Bedding Basics

Offering a wide choice of bedding and litter products will ensure that customers find one that works well for them, encouraging repeat sales.


One of the most important sales retailers can make to small-animal owners is bedding and litter. Cage odor is one of the main complaints customers have about small pets. In fact, if this problem is bad enough, it can actually cause some people to get rid of their small pets. But cage odor does not have to be a problem with the wide variety of odor-control products that are available. Gone are the olden days when sawdust, straw and hay were the only options, and many of the litter and bedding products currently available are highly effective at combating odor.

Not only is the sale of odor control products important for the comfort of the pet owner, it is even more important for the health of small pets. The cause of the worst odors emanating from small pet cages is not just urine, but ammonia, which is produced when bacteria interacts with urine. Ammonia does not just smell unpleasant, it is extremely caustic and will damage an animal’s respiratory tract, causing or facilitating respiratory disease. Therefore, it is imperative that an ammonia problem is stopped in its tracks.

The main defense against ammonia is cage cleaning. Retailers should educate customers about the need to change the litter and bedding before it starts to smell bad. But there is no cut-and-dried formula for how often cages need to be changed. Often, the advice is to clean a cage once a week, but the need totally depends on the species of pet, the size of the cage, the number of occupants and the type of bedding product used. Some products are two to three times more effective for odor control than others. Cleaning more often than necessary wastes the customer’s time and money. The key is for pet owners to pay attention to the condition of their cages to determine the best cleaning schedule.

There is no perfect bedding or litter product. Each one has different properties with different benefits and limitations. When retailers educate customers about these factors, customers can choose a product based on the features most important to them.

Recycled paper pellets are probably the least messy of the alternatives, as they don’t fall apart when wet, and their relatively heavy weight helps keep them in the cage. Generally, the smaller and lighter the pieces of a product are, the easier it is for them to be kicked out of the cage. Wood shavings and shredded paper products can be messy, but they are favored by small-pet owners for their softer texture. They can be used for bedding as well as litter. Shredded paper products can be dustier than other products and can cause some animals to sneeze. Pure paper products also do not tend to control odor as well as some other products, although some companies add baking soda or other ingredients to boost odor control. Putting a layer of zeolyte granules underneath any bedding or litter product can also help control odors and make the product last longer.

Pellets or granules made from ground natural products, such as wheat straw and other grain by-products, aspen bark, peanut shell meal and alfalfa hay, can be messy because they fall apart when they get wet, but they generally control odor extremely well. Rabbit food falls into this category and makes an inexpensive litter for mice, rats, hamsters and gerbils. Some customers avoid pellets and granules because they think they will be uncomfortable for the animals’ feet.  However, using a 1/4-1/2 inch layer of the product allows the pieces to shift enough to provide cushioned footing. Softer products can also be layered on top of pellets.

Shoppers are increasingly interested in buying products that are considered “green,” and there are many bedding/litter products that qualify. These include products that are made from recycled post-consumer materials, or industrial or agricultural by-products, as well as those made from an easily renewable source, such as cultivated plants.

Brightly colored paper products are attractive to small pet owners, especially children, but they tend to be more expensive. If customers express interest in colored bedding, but object to the price, employees can suggest mixing the colored bedding with non-colored bedding to add a touch of color at a lower cost.

The scent of a product matters to customers. Most customers will not buy a product they perceive as having an objectionable odor, no matter how attractive its other features are—and every person has a different sense of smell. There are several ways to allow customers to smell a product and examine its texture. Retailers can give out small sample bags of the products they carry, or even set up a display of bowls containing samples. Housing small animals on different litter products can also give customers the chance to observe the products in action, allowing them to see what the litter looks like in a large area, how the animals appear on the bedding and whether or not the animals seem to like it.

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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