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Redbook: Ferret Out the Best

Retailers can benefit from choosing small-mammal suppliers with proper licensing, good reputations and healthful husbandry practices.
By Cheryl Reeves

There’s no shortage of breeders eager to stock pet stores with all the little critters customers desire—from hamsters and gerbils to ferrets and chinchillas—and choosing quality suppliers is key to both a retailer’s reputation and these animals’ well-being. Vying for business is everyone from community-based hobbyist breeders to the large-scale distributors that ship in fleets of climate-controlled trucks across state lines.

Retailers can benefit from choosing suppliers that offer sales and care support to customers after they purchase a small mammal. Courtesy of Marshall Pet Products
Whichever critter source best suits a retailer’s needs, he or she can benefit from knowledge about picking and doing business with a new supplier.

First and foremost, it is important for retailers to know federal and state regulatory criteria for small mammal suppliers.

Retailers should verify that any breeder they use who sells more than $500 per year in small animals is licensed, said David Sacks, spokesperson for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in Riverdale, Md.

“APHIS regulates these USDA license holders by conducting unannounced inspections and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act,” he said, adding that the act covers a set of minimum standards that breeders need to meet, including proper nutrition, shelter and veterinary care.

Sacks also noted that the agency “has no jurisdiction [or] authority over the actual animal breeding process and results—i.e., which animal mates with which animal, and how that offspring turns out. We simply ensure that the animals being supplied to pet stores are healthy.”

Many large store chains supplement federal licensing requirements with their own vigilance over suppliers. Jennifer L. Simmons, corporate communications spokesperson for Petsmart Inc. of Phoenix, said her company’s top priority is the animals’ safety and health.

“We hold all of our vendor partners to the highest of standards, which are determined internally by our team of veterinarians and technical service analysts,” she said.

Checklist for Evaluating a Critter Supplier

When selecting a small animal supplier, be on the lookout for the following:

USDA license
Clean facility, proper habitat and nutrition
Uncrowded cages and tanks
Good temperaments
Air-conditioned transport
Reputation and references
Listings in trade journals or director lists
Sales and care support programs  
         —CR

Marshall Meyers, CEO and general counsel of the Washington, D.C.-based Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), recommended that retailers ask other retailers for advice and referrals. He also suggested visiting breeders’ facilities armed with a checklist of questions.

“Nothing beats a visit to the breeder’s facility,” Meyers noted. “A small independent store can do well with hobbyist breeders in their own area who do a phenomenal job.”

One such pet-store owner, Jim Seidewand of Pet World in Rochester, N.Y., said he uses local breeders, “many who have roots in the 4-H club and other hobby group organizations, including those who breed for show and sell remainders. Typically, we work with breeders, see how they do and then stay with the best suppliers for the long haul.”

He added that he only uses breeders who have good husbandry practices.

According to Joe Taylor, assistant manager at The Animal Connection, a retailer in San Francisco, “One of the ways to know you have a good breeder is that they will take an animal back and treat it if there are problems instead of passing them along to someone else,” he said. “Above all, time will tell as the relationship between us and the breeder lengthens.”

Criteria that small mammal retailers can keep in mind when choosing suppliers include whether the supplier has proper USDA licensing and his or her amount of experience in the pet trade. Photo Credit: Cris Kelly
To prevent disease and other medical issues, top breeders are increasingly creating advanced quality-control systems.

“We are a closed facility to make sure temperaments are good,” said Tanya Cole, companion animal manager for Marshall Pet Products Inc., a Wolcott, N.Y.-based breeder and manufacturer. “We ship to distributors for 24 [to] 48 hours and then onto stores, but we want to make sure they have proper care, habitat, cleanliness. Even with viruses now, you want to make sure people are washing their hands. There are different times a year where cold comes up in animals, and customer service can help them.”

Scott Goodson, small animal division manager for Sun Pet Ltd., a breeder in Atlanta, said his company is committed to biosecurity by use of footbaths, antibacterial gel stations and climate-controlled trucks for shipping.

“We also do a quarterly testing program with vendors to make sure there are no health issues,” he added.

Top 5 Types of Small Animals Owned in 2008
Animal Percent
Rabbit 42%
Hamster 30%
Guinea Pig 15%
Mouse/Rat 9%
All other 9%
Source: 2009-2010 APPA National Pet Owners Survey
Another strategy for optimizing good critter health is a focus on nutrition.

Goodson said he hopes more retailers practice continuity.

“Find out what the mammals have been eating and ask for a bag of it so that the animal doesn’t get ill from a change of food while also adjusting to a new habitat in your store,” he advised. “You want to keep the stress level of the animal as low as possible in the transition time.”

He also recommended that retailers choose a supplier that offers a chain of custody and command: communication, help with habitat needs, education tips and follow-up.

The staff at Florida Ferrets & Chinchillas, a supplier in Port Charlotte, Fla., prides itself on superior sales support.

“This includes, from time to time, direct contact with the person or family that purchased the animal from the store if they have questions that cannot be answered by the store they purchased the animal from,” said Mark Johnson, the company’s president.

Cherri Swoyer, small mammal buyer for Quality Pets in Oklahoma City, said her company assists retailers by assigning them each a salesperson.

“We help them set up the correct habitat conditions and everything else the animal needs to thrive in the store,” she said.

According to Johnson, the most important factors to consider when choosing a pet supplier are the supplier’s honesty and experience.

“For example, I understand very well the needs of the pet store owner in selecting the animals he [or] she needs because I used to own a pet store,” he said. “I also know the pricing structure of each animal, and I can provide this guidance to the store owner so the animal is appropriately priced compared to other pet stores in the area.”

A trustworthy small mammal supplier is an essential asset to a retailer’s support team.

“After all,” Johnson noted, “the reputation of your pet shop depends directly on the quality of the animals you provide to the public.” <HOME>

Cheryl Reeves is a writer for trade and consumer publications on topics ranging from pet care to entertainment and lifestyle trends. 


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