Despite what the popular—and corny—joke may say, hay isn’t just for horses. In fact, it’s the foundation of many small pets’ diets and a year-round must-have for retailers.
While small pets are not as popular as cats or dogs, they do represent a large segment of pet owners. According to the 2019-2020 American Pet Products Association National Pet Ownership Survey, 5.4 million American households own a small animal, meaning that just because these pets are little, their needs shouldn’t be overlooked.
"Every retailer’s small animal set should be built around hay," says Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health. "Hay-based accessories are great for providing enrichment while also promoting the instinctual chewing behaviors of these pets. Hay is the ideal material to meet this essential instinctual need and provides the added benefit of adding fiber alongside enrichment."
At first glance, hay-based products can seem more straightforward than other pet food categories. However, just like the rest of the pet industry, the category has seen steady growth and big changes in recent years.
One major source of evolution in the category is increased awareness among parents of small pets.
"There’s increasing appreciation that hay needs to be high-quality, containing the right grass species and harvested at the right time to maintain nutritional value," says Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for Supreme Petfoods.
The U.K.-based manufacturer’s new line, Supreme Selective Naturals, is a perfect example of the difference sourcing makes in the product.
"At Supreme Petfoods, we’ve long appreciated the benefits to herbivores of long fiber in sufficient quantities," says Hamblion. "The Selective Naturals range provides owners with a snack that’s healthy for their pet and also helps to build the bond between them through hand feeding."
The treats are made with the highest quality natural ingredients, contain zero added sugar and are high in fiber to pack a nutritional punch. The snacks come in six different varieties that are formulated specifically for different species’ dietary needs.
The Forest Sticks, for example, feature ingredients such as blackberry, chamomile, timothy hay and alfalfa hay, which makes them ideal for rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus.
Since hay should make up at least 70 percent of small herbivores’ daily diet (roughly a portion that matches their body size), these tasty treats are an easy way for pet parents to boost their pets’ hay intake.
"While feeding enough is usually the challenge, we sometimes get asked if it’s possible to feed too much hay. In fact, hay won’t make small pets put on excess weight and will help keep their digestive systems and teeth and mouth healthy. It can largely be fed ad-lib and without restriction," adds Hamblion.
Switching It Up
Another trend shaking up the category is the increasing number of pet parents who are willing to purchase multiple varieties of hay to please their small pets’ palettes.
"Mixing multiple varieties is a great way to add enrichment to mealtime and to prevent selective eating when pets encounter the type of natural variability that can occur between bags of hay," explains Stock.
With its wide range of hay-based products, Oxbow makes it easy for retailers to offer their customers plenty of choices. The Omaha, Nebraska-based manufacturer currently offers six different hays for small pets, including standards like alfalfa, western timothy and oat hay.
It also produces two hay blends, like Botanical Hay, which mixes western timothy hay with fragrant herbs, such as lavender, chamomile, lemon balm and clover.
"Oxbow has been growing and harvesting hay specifically for small animals for more than 30 years. All Oxbow hay is grown with the guidance of five generations of family-farming experience," says Stock.
With so many choices, though, it’s easy for consumers to get overwhelmed. That’s why all of Oxbow’s hays are conveniently labeled with a taste and texture scale to help guide pet parents to the variety that best suits their small pet’s preferences.
"To help reinforce the importance of variety, we encourage retailers to always try to send two varieties home with each hay purchase," says Stock.
For customers who wonder which hay is best for their pet, Stock recommends retailers use the apple analogy.
"All apples look and taste different, but they’re essentially the same nutritionally," he says. "The key takeaway for pet parents is that they can mix and match confidently to discover their pet’s favorite tastes and textures."
Clearing Up Sales
Unlike other pet food categories, small pets’ diets are very different from those of their owners. While dog and cat owners recognize and understand ingredients like salmon or beef, different hays might be completely foreign.
Retailers can help assuage this confusion—and boost sales—through clear messaging. The small pet section should be easy to identify, understand and navigate, advises Hamblion.
"If pet parents are standing in front of the small pet area for an extended period of time without making a purchase, the chances are that you have already failed to meet their needs," she says. "[Pet parents] appreciate clear sign posting so they can make the right choice within the small pet category—which can sometimes be confusing with multiple product types, species and life-stage choices."
Supreme Petfoods provides its retail partners with suggested planograms and fixture audits to help maximize their sales and provide a better customer experience.
Retailers can also prevent consumer confusion and drive category profits by offering educational materials about the critical importance of hay for small pets.
"At Oxbow, we have an entire library of hay-themed educational materials that are designed to educate consumers about the benefits of hay in the daily diet of their small pets," says Stock. "We make these materials available to all partners to share in-store and find that they are very effective in helping educate and convert consumers."
For pet parents who are unsure about buying new or unfamiliar varieties of hay-based products, Hamblion suggests offering free samples to provide shoppers with a low-risk option.
"With Selective Naturals, we see a strong re-purchasing trend, so sampling can work really well and delivers rewards over an extended period of time," she says. "As there can be a strong impulse buy element to treats, especially for that first initial purchase, point of sale displays can be useful."
As for the future of the category, it appears that small pets are no exception to the larger industry push toward natural and organic ingredients, and manufacturers see no signs of that trend fading any time soon.
"We know that pet owners across the board want natural diets for their pet. They certainly want to avoid low nutrient fillers or ingredients that a rabbit might not have selected in the wild," says Stock. "It means that grasses and hays are not just in vogue now—we expect to see pet parents continue to seek them out for some time to come." PB