little rabbit eating hay on a white background

It’s easy to think that small animals have small needs, but anyone who’s ever loved one knows that is certainly not true. Small animals need specific diets to meet all their nutritional requirements, and it’s important for retailers to keep up with the growing small animal diet category. 

According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Association, approximately 5.4 million households now have small animals, and that number is projected to continue growing. 

“Small pets are becoming more popular, especially amongst younger adults of the Millennial generation,” says Claire Hamblion, marketing manager at Supreme Petfoods. “Rabbits, in particular, are common companions; but other small furries such as hamsters and guinea pigs are also popular pocket pals.”

It is important to remember that small animals are often members of multi-pet households, and ideally, pet parents look to get everything their pets’ need at one store. 

“Shopping patterns suggest that multi-pet owners start by looking for products for the pet that’s most difficult to cater for, which is usually the small pet,” says Hamblion. “So, by prioritizing small animal diets, retailers will hold on to these high-value customers and cut down on lost sales. 

“Retailers aiming to provide the best selection should think about stocking a wide enough range of species-specific products to cater for multi-pet households.”

According to Gina Nicklas, small animal marketing specialist for Kaytee, focusing on the small animal diet category specifically will mean a steady revenue stream for retailers. 

“Small animal foods should be prioritized among the product selection because they are a necessary product for the care of a small animal, and they continually bring in repeat purchases throughout a small animal’s lifetime,” she explains. “Small animals have sensitive digestive systems, so once they are on a diet, it is likely they will stick to it.”


Optimal Options

Despite most pet parents sticking to one food throughout their furry friend’s lifetime, variety is the name of the game when stocking small animal foods to make sure there’s something for everyone. Small animal diets vary by species, with different levels of nutrients, and most diets should be supplemented by an assortment of foods, like produce and timothy hay. 

“Small animals can be picky eaters, so it is important to offer a wide range of different food options, including both pure pellet and medley style diets,” says Nicklas. 

Pellet diets, such as Timothy Complete from Kaytee or the Critter Be Better Digestive Health diet from American Pet Diner, offer the full spectrum of nutrition in one type of food. This approach can help with health issues and ensure picky eaters get all the nutrients they need. 

An alternative is the nugget diet, which similarly offers all the nutrients packed into every piece, but with different preparation. 

“Cold-pressed pellets and extruded nuggets may look similar, but there’s a difference in terms of nutrition and palatability,” elaborates Hamblion. “In general, extruded nuggets are both healthier and tastier, because they’re cooked under pressure, and this makes them highly digestible with an appealing crunchy texture. Cold-pressed pellets often contain syrups, such as molasses, to bind the ingredients together and make them more palatable, and this extra sugar raises the risk of dental disease and obesity.”

Medley diets, on the other hand, are growing in popularity as a more natural alternative to pellets and nuggets, both in their ingredient composition and in the way they help small animals engage their foraging instincts. 

“One of the current trends in pet food revolves around the idea of ancestral feeding,” Nicklas elaborates. “In the wild, small animals are natural gatherers, so providing a diet that supports those natural foraging instincts promotes all-around health and wellness.”

In all types of diets, though, consumers are looking for the best of the best, without added sugar or fillers, and with pro- and prebiotics added to promote and maintain digestive health in their small animals, Nicklas says. 

“We’re seeing small pet owners becoming more aware of nutritional needs and increasingly seeking out high-quality and nutritionally balanced food,” Hamblion elaborates. “Our Science Selective range of extruded diets is formulated to provide high-quality nutrition with a delicious taste and texture. We’ve also refined our extrusion process so we can include high levels of long fiber, making these diets even better for digestive and dental health.”

Small animal retailers’ selection should also include different diets based on the unique habitats the animals can be kept in. Hamblion explains that house rabbits, for example, need additional vitamin D in their diet to make up for their being kept indoors, rather than in their natural habitat where they’d get a lot of sun. 

This increased focus on the health benefits in small animal diets follows the more general trend of humanization in pets, with owners seeing their companions as part of the family and are therefore dedicated to giving them high-quality food. 

“Pet parents understand the importance of providing a well-rounded diet, including the enrichment benefits of real fruits, vegetables, flowers and timothy hay,” adds Nicklas.

Timothy hay and other high-quality grasses are an especially important part of small animals’ diets, since a concentrated food item like a pellet or nugget should only make up 80 percent of their diet, explains Hamblion. In addition, many small animals, such as rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs, have constantly growing teeth that need to be worn down. Pet parents will always be in need of high-quality, high-fiber grasses for their furry friends, so it’s something that every small animal retailer should have on hand. 

Aside from the sure bet of timothy hay, it can be difficult to determine the best selection of products when there’s so much variety in the market. Nicklas urges retailers to reach out to manufacturers to determine which products to stock. 

“Retailers should be asking manufacturers their recommendation of product assortment,” she says. “Many [manufacturers], such as Kaytee, have a variety of different small animal food product lines. Each product line has unique benefits, and the manufacturers can help make recommendations based on the retailer’s target customers.”


Packed with Potential

Retailers should also always make sure to have all the information on the products they stock to help point customers in the right direction. Some manufacturers, such as Supreme Petfoods, include this information on the packaging, but retailers should also reach out directly to manufacturers to ensure the quality and composition of their products. 

“By providing advice and information on diets, retailers have a great opportunity to differentiate themselves from grocery stores and emphasize the value of their products,” Hamblion elaborates. “Customers seek out specialist retailers for their expertise as well as their range. Retailers can showcase their value by providing advice on the nutritional needs of each species and how the diets should be fed.”

Attention to detail is a must with small animals to make sure these little critters’ needs don’t get lost in the pet retail shuffle. The small animal market is not small by any means, and its continued growth means retailers shouldn’t discount its importance. 

“We’re expecting the market in small animal food to continue to expand as pocket pets become ever more popular,” says Hamblion. “These pets are increasingly becoming part of the family and owners are getting more invested in meeting their nutritional needs. This means we’ll continue to see demand for high-quality and premium products.”  PB