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Little Pets, Distinct Appetites

Each small-animal species requires a specific diet to meet nutritional needs.
By Michelle Jensen

Displays, as well as having ready information available to customers, promote sales of small-animal diets. Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.
Biological makeup, social influences and geographic location all affect which foods a person eats. This dietary uniqueness extends to small-mammal species, each of which has different food requirements.

“As each small pet has different nutritional needs, one mix can’t fit all pets,” says Rich Bonkowski, director of marketing and product development for Central Avian & Small Animal in Chilton, Wis.

When companies formulate small-mammal diets, natural habitat plays a key role in knowing what foods are appropriate for which species.

“When I look at food or treats for animals, as a zoologist, I not only have to look at the anatomical needs of these animals, but also their natural habitat and environments,” reports Ron Reid, zoologist nutritionist and director of technical services for Vitakraft Sun Seed Inc. in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Bonkowski agrees.

“Foods that are appropriate for small animals best replicate the nutrition of their diets of their wild equivalents,” he states.

Feed Overview

Treats as Add-ons

Treats rank among the add-on products for small-animal diets that are necessary for the animal’s well-being.

“Any time a consumer buys a bag of food, it’s a good time to introduce treats to keep the animal from stressing out,” notes Ron Reid, zoologist nutritionist and director of technical services for Vitakraft Sunseed Inc. in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Changes in an animal’s environment, such as the addition of a new pet, diet or cage, can cause stress in the animal.

“Treats are a good distraction for the animals and keep them from destructive behaviors, such as pulling hair,” Reid says. “Treats give them something to do and keep them mentally stimulated.”

While the regular diet should generally be accessible at all times, treats serve other purposes. Reid says treats are an excellent way for the customer to bond with their pets. They can be interactive and should be fun for children and family, as well as the pet.

Reid says retailers need to help customers find the correct treats for their pets.

“A lot of it is common sense,” he offers. “The treats shouldn’t be so big they might get hurt on them, but they should be fun for the animal.”

Excepting ferrets, most small pets are herbivores that require seeds, grains, fruits and nuts, Bonkowski says.

“Herbivores need to have food moving constantly through their digestive systems to avoid health problems,” notes Lucas Stock, communications specialist for Oxbow Animal Health in Murdock, Neb. “A diet of mostly grass hay provides necessary fiber.”

Among the herbivorous species are rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas. These species should have unlimited access to a variety of grass hays, Stock recommends. Adding fortified pellets helps ensure the animals obtain their required vitamins and minerals.

Omnivorous species, however—such as rats, mice and gerbils—need a higher-protein diet, Reid asserts.

“For omnivorous species, we recommend a fortified complete feed with a proper balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals,” Stock says.

Ferrets have their own set of dietary requirements.

“They are strict meat eaters and require a high-quality, high-protein diet,” Bonkowski states.

A regular diet should be accessible to the pet at all times, Reid says. Rabbits, however, are an exception to the rule. Due to their tendency to overeat, he explains, their food is usually limited to a certain amount of food per pound per day.

Current Trends
“Traditional diets are the best sellers, although there is an emerging natural market,” Bonkowski says of one trend in small-mammal diets.

Agreeing with Bonkowski is Chris Champlin, assistant manager of Critter Hut in Narragansett, R.I.

“Overall, I’d say the commercial diets are selling best for us right now,” Champlin notes.

Organic lines are becoming contenders as well, a parallel to organic products’ popularity in the human-food market.

“We’re seeing that organic is the catch-all in the human food industry,” Reid reports. “The human-industry trends trickle down into the large pet industry, and work their way down to the small-mammal segment.”

This may be more from a marketing point of view than a health point of view, Reid adds. He encourages retailers and consumers to find out about the company that is behind a particular diet or treat.

“Labels are very important, but they don’t tell you a lot of things, like about how the product is made or about the company that stands behind the product,” he comments.


 “One of the things that can be done instore is to have a cage set up so the customer can see everything needed for the animal. If the customers can see what they need for the animal, that’s an excellent way to get food or treats into the hands of the new pet owner.”
~ Ron Reid, Vitakraft, Sun Seed Inc.


Accessible Information

Guinea pigs and other herbivores should have unlimited access to a variety of grass hays, and fortified pellets help ensure they obtain their required vitamins and minerals. Courtesy of Kaytee
Stock says education highly influences customer decisions about what products to purchase. He explains that consumers need to be knowledgeable about their pets’ nutritional needs in order to make good decisions on which diet they should buy for their pets.

Displaying cages and small-animal habitats is a good way to start the education process.

“If a retailer has an endcap or display of houses and habitats, they should promote food and treats with the displays,” Bonkowski recommends as a way to begin a dialogue.

Employee knowledge is also an indispensible resource.

“Having a live salesperson educated in small-animal nutrition is central when it comes to answering any questions,” Stock asserts. He adds that options for comparison of price, size and nutritional value are important in promoting and displaying small-animal diets.

Reid agrees with Stock’s emphasis on employee knowledge.

“The pet-shop employees should have knowledge on what’s good for the species of animal and what’s not,” he states.

Reid suggests retailers give customers access to brochures with species-specific information on them. He also says manufacturer packaging is usually species-specific and guides the customer to make the right purchases for their pet.

Effective Display

Resources

Besides ready information being available to consumers, displays also promote sales.

“We put our diets right across the aisle from where the small animals are displayed,” says Mike Hoffer, owner of Hoffer’s Tropic Life Pets in Milwaukee.

His store also displays information on a freestanding shelf in the middle of the store. Hoffer explains that the store places add-on products near the small-animal diets, on the same shelf across the aisle from the small-animal displays.

Reid says displays work well for Vitakraft’s products, too.

“One of the things that can be done instore is to have a cage set up so the customer can see everything needed for the animal,” he explains. “If the customers can see what they need for the animal, that’s an excellent way to get food or treats into the hands of the new pet owner.”

Brand promotion is a helpful tool, too. Bonkowski recommends to retailers selling live animals that they promote the brands they use for their in-store feeding programs.

“We put together small-animal kits with food and add-on products included, so customers get used to feeding their animals those diets and they come back into the store for more,” Hoffer says, presenting another way to potentially hike sales.

The initial sale of the animal will most likely translate into a monthly customer, Bonkowski asserts.

One way to encourage this type of repeat customer is to offer a conditional guarantee.

“I won’t give a health guarantee for a pet unless the customer buys food from my store,” says Melissa Wright, manager of Critters Pet Supply in Oxford, Ala.

Wright says her small-animal diet section is displayed together with add-on products, such as treats and supplements.

Champlin uses the same strategy.

“We have a dedicated section for small-animal diets,” he says. “From time to time, we put them on endcaps.” <HOME>


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