Pocket Pet Playtime
Informing customers about the health benefits of toys for their small animal pets can help retailers spark sales in this fun-filled category.
All pets that live in cages need toys for both physical and mental health. Not only do toys provide small animals with the opportunity to exercise, but they also help keep them occupied, preventing boredom and making their lives more enjoyable.
In scientific terms, toys provide “enrichment,” and laboratory studies have shown they may enhance animals’ intelligence. For example, rats raised in cages with toys developed larger brains with more nerve endings than rats raised in empty cages. Giving toys to small pets not only entertains them—and by extension, their owners—but also makes them smarter.
One of the best toys for rodents is an exercise wheel. Almost all rodents, with the possible exception of guinea pigs, will run on a wheel, as long as it’s the proper size. Even other small pets such as hedgehogs and sugar gliders enjoy exercise wheels. The diameter of the wheel needs to be at least one and a half times the length of the animal from nose to base of tail. Even larger is better, as the larger the wheel, the more comfortable it will be for the animal to use and the faster they will be able to run.
Most exercise wheels on the market now have a solid or mesh running surface, which prevents the animals from getting their feet or tail caught in the wheel, as they can with wheels made of metal bars. Solid-surface wheels come in both plastic and metal designs, with the more durable metal wheels tending to be more expensive. Gerbils often prefer running discs, which don’t cramp their long tails, instead of wheels. Plastic wheels and discs can usually withstand a fair amount of chewing by most rodents, but they should not be used for degus, because these chewing masters will quickly destroy anything made of plastic.
Some customers may express concern that solid running surfaces don’t provide enough traction for the animals, but there’s no need to worry. Small animals’ feet have small pads that are designed to grip the surface of even smooth powder-coated metal.
For small, agile pets, including mice, rats, flying squirrels and sugar gliders, toys like ropes, branches and ladders are also good additions to the cage.
Rabbits enjoy pushing a ball along the floor, and they also like toys they can pick up, carry and toss. Wire cat balls can work well for this, as long as there are no parts that can be pulled out and swallowed. Sisal toss toys are particularly popular with rabbits.
Rabbits also enjoy running through tubes. In fact, just about all small animals like playing with a tube. Tubes can stimulate chasing games between cagemates and provide a place to sleep. Available in many styles, from plastic to cardboard to natural wood, and sizes, there’s an option suitable for any small animal. The tube should be large enough for the animal to walk through normally, without having to squeeze through. Tubes can rest on the cage floor, or for agile pets that can climb, tubes can be suspended in the cage to provide variety and save floor space.
Food toys, which dispense treats as the animals push, pull, tug or roll them, are also good to keep all types of little animals busy. These types of toys keep pets active as they work to get treats out of the toy, providing good exercise as well as a mental challenge. Plus, it can be a lot of fun for owners to watch a pet play with a food toy.
Most customers visit a pet store about once a month for supplies, so it’s a good idea to change the small animal toy display monthly to keep it fresh. Featuring one toy, or one type of toy, each month can make a big impact. Retailers can fill an endcap or section of the toy department with one toy to create an attention-grabbing color-blocking effect.
Another way to encourage toy sales is to offer a free treat with the purchase of a toy. Retailers can also bundle several small toys together in a package at a special price. This can be a good way to sell slower-moving toys along with more popular designs.
Be sure to place examples of toys in the small animal display habitats. When customers see the animals playing with the toys, they will be more likely to buy one for their own pet. Rotate the toys in the habitats to create a new display each month. If you sell out of a toy, remove it from the display and replace it with a toy that is in stock. PB
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of three books about rat care, health, and training, and was a consultant on the movie Ratatouille.