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Treats, Toys Tick Upward

Owner demand, manufacturer innovation and retailer merchandising combine to propel sales of small-animal toys, treats and chews.



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Small mammals, and businesses in this category, are reaping the benefits of continued pet humanization and savvy pet owners.

“According to the 2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 88 percent of small animal owners purchase treats for their pets,” said Stephanie Carbaugh, marketing and design support for F.M. Brown’s and Sons in Sinking Spring, Pa. “Due to the phenomenon of humanization, consumers want to treat/gift their pets just like they would their friends.”

Michael Ford, manager of Affordable Pet Center in North Hampton, Pa., noted he has witnessed this firsthand in his store.

“People are buying more of the stuff that treats their animals, not just hay and food,” he said, adding that sales are up a bit. “People want to give their pets things to do and treat them more like family members.”

This refreshed view of small mammal pets, combined with consumer awareness of the available products, has owners searching for high-quality goods for their critters, industry participants reported.

“Natural, organic and made in the USA are all key points that are driving the consumer,” said Ginger Bussey, vice president of Imperial Cat in Morrilton, Ark.

Stefan Wawrzynski, operations director for Brisky Pet Products in Franklinville, N.Y., agreed that “all-natural products are very popular,” and he reports seeing “growing demand for domestically produced items and treats.”

Anita Ledtje, owner and manager of For Other Living Things in Sunnyvale, Calif., said that environment enrichment with species-appropriate toys is key for critter owners, and providing a variety of toys and treats plays an important role in enriching pets’ environment, according to retailers and manufacturers.

“Consumers want to customize unique combinations of chews, treats, toys and textures for their small animals,” said Jason Castro, director of Chilton, Wis.-based Pets International-Kaytee, a division of Central Garden & Pet Co. 

When purchasing treats and chews, Carbaugh said, consumers gravitate toward those that nutritionally benefit their pets.

“Treats are no longer just treats,” she said. “They are a way to supplement your pet’s nutrition.”

Driving Development

The small mammal category is seeing a rise in companies entering the segment as well as consumer demand for unique and quality options for their pets. The result, insiders report, is more innovation and product development.

“The small mammal market is slowly getting its recognition, and you’re seeing other toy makers trying to get into the market, too,” said Dena Tucker, president and owner of Greenfeather Bird Supply LLC in West Hartford, Conn. “Even though I’ve had them as pets, the reason I got into small animal is because some of my full-line stores wanted me to make small animal toys for them.”

As owners moved from thinking small mammals don’t need toys and treats to understanding their critters’ needs for enrichment and healthful options, manufacturers have altered their products. A notable change that Carbaugh has witnessed in product development is an increase in foods and treats containing superfoods, such as fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, which naturally have extra-large doses of vitamins and minerals in their formulas.

Ledtje noted that natural products are fairly plentiful these days.

“When we started in business, all the food and treats had artificial colors and chemical preservatives,” she said. “Today, you don’t have to look too far to find good, healthy nutrition for your little one.”

She attributed the changes to information and savvy consumers.

“More natural products and renewable resource products are the trend recently,” Wawrzynski said, adding that “even specialized subcategories are taking off.”

Those treats, chews and toys that feature different chewing textures are popular with small animal consumers, so manufacturers are offering more two-in-one products that combine the textures that are popular with small-animal consumers, said Castro.

Introductions in Critter Play 

Since spring, manufacturers have introduced several chews, treats and toys specifically for small mammals. From Chilton, Wis.-based Pets International-Kaytee, a division of Central Garden & Pet Co., came three items designed for chewing and entertainment.

Kaytee Kapok Nest & Chew Pods, which grow on white silk-cotton trees, provide critters with a chew source and nesting material that helps pets clean and trim their teeth, the manufacturer stated.

Inspired by emojis, the wooden Kaytee Chew-Moji has facial expressions created with pet-safe vegetable dye colors and is designed to help clean and trim teeth.

The Kaytee Toss & Learn Carrot Game is designed to easily mount to any wire cage and encourage interactive play during treat time, said Jason Castro, director of Pets International-Kaytee.

Small-animal habitat enhancers from Imperial Cat in Morrilton, Ark., were also launched in the spring. Made of recycled corrugate, the nontoxic enhancers are made to play on, sleep on, chew on and hide in, said Ginger Bussey, vice president. And they are made in the company’s plant in Arkansas.

Greenfeather Bird Supply LLC in West Hartford, Conn., has introduced several small mammal products since spring, starting with the Critter Wrap. The corrugated board—which has nontoxic, nonanimal white glue—is wrapped around Oxbow timothy hay, sustainable grapevine or organic apple sticks, and a mix of dried flowers, grasses and herbs. It’s pegged with paper sticks as well as colored and uncolored hardwood shapes to offer plenty to chew and forage with, said Dena Tucker, president and owner.

The company’s Rings on Loop toy features four parrot rings, three hardwood rings and a toss/chew toy for critters, all on thick butterflied paper rope. Nubbie Tube Totem includes two thick paper rope arms, 12 sustainably grown hardwood disks with water-based-ink printed images and four organic apple wood chunks or sustainable grapevine on a 5.25-inch Nubbie Tube center.

New this month, stores and critter owners can look for Greenfeather’s Roll-A-Long and the Nubbie Totem Chew Stix. Roll-A-Long has two sustainably grown hardwood disks with water-based-ink printed images and two thick hardwood wheels that are sandwiched between thick paper rope of sustainable grapevine and organic apple wood. Nubbie Totem Chew Stix contains eight hardwood shapes on paper rope.

Bird Kabob in Carlsbad, Calif., plans to launch its Mini Bunny Blast, an all-natural toy for dwarf-size bunnies.

“The 100-percent biodegradable toy is made from yucca and can stand up on the end or roll while on the side,” said Wes Payne, president.

4 Tips to Optimize Product Assortment

Essential for category success is an ideal selection of treats, toys and chews for small mammals. To ensure pet specialty retailers are carrying a fitting collection, insiders offered several recommendations.

1. Know your customer base.

“You need to know your customer base and what are they drawn to,” said Dena Tucker, president and owner of Greenfeather Bird Supply in West Hartford, Conn.

2. Branch out.

In addition to providing what customers want, Tucker added, store selection should include “some things that [they] might find interesting to get customers to try something a little different.”
Jason Castro, director of Chilton, Wis.-based Pets International-Kaytee, a division of Central Garden & Pet Co., agreed with the emphasis on choices.

“The most important thing is selection and keeping the treat, chews and toy category fresh with a variety of different products,” he said, adding that the product range should include “smaller to larger piece shapes to cover the variety of different species,” as well as different textures for cleaning, trimming and grinding pets’ teeth.

3. Listen to the experts.

Several insiders highlighted trade shows and vendor reps as assets in making sure pet specialty retailers have an appropriate variety.

“We work with our vendors, go to trade shows and listen to what our customers want,” said Dan Lavallee, manager of Pet World in Natick, Mass.

Stefan Wawrzynski, operations director for Brisky Pet Products in Franklinville, N.Y., added that “online research, magazine articles and recommendations of customers, breeders and animal wholesalers can be great sources to learn about and ultimately decide on product lineups.”

And don’t forget your own expertise derived from personal experience, said Anita Ledtje, owner and manager of For Other Living Things in Sunnyvale, Calif. 

4. Bundle for beginners.

Ginger Bussey, vice president of Imperial Cat in Morrilton, Ark., suggested that retailers offer some product bundles that provide new pet owners with everything they need in one box.

“It might be confusing, especially for the first-time small-mammal owner, to decide what they actually need,” she said.

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