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5:44 AM   April 26, 2015
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By Peggy Scott

So-called “pocket pets” are generating much more than pocket change in the marketplace. Mice, hamsters, rats, guinea pigs and chinchillas, along with their larger contemporaries, rabbits and ferrets, and the exotics like sugar gliders, hedgehogs and degus, are proving that even if a creature is tiny, there is still strength in numbers.

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn.’s 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey shows that 6 million households in the U.S. share their homes with some 22.8 million small pets, a 25 percent increase since 2004. And these pet owners are willing to shell out the cash to make their little buddies comfortable. The amount rabbit owners spent on toys, for example, quadrupled from $20 in 2004 to $83 in 2006. The dollars spent on nonsurgical veterinary care by guinea pig owners grew during that same time period from $28 to $58. 

Thinking Small
Given the “bigger is better” attitude toward much in American culture, it might seem curious that pint-size pets have a sizable appeal. Brett Weinberg, product manager for bird and small-mammal products at Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Eight in One Pet Products, sees the logic.

“Small animals fit really well into the modern world versus, say, birds,” Weinberg says. “The world today is very ‘on-demand.’ We tend to go from thing to thing extremely quickly. People are not looking for pet ownership as a hobby as they used to. Large-bird ownership and interest in aquatics have decreased because of the time, effort and costs these pets require. Rather, they are looking for something that isn’t a lifetime commitment and won’t take up a ton of their time, and small animals fit that bill,” he says. “They are easy to take care of, fun to interact with and not a huge monetary or time commitment.”

Sue Brown, vice president of marketing for FM Brown’s Sons Inc., a pet product manufacturer in Sinking Spring, Pa., points out that it’s also a matter of logistics.

“People are downsizing their homes, and they just don’t have room for larger animals such as dogs or cats,” Brown says. “Small animals require less space, less care and minimal expenditures.”

"Most of our animal sales are small mammals,” says Lindsay Evans, owner of All About Pets in Floral City, Fla. “They make great first pets.”

Popularity Contest
While the category of “small mammal” used to include just a few types of pets, the choices are growing.

Rabbits and hamsters continue to be perennial favorites, but there seems to be increasing diversification in those two species. Teddy bear or golden hamsters, for example, now count Russian, Chinese, dwarf and panda varieties among their brethren. The breed, color and coat selection among rabbits is also multiplying. There’s even been an increase overall in the types of pets being sought. 

Suzette Stidom, owner of S&S Exotic Animals in Houston, breeds small mammals ranging from hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits to more unusual animals like opossums, flying squirrels, prehensile porcupines and more. Stidom reports that she has seen an increase in the popularity of small pets as a whole, as well as in different pets.

“My most popular animals right now are sugar gliders and hedgehogs,” she says. “Everyone wants something different and exotic.”

"Teddy bear hamsters are always popular, and the degu is really increasing in popularity,” says Angel MacDougall, manager of Pet Safari in Westerly, R.I. “The degus are so much fun, always active, if people knew about them, they’d want them.”

MacDougall and Brown both point out that sometimes popular culture plays a role in pet selection.

“Rats are increasing in popularity because of ‘Ratatouille,’ MacDougall explains. Brown adds that another small pet may be about to get its big break.

“‘G-Force,’ another animated movie that is coming out in 2008, features guinea pigs,” she says.
 Evans adds that more of her customers are going soft for one of the softest little pets.
“Chinchillas are getting really popular,” she says. “They are relatively easy to keep, they’re sweet and they live a

Stand Out in a Crowd

Many smaller retailers are seeing increased competition from big discount chains. The good news is, there are ways to carve a niche that megastores just can’t reach.    
“Differentiation and variety are the key,” says Brett Weinberg, product manager of bird and small mammal products for Eight in One Pet Products Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y. He goes on to say that while consumers may associate mass retailers with convenience and lower prices, those shoppers also believe that pet stores offer a good variety of products and have knowledgeable staffs.

“Smaller retailers need to play up this angle and carry different types of items, for example, a lot of cages, because most people buy accessories where they bought their pet and large retailers, for the most part, don’t carry live animals,” he says. “Offer more toys because a mass merchant isn’t going to have space to sell most of these items. And carry high-end foods that the retailer can talk about with the customers and get a higher ring with every unit purchased.”

relatively long time.”

“The Roborovski hamster is popular because they’re not nippy at all,” Stidom says, explaining that many people these days are breeding small pets for temperament. She goes on to say that some of what she considers the best pets in terms of temperament are often not a first (or even second or third) choice because of people’s perception.

"The short-tailed opossum, which is a little pocket pet, is real sweet,” Stidom says. “But people think of the backyard opossums. These are only the size of a sugar glider, maybe 6 to 8 inches, full grown. If more people knew what these little ones are like, there would be one in every pet lover’s household.

“Gerbils are one of the sweetest pets you’ll ever have, they’ll never bite,” Stidom continues. “But people don’t like the tails, even though they’re short. Once people get past the tail, they love them.”

The popularity of a certain type of pet is, of course, subject to fluctuations. Weinberg notes that the 25 percent increase in the overall number of small pets owned includes quite a collection of creatures, including the tried and true.

“The animals that are driving this growth seem to be some of the smaller pets like hamsters, rats, mice and guinea pigs,” Weinberg says. “During the beginning of this small-pet ownership increase, we saw more gains in ownership from the more exotic pets like ferrets.”

Big Picture of Small-Pet Market
As anyone in the pet industry knows, the animal itself is only part of the picture; creating its living environment plays a big role as well. There is a wider variety of cages, food, toys, bedding and such available than ever before because there are more tastes to suit among buyers.

“There is so much more stuff to buy now,” Evans says. “Cute little things like chews and play equipment, it’s all entertaining for the kids.”

“One of the really popular new things are the Tank Toppers that fit on an aquarium,” MacDougall says. “It adds a second story to the living space. The pets have a lot more space, but it doesn’t take up more room.”

An important consumer segment to keep in mind when designing or marketing small-pet products is also small, if only physically, kids. While it’s true many adults own small pets, it’s likely that those households have two-legged little ones as well as the four-legged variety.

“Small-animal owners are significantly more likely to have a child that the average U.S. household, and one of the top reasons for owning a small animal is to teach a child responsibility, so the child is often the key reason the pet is in the home,” Weinberg says. “It makes sense to make products that are first and foremost good for the pet, but also something that keeps the child in the home interested in the hobby and the pet. Manufacturers have started making their products much more fun because of this presence.”

MacDougall believes that another way of making sure pets stay home even after the novelty wears off is to ensure the home is a good fit in the first place.

"The best promotion is education,” she says. “Let people know what they’re getting into. Offer care books and information guides. Make sure the parents are willing to step in and care for these animals.”

Stidom points out that some small pets are better suited for different types of owners.

“The sugar gliders are a little more work, so they’re not really for a kid,” she says. “Teenagers, young adults and adults can better handle the care. You can judge if people are going to be responsible.”

Small mammals are not only making their presence known in the business world, they’re also enjoying improved status on the home front as well.

“People treat their animals as children in their families,” Brown says. “The pets are valued and people want to keep the pets healthy, active and engaged in their lives.” <HOME>

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