that are high in soy are not sold in grocery stores, so retailers that carry and promote these foods can build a strong customer base among rat owners.

Marketing Tips
Wheatgrass contains an abundance of vitamins and minerals and can be sold for small omnivorous rodents, as well as herbivores. A fun way to call attention to the benefits of sprouted wheatgrass is to hang a large sign over the display that says, “Go Green!” in large letters, with smaller text that explains the benefits of this natural food for rabbits and rodents.   

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. Giving small-pet owners a risk-free opportunity to see if their pet will like a food can encourage them to switch their pet to a diet that might be more beneficial.

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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