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Sizing Up Small Animal Food

In the small mammal category, pet specialty retailers can capitalize on rising trends in the segment.


Hedgehogs, sugar gliders and mini pigs are just a few of the small exotic animals that are becoming more prevalent as pets in some markets, and retailers catering to the nutritional needs of these animals—and small animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters—can increase their customer base quickly. 

The 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, published by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), revealed that nearly 7 percent of U.S. pet owners have a small animal as their pet. The percentage might seem small, but small mammals continue to represent an important segment of the pet industry. And manufacturers and retailers alike understand the desire of owners of small animals to feed their pets healthful and palatable food, giving rise to a continual influx of innovation and product development in the category.

“We feel it’s critical to provide species-specific diets and products to ensure a high level of care,” said Jim Norsen, national sales manager for Vitakraft Sunseed Inc., based in Bowling Green, Ohio. “We work hard to make sure these products are widely available through distribution and on shelf so that exotic owners can provide for their animals with minimal effort. We also offer our exotic diets in bulk for breeders and pet owners who don’t have regular access to pet shops.”

Teri Applegate, territory manager of Volkman Seed in Ceres, Calif., noted that, as with all pet categories, small animal diets have evolved to include robust varieties of tastes and textures that animals find stimulating, while addressing their specific dietary needs. The attention that manufacturers pay to ensuring products are both appealing and nutritious speaks to the recent increase in consumer demand for high-quality products.  

“With the humanization of our pets, pet parents are becoming more educated about the health and well-being of their pets,” she said. 

In fact, Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, N.Y., said trends in small animal diets follow what is found in all pet food.

“Products that are healthful, organic and made in the USA are top trends for small animal diets,” he said. “Also popular is freeze-dried, whole-animal protein.”

John Cwaygel, president of Sailfin Pet Shop in Champaign, Ill., has seen the evolution of products available for these types of pets over his three decades as a pet store owner. 

“When I first started in this industry, Kaytee was our powerhouse line and, as time has progressed, we’ve minimized their exposure,” he said. “We have focused more emphasis on Vitakraft Sunseed, Oxbow and others.”

Raising the Bar

As pet owners become increasingly savvy, small animal food manufacturers are aiming to provide these consumers with a wide range of high-quality, nutritious diets. 

Vitakraft Sunseed Inc. in Bowling Green, Ohio, has been upping its game with treats and enrichment items for this category.

“We are always looking for ways to enrich the human-animal bond. We are currently working on expanding our treat options for exotics with this purpose in mind,” said Jim Norsen, national sales manager for the company. “Our Wigglers and Berries treat for hedgehogs is one of our top sellers.”

Teri Applegate, territory manager of Volkman Seed in Ceres, Calif., said Volkman is introducing a repackaging of its small animal line during the summer.

Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, N.Y., launched its Ferret Extreme Diet at Global Pet Expo in Orlando, Fla., in March. 

“This crunchy, freeze-dried diet is created by a delicate freeze-drying process that ‘locks-in’ the natural nutrition and the real taste of fresh turkey meat, made with no artificial preservatives,” said Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for the company. “Prior to that, we launched our Bandits Freeze Dried Ferret Treats made with 100 percent whole raw animal protein at SuperZoo last summer. They’re made with the same delicate freeze-drying process that locks in the natural nutrition and taste of fresh meat that preserves the freshness, aroma and texture of the treats.”

Prime Positioning

Sailfin Pet Shop, located in Champaign, Ill., designates about a 28-foot section to its small animal section, with Vitakraft Sunseed occupying the first position down the aisle, followed by Oxbow, Kaytee and Supreme. 

“Oxbow always had this coupon for free hay with any small animal purchase, and we are now doing a special where anytime someone purchases an animal with us and the caging, we throw in the bedding for free,” said John Cwaygel, president of Sailfin Pet Shop. “This is actually comped by Vitakraft Sunseed. And with hamster caging, we do the same thing with Sunseed food, and it works out really well. The amount of repeat sales is very impressive.”

Although Whole Pets, based in Boulder, Colo., stocks a minimal amount of product in this category, store manager Kim Kramer said it highlights its best-sellers on display—such as Oxbow Adult Rabbit Formula—and the whole section is located near the back of the store. 

“We keep everything together so our customers know exactly where to go,” she said. “We mostly deal with dogs and cats, but we have a loyal following of those with the smaller animals, and they are just as important to us as any pet parent.”

Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, N.Y., said the best displays are those that highlight any new item on an endcap or special section in the store. 

“This will catch the potential buyer’s eye, and then also draw them to the section,” he said. 

Retailers can also help customers—particularly new pet owners—by considering all of a pet’s needs and arranging the store to be as convenient as possible, said Teri Applegate, territory manager for Volkman Seed in Ceres, Calif. 

“Bundling items that relate to food, habitat and treats would help a new pet parent to be completely prepared to welcome a pet into their home,” she added.

The Power of Knowledge

When it comes to small animal care, education is always key. 

A stone throw’s away from Sailfin Pet Shop is the University of Illinois Veterinarian College, and once every four to six months, the store has one of its small animal clinicians come over and host an entire evening of nutrition for the staff.

“Every other week we have store meetings, and we talk over what needs to be conveyed to the customer,” said John Cwaygel, president of the Champaign, Ill.-based store. “Our staff is very well trained on nutrition and the effort is there.”

Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, N.Y., said new pet owners need to be armed with the right cache of products and accurate care information. 

“Consumers need to know the essentials to take home for their new pet as far as food, treats and accessories,” he said. “Retailers can help their customers by providing animal care education to their employees. They can also provide any pamphlets provided by their distributor or breeder.”

Teri Applegate, territory manager for Volkman Seed in Ceres, Calif., said that while feeding instructions on the packaging can be instructive for pet owners, she suggests that retailers encourage them to learn as much as possible about the specific dietary needs of their animals. Retailers can do their part by talking to customers and educating them about the different ingredients in each food and how they help the animal.

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