Safe Sustenance

Retailers can help keep small animals healthy by educating pet owners about the safest ways to supply food and water.


Waterers and feeders for small animals come in a wide variety of colors and designs. Just when you think the category has nothing new to offer, a manufacturer can surprise you with a product that has just enough novelty to make it shine on the shelves.

While this variety can be a boon for all retailers, the stores that make the most of the category will be the ones that have knowledgeable staff with the ability to guide their customers in their shopping decisions.

Feeders 101

It may seem obvious, but one of the most important things to know about small-animal feeders is that they need to be chew-proof or chew-resistant. The exception to this rule is hay packaged in a cardboard covering that is actually meant to be chewed through. The package goes straight from the store shelf to the cage and entertains pets as they chew it apart to get to the hay.

However, feeders typically need to be able to stand up to a strong set of chompers. Ceramic and metal are chew-proof, and some hard plastics are very resistant to chewing. Food dishes for small animals should be wider than they are tall, to allow animals with short legs easy access to the inside of the dish. This also makes the dish more stable and difficult to tip over. The bottom of a non-tip dish should be the same diameter as the top, or even larger, to provide extra support.

A foolproof way to make sure a feeder can’t be tipped over is to attach it to the cage. There are dishes with simple hooks that hang over the wire mesh, as well as dishes that come with a holder that attaches to the cage. It’s helpful if the dish can be easily taken out for cleaning.

A gravity feeder is a good way to offer dry food. This accessory holds an ample supply of food but only allows access to a small portion at one time. This has several benefits for the customer: it helps keep the food clean, reduces food waste and decreases the amount of time required to feed several animals, since the feeder is filled less often. However, retailers should warn customers to keep watch on the feeder to make sure it continues to operate properly. With some gravity feeders, the food can get stuck and fail to drop down where the pets can reach it. Shaking the feeder will usually remove the blockage.

Owners should offer separate feeders for dry and moist foods, and retailers can encourage customers to buy extra dishes so one dish can remain in the cage while the other is out for a thorough cleaning. 

How About a Drink?
Water bottles should be chosen according to the size of the animal. Some customers want to buy the biggest bottle available to reduce the need to refill it. However, a bottle that is too big will allow the water to become stale. The bottle should only hold enough water for a few days to a week so the bottle can be cleaned and refilled frequently. In addition, the sipper tube must be the right size for the animal’s mouth, neither too big nor too small.

Soft-plastic bottles are generally less expensive, but they also tend to wear out more quickly. Many animals—especially rodents—tend to chew on soft plastic, so if an animal can reach the bottle itself, it should be protected with a metal guard. Hard plastic bottles tend to be quite durable and are resistant to chewing. Glass bottles are impervious to chewing and are also very durable, as long as they aren’t dropped on a hard surface.

There are two basic designs of sipper tubes. The traditional design contains one or two ball bearings that release a flow of water when pushed by the animal’s lips or tongue. Some sipper tubes have a spring-in construction, requiring the animal to use more pressure to release the water—this helps reduce dripping, especially when the bottle is jiggled.

A new design features a small lever that the animal must push aside to release the water. This design is also more drip-resistant. Regardless of the design, pet owners need to test that the water bottle is working properly and keep track of the water level in their pets’ bottles to make sure the levels are going down. 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. Equipping a cage with two water bottles will help prevent this danger, especially if the owner is gone over the weekend.

Water bottles should be cleaned regularly with a bottle brush to prevent the growth of bacteria. The most common place for bacterial growth is inside the sipper tube, which needs to be cleaned regularly with a tiny brush or cotton swab.

Another warning about water that retailers should pass on to small pet owners is the possible risk of fluoridated water. Scientific studies have shown that rats are particularly sensitive to fluoride, and levels of fluoride similar to that added to some human water supplies can result in brain damage in rats. Other studies have shown that fluoride speeds the sexual maturation of gerbils and can cause problems in the development of embryos in hamsters. In areas of the country that have fluoride in the water, small pet owners should use only non-fluoridated bottled water. Fluoride can only be removed from water by distillation, reverse osmosis—or de-ionization—not a carbon filter.   

Marketing Tips
Waterers and feeders come in a wide variety of different colors and designs to attract the shopper’s eye. Many retailers display these products in their own section of the store, but displaying some of the most attractive feeders alongside bags of food will attract the attention of customers buying supplies for their pets. Hanging a row of innovative water bottles in the bedding aisle can also encourage sales, even with customers who don’t think they’re in the market for a water bottle.

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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