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Alternative Bedding and Substrates

Small animals and herps feel at home in natural materials
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson

When it comes to absorbent bedding for small mammals, color sells. (Courtesy of Absorption Corp.)
Pet specialty retailers: Make some more room on your shelves for small-animal bedding and herp substrates. This once-sleepy category continues to expand and specialize, building opportunities for retailers to capture extra rings at the cash register.

Bill McBrearty, regional sales manager for Absorption Corp. in Canton, Ohio, said a lot has changed since the days when pet owners used pine shavings in their hamster habitats or tanbark in their terrariums.

“There’s a lot more bedding products out there,” he said. “In the past five to 10 years, the bedding industry has changed dramatically. A lot more alternative beddings have come out. They control odor and moisture, and they’re easy to clean up.”

Trevor Russwurm, national sales manager for Pestell Pet Products in New Hamburg, Ontario, added that savvy consumers researching bedding and substrates on the Internet come to pet specialty stores armed with information—and requesting products that provide the most appropriate environment for their pets.

“For them, it’s not a price-point decision,” he said. “They’re buying for a member of their family. They’re going to research it more and look at the different kinds of bedding.”

Byproduct Buyout
Alternative bedding materials, many of which are byproducts from other markets, comprise a growing segment of bedding and substrate options. Bedding now comes in dozens of materials and colors, while substrates make it easier than ever to replicate a naturalistic environment.

But these new choices have come at the expense of the traditional wood bedding sales, Russwurm said.

“The industry was built on traditional wood-bedding products almost exclusively until six, seven years ago,” he said. “Growth in the category has been in alternative litters in the last few years, with the main one dominating the category being [paper-based bedding]. It has really taken over the category.”

The rise of alternatives couldn’t have come at a better time, especially as the construction industry—and its resulting wood byproducts used to manufacture shavings—stalls amid shaky economic times.

Danger Ahead

Not every bedding or substrate is appropriate for every critter. Manufacturers caution pet specialty retailers about these dangers:

Corn cob: Reptiles and birds could eat these litters whole, causing impaction and possible death. It’s OK for small animals that tend to chew it rather than swallow it.

Cedar: Cedar chips contain cedrine oils, which cause respiratory distress in small animals in enclosed or poorly ventilated cages. Though they’re OK to use in dog beds and very well-ventilated cages, these shavings should be avoided for small mammals.

“Right now, the pine shavings business is not in good shape because the housing industry is in the tank,” Russwurm said. “The paper-based beddings are not quite as susceptible to swings in the market.”

Plus, wood-shaving byproduct suppliers see more profit in other industries, McBrearty said, which drives up the price at the manufacturer and consumer levels.

“Some retailers have said that within five years, they expect the wood-shavings market to be just about gone,” he said. “It’s a big opportunity for alternative beddings.”

Hemp is one alternative small-animal bedding material that’s taking off, Russwurm said. It’s renewable, it’s a usable byproduct of other industries and it’s environmentally friendly.

In addition to paper- and hemp-based bedding products, ground corncobs, a byproduct of the growing ethanol market, are also gaining strength as an alternative bedding and substrate. Duane Leedy, president of Green Pet Products in Conrad, Iowa, said that sterilized corncobs cater to the environmentally conscious consumer.

“Ecologically friendly products are where you have to be,” he said. “Everyone wants to know whether a product is green. It’s not only good for our environment, but it’s also critical for the pet’s environment.”

Whether it’s made from recycled paper, corncobs, wood shavings or hemp fibers, small-animal litter and bedding must absorb moisture, control odor and be easy to clean. It should also replicate the critter’s natural environment and provide material for nesting.

“What people look for in small-animal bedding is odor control and moisture control,” McBrearty said. “You have to control the moisture. That’s how you control the odor. In the urine, you have water and urea. If urea sits in water long enough, it starts to break down. As it breaks down, it off-gases ammonia.”

Different mediums provide different levels of moisture control, Russwurm said. Pine absorbs two and a half times its weight in water, while hemp absorbs five and a half times, he said, adding that corncobs are like little sponges.

Besides absorbing moisture, bedding should offer a medium with which small animals can create a nest, Russwurm said.

In addition to paper- and hemp-based bedding products, ground corncobs, a byproduct of the growing ethanol market, are also gaining strength as an alternative bedding and substrate.

Above and beyond bedding’s function comes style, and that’s where today’s bedding trends take off. Colored paper-based products rule the cage, said Paula Turner, co-owner of The PetCare Company in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

“[Paper-based litters] come in pink, purple, blue, yellow and green in addition to white,” she said. “These colors are environmentally friendly and more pleasing to the eye.”

They look good in the display case, too, McBrearty said.

“Color sells,” he said. “It makes a tremendous difference in stores. It increases the number of animals that they sell. Imagine a black bear hamster on bright yellow bedding. It jumps out at you.”

From Burrowing to Basking
Reptiles and snakes require the appropriate substrate to stay healthy, said Phil Bartoszek, technical specialist for Zilla, owned by Central Aquatics in Carson, Calif. It’s critical that retailers recommend the right substrate for each herp.

“The best substrate for a certain type of herp will be directly related to their natural habitat requirements, mainly heat and humidity,” he said. “Aesthetics and functionality also play a role in selecting the best bedding.” 

Herps use substrate similarly to how they would in their natural environment, Bartoszek said.

“Substrate helps create a habitat for the animal that closely mimics its natural environment,” he said. “It can promote natural behaviors like burrowing and nesting. It can also satisfy a herp’s natural temperature and humidity requirements. Sands can help absorb heat in a basking area and bark or soil substrates can hold moisture.”

Like small-animal bedding, substrates sop up moisture and minimize odors, said Rita Zarate, director of customer service for Zoo Med Laboratories Inc. in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“Reptiles need substrates to ensure proper health,” she said. “Substrates help absorb and decompose reptiles’ waste, but most importantly help maintain proper humidity levels.”

Bartoszek mentioned three trends in the herp substrate segment.

“We’re seeing naturalistic substrates, biodegradable substrates and a shift toward sustainable natural ingredients,” he said.

Herp substrates range from paper-based and sand versions to bark, moss, coconut coir, millet and walnut shells, said Daniel Lorica, Zilla brand manager, adding that the newest products, like dehydrated moss and bark, compress into tight bricks that expand up to 12 times their size when rehydrated.

Substrate manufacturers are also jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon. The newest liners are coated with biodegradable enzymes that minimize odor, Lorica said. They’re also made with recycled milk bottles, Zarate said.

As these categories continue to expand, retailers should be prepared.

“A lot of consumers get overwhelmed unless they’ve done some homework,” Russwurm said. “Ten years ago, you had a choice of three items. Now, you have 15 or more.” <HOME>

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Reader Comments
Great article about the different types of bedding, especially the industrial hemp bedding! The time is nearing for true growth of the hemp animal bedding (equine/horse, guinea pig, poultry, etc.).

More information about hemp animal bedding, and hemp's other uses in grain and fiber, especially in the USA, can be found on the Hemp Industries Association website at, Nutiva website, Manitoba Harvest website, Vote Hemp website, or American Hemp website LINK
Patrique, Winston Salem, NC
Posted: 11/23/2013 4:17:48 PM
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