Small animals are cute, cuddly and have complex nutritional needs—which, luckily, aren’t as different as their appearances may lead you to believe.
While pet parents may be inclined to believe that the same piece of hay is applicable to multiple small animals (which can be true), each small animal’s dietary needs vary greatly because, well, small animals aren’t from one specific place; they’re from everywhere.
“Each small animal originates from a unique area of the world,” says Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist for Kaytee. “Within each area, small animals foraged from a variety of native grasses, flowers, leafy shrubs and more. Over time, the native varieties created unique nutritional needs that vary by small animal making it important to offer a specific diet for each species.”
Due to their geographical differences, the digestive systems of small animals have evolved and each animal anticipates something specific out of their diet. Just like humans, small animals come in the forms of carnivores, herbivores and omnivores.
“In general, we can draw a broad distinction between herbivores such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, and omnivores like mice, rats and hamsters,” says Claire Hamblion, marketing manager of Supreme Petfoods. “For example, rabbits will appreciate a handful of leafy green veggies per day as a tasty source of extra fiber. Rats, as omnivores, can enjoy small amounts of cooked eggs and meat as a treat.”
Though the dietary differences may vary from one small animal to the next, what remains the same is their demanding nutritional needs. Though they have individual distinctions, there’s a fair amount of dietary overlap not in the ingredients themselves, but in terms of the digestive processes and the specification of a diet.
“Not all small animals are the same—in fact, rabbits are herbivores and ferrets are carnivores,” says Amanda Altman, marketing coordinator for Marshall Pet Products. “Both have very sensitive digestive systems and require very specific diets. Some small animals have teeth that continuously grow over the span of their life which means they need to have toys and treats that allow them to grind their teeth down, whereas ferrets do not and those toys and treats could harm their teeth.”
Small animals are notoriously picky eaters and aren’t afraid to turn their noses up if they’re presented with something that’s unappealing to them. It’s easy to get caught up in supplementing a small animal’s diet with sugary compounds to appeal to their senses and encourage consumption.
“When it comes to choosing appealing food for small furries, the secret is to select options that are tasty but also healthy,” says Hamblion. “This means finding a diet that’s highly palatable without lots of added sugars. In general, for pelleted foods, extruded nuggets or kibbles are a more appealing and healthier option for pocket pets than cold-pressed pellets.”
She explains that extruded nuggets are preferable because they’re cooked at a high temperature under pressure to create a crunchy texture and help the digest properties, while cold-pressed pellets are made by crushing the ingredients together at lower temperatures, which results in a product that uses sugary syrups as binders and is generally less appealing to the small animal.
“To ensure food, treats and even hay are appealing to small animals, it is important to offer a variety of textures and flavors in their diet,” says Nicklas. “Different textures and flavors help encourage foraging activity and provide enrichment opportunities. When choosing a small animal food, there are two options—medley diets and pure pellet diets.”
The first thing consumers see when shopping for small animal food and treats is the packaging, which should be as transparent (both in terminology on the package and physical looks) as possible so the owners of these small animals know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.
“Customers will find it easier to choose their preferred options if the packaging is clearly labeled and it’s easy to see the features and benefits of products,” says Hamblion. “To help health-conscious owners keep their pets in good condition, it’s important to check that small pet foods aren’t too high in sugar, and to avoid products bound with molasses or fruit syrups as these options can lead to obesity. Even for treats, it’s best to avoid products that are too sweet or calorific.”
It seems that every facet of the pet industry is closely aligning with the purchase habits consumers use for themselves. As the owners of these small animals turn to healthier, clearly-labeled products, they’re turning the same keen eye to the products of their animals.
“We see animal nutrition mimic trends in the nutrition of their owners—here is a big push for all natural or certified organic ingredients,” says Altman. “The fewer ingredients, the better. The things that are bad for humans are generally bad for small animals, as well. You never want treats or foods for any small animal that have high levels of sugar, salt or preservatives.”
As consumers turn around the packaging and read the labels to get a feel for what exactly is in the product, they’re seeking out ingredients that are easily understandable and recognizable, meaning retailers should stock products that follow suit.
“Look for natural ingredients that are easy to read and pronounce,” says Altman. “It sounds silly but it keeps the rules simple. Look for ingredients that appeal to the animal’s dietary needs and stick to foods and brands that are formulated specifically for your small animal. Cat food is not an acceptable replacement for ferret food, for example.”
She elaborates that medley diets provide small animals with the appropriate nutrition and mental stimulation by bringing a mixture of ingredients and pieces together, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds and pellets; while pure pellet diets ensure that small animals get the appropriate nutrition in every bite.
“As regards [to] food types, the natural category is currently very popular,” explains Hamblion. “Customers tend to perceive food as ‘natural’ if it includes plain and simple ingredients such as grass or hay, and also if the ingredients are wild or foraged.”
When it comes to treat time, a popular method of bonding with a small animal and giving them something special, consumers are seeking products that add to their small animal’s diet and round out the nutritional profile to ensure snack time isn’t causing any extra harm to the animal’s health.
“Offering a variety of treat options is also important in creating appealing experience for your pet,” says Nicklas. “Treats or snacks should be fed as a reward, so it is important to offer new and exciting formats. While fruity snack options provide an incentivizing tasty flavor, healthier options should also be considered to limit sugar intake.”
As always, Timothy hay is a popular contender in both a health aspect and well being aspect, as the fibrous hay provides a dual purpose for most small animals and their unique physical features.
“Additionally, most small animals have continual growing teeth,” says Nicklas. “To support dental health, it is important to offer plenty of chewing activity. One way is through Timothy hay. The hay requires lots of chewing to help wear down their teeth. Lastly, it is also important to keep small animals on a single diet. Small animals have sensitive digestive systems and switching foods can cause upset.”
Retailers who stock nutritional products that serve multi-purposes and give consumers the most bang for the buck will always see the most success, and they can’t fall into the trap of thinking that one product is suitable for all small animals across the board.
“When stocking up on products, it’s also important to consider the breadth of the range,” says Hamblion. “Retailers will generally enjoy more success if they stock a wide enough range of small pet diets and treats to cater for the needs of multi-pet households.” PB