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Sales of Small-Animal Diets Trend Up

Experts weigh in on how pet specialty retailers can make the most of the small-animal food category.


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The market for small-animal food is strong and growing, as more people choose to not only acquire small animals as pets, but also to support their furry companions with high-quality, nutritious diets, industry experts report.

According to the most recent American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey, small-pet ownership is at one of its highest levels in two decades, with 6.7 million households in the U.S. owning at least one small animal.

“These encouraging ownership statistics are echoed by increases in consumer interest that we witness firsthand every day,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health, an Omaha, Neb.-based company that makes a range of small-animal diets, bird foods and other pet products. “A quick look at pet-centered social media and blogs shows that interest and passion in small pets has never been greater.”

According to Stock, the passion of small-pet owners is rivaled only by their commitment to researching and understanding the quality of the nutrition they choose to offer their pets, and this commitment is driving consumer interest in natural food options that deliver nutrition without the kinds of unnecessary fillers and mix-ins that can cause issues for small pets.

“With the help of education within the industry, today’s pet parents understand that a high-quality food is essential to providing valuable vitamins, minerals and nutrients that aren’t made available to pets through other areas of their diet,” he said.

Stock cited simple formulas as a rising trend as a response to pet owners who are dedicated, passionate label readers who want to understand and feel good about the ingredients that make up their pets’ food.

“You’re seeing more uniform food options that focus on honest, nourishing formulas in place of ingredients such as dried fruit, nuts and seeds, which are inappropriate for many species and can lead to unhealthy selective eating habits,” he said. “Just because foods are uniform and healthy doesn’t mean that they can’t be delicious.”

Claire Hamblion, marketing manager of U.K.-based Supreme Petfoods, noted this trend toward simple fare as well, explaining that extruded, mono-component food is trending up for all small-animal species, as pet owners seek out the most nutritious fare they can find.

“[Extruded food] delivers enhanced palatability without the need for added sugars, zoning in on those big drivers: nutrition and taste,” she said. “The crunchy texture offers benefits to all pets, and for herbivores the high levels of long fiber that can be achieved are a game changer.”

No matter the formula or format of the food they choose, however, pet owners firmly believe that natural options are best, reported industry insiders.

“Because of this, we have seen a growth in interest in natural small-animal foods,” said Sue Brown, senior vice president of sales and marketing for F.M. Brown’s Sons in Sinking Spring, Pa. “These are products consumers know will be free from artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and keep their pets naturally healthy.”

Many of these natural foods are moving away from artificial dyes and getting their coloring from natural sources such as fruits and vegetables, she added, and the inclusion of fruits and vegetables in small-animal diets also assures consumers that their pets are getting the necessary vitamins and nutrients, along with a healthful variety of nutrients.

Species Specific

Manufacturers are keeping in mind the varying needs of different pet species when developing and manufacturing formulas for small mammals, while retailers are helping steer their shoppers to the products that best suit their pets.

Madison Stanley, a manager at Mark’s Ark in Lake Worth, Fla., said that, for ferrets, the store recommends Marshall Premium Ferret Diet, and for bunnies, the store usually recommends food that includes timothy hay.

“It’s a little more complicated with rabbits, and you need to know how old they are and if they should be eating juvenile foods or adult rabbit foot,” she said. “We personally use Kaytee Forti-Diet in-store, because it’s good for dental care and the digestive tract.”

For retailers, clearing up common misconceptions about feeding small animals can also serve to support customers’ care of their pets as well as to boost sales.

For example, Hamblion noted that many myths about the use of alfalfa in rabbit food have arisen due to an inaccurate understanding of how it should be used.

“Today, [alfalfa] is a fantastically useful inclusion in rabbit food which delivers some key nutrients balanced within the overall formulation,” she said. “Fed alone, as hay, it represents a significant portion of the nutrient requirement, but, as it’s high in calcium, it can over deliver on this important mineral. However, it can be added to a mix at a level that balances the nutrients it offers with the other ingredients.”

Furthermore, alfalfa is more digestible than grass, but its stalky structure provides lots of opportunities for chewing, which herbivores need to preserve their dental health.

“The other modern-day trend is the growth of natural ingredients, with shoppers seeking out ingredients lists that include foraged and cultivated plants that mimic the diet that small herbivores such as rabbits and guinea pigs would choose in the wild,” Hamblion added. “As part of this move, there has also been an increasing demand for grain free, and our new Selective grain-free mono-component kibble has proved enormously popular.”

Facing the Competition

Increasing demand for small-animal diets aside, it’s no secret that online competition continues to be the greatest challenge affecting most brick-and-mortar retailers. Fortunately, stores can differentiate themselves from the competition by offering the kind of in-store education and support online retailers simply cannot.

“In this era of heightened competition from the online category, it’s important to focus on the important advantages brick-and-mortar retailers continue to hold,” Stock said. “For example, take steps to ensure that your sales associates are experts in the aisle. One great way to accomplish this is by taking advantage of educational materials and training opportunities offered by leading manufacturers in the category.”

Oxbow, for example, offers a variety of articles, videos, infographics and other media that cover key nutrition, enrichment and care topics to help pet owners gain the confidence they need to provide their pet a healthy, happy life.

Effective marketing and promotion can make the difference between lackluster or robust sales in the category, agreed Hamblion, adding that retailers that are not experiencing a surge in sales in this category should question the reasons why.

“By creating a great experience at the fixture and making it easy to understand and identify the food they want, there is a real opportunity to grow the whole business because we give the shopper the gift of time and leisure to browse all the other categories,” she said. “It’s rare that a quick, no-cost fix can translate into better sales, but it really is possible, and we welcome any retailer who would like to have a chat with us about what they can implement in their store.”

On the Market

Greener Selection

The latest commercial small-animal foods on the market are designed to meet consumer demand for quality nutrition and variety for various small-animal species.

Oxbow Animal Health’s Garden Select line is made with garden-inspired ingredients such as rosemary, thyme, yellow pea and tomato.

“The result is a line of foods with an enticing herbal aroma and delectable flavor profile that is a favorite for many historically picky eaters,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager of the Omaha, Neb.-based company. “We’ve just made the line even better with new young formulas and larger sizes to meet the needs of a broader range of pet parents. Offering young formulas is an important step in helping pet parents start their animals off right from the very beginning.”

New varieties will include young rabbit and guinea pig formulas, as well as a mouse and young rat formula.

F.M. Brown’s recently introduced its Tropical Carnival Natural product line of species-specific foods to fit the growing need for natural options, as the formula is free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives.

“Picky eating can be a problem for some pet owners, which is why we have our Zoo-Vital Natural Biscuits in our natural mixes,” said Sue Brown, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Sinking Spring, Pa.-based company. “These flower-shaped biscuits are a powerhouse of complex nutrition in every bite and are fortified with vitamins, minerals, probiotics and prebiotics to support good digestion. The unique shapes also add texture and help to stimulate the natural foraging instinct and relieve cage boredom.”

Supreme Petfoods’ Selective Grain Free range is built on a strong foundation, and the company’s research has shown that there is huge demand for the grain-free proposition, said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager of the U.K.-based company.

“While some 97 percent of small-pet owners that we asked want to feed natural, an impressive 93 percent said they believe that there is a benefit to feeding grain free,” Hamblion said. “Our Selective Naturals treats range is another impressive addition to the small-pet portfolio.”

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