Posted: May 22, 2013, 2:30 p.m. EST
Safe, clean and aesthetically pleasing critter accessories continue to build the pet hobby.
By P.S. Jones
Between rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, rats and mice, the small mammal marketplace is a diverse universe, and each needs appropriate habitat accessories to chew on and to play with. These products offer a better experience for the animals and their owners.
As the small mammal product market expands, retailers can find exciting new options when stocking their shelves. Habitat accessories are trending in safer, cleaner, more aesthetically pleasing directions.
Safe to Che
Many small mammals are active chewers, so the products in their habitats need to be safe for them to chew on and play with. Courtesy of Ware Manufacturing
Many small mammals kept as pets have aradicular hypsodont teeth that continue to grow throughout the pet's life. Chewing is fun and necessary for these pets, and safety must be a priority for their habitat accessories.
"Everything is a little bit more natural," said Tammy Wynn, a sales associate at Panhandle Pet Supply in Tallahassee, Fla. "We still sell some plastic, but it’s moving toward more wooden accessories."
Ware Manufacturing is a custom design and manufacturing company that focuses on solution-based products. The Phoenix-based company has expanded its product line to include a full range of habitats and accessories for all small animals and at every price point. Adding new products each year is necessary to keep up with the industry, said Heather Cappel, creative coordinator.
"These wood toys are safe to chew and encourage healthy activity," she said. "The line includes Barrel Roller and Bobble Barbell--designed for small pets to be able to move and manipulate them--while the Critter Totter is a fun and unique seesaw design that encourages entertaining activity.”
Chew products made out of other natural materials, such as chew-safe grass also are popular.
"Grassy Tee Pees are a fun new hideout made from natural chewable grass," Cappel said. "The cone-shaped tepee look adds a fun, playful aspect to the traditional natural hide-out design, which is always popular with small pet owners.”
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a big concern for small mammal consumers. Until recently, it was found in much of the plastic used for small mammal accessories. Since the compound has been linked to neurological issues, cancer and other health problems in humans and animals, Sonia Wertz, inside sales manager for Napa Valley, Calif.-based Lixit Corp., has noticed the huge demand for BPA-free products.
Owners of small animals often look for natural products both in construction and aesthetics. Cioli & Hunnicutt/I-5 Studio
"I receive calls daily asking me if our products are BPA-free," Wertz said. "People are not just concerned for their family but also for their pet’s health.”
Lixit's new Peek A Boo Castle is completely BPA-free, Wertz said.
"A castle front screws on to a clear plastic jar' it makes a fun nesting place for pets, and children can observe their pets sleeping and building their nests,” she said. "The same front attaches to a slightly larger jar to create a dust bath container. Hamsters love a dust bath, and you can observe them cleaning themselves through the clear jar. The removable castle makes the wide-mouth jar easy to clean. The small containers fit easily into cages.”
Continuing the natural trend is Greenfeather Bird Supply, which recently entered the small mammal accessory category. Owner Dena Tucker designs and hand-creates the diverse line of toys.
"Because of the materials, designs and quality construction of GFBToys for birds, some of my full-line stores requested that I create small animal and rabbit toys, too,” she said, adding that this led to products such as BunFun, BunFun 2 and the Enrichment Tunnel Mini.
When it comes to exercise balls, small animal owners want safety as well as easy clean-up. Cioli & Hunnicutt/I-5 Studio
The company's rabbit toys are handmade, eco-friendly and certified organic, Tucker said. Some of its products are even certified fair trade products.
"Our rabbit toys use ingredients such as certified organic dried greens, dried flowers, dried fruits (no sulfur either) and dried apple wood," she said. "The natural clean pine cones used might contain their own nuts or seed to encourage foraging.”
After all the fun and games, eventually owners must change the litter and wash the cage, removing the accessories during the process. Tom Szanlankiewicz, sales associate with Lansing, Mich.-based Preuss Pets, said the necessary housekeeping makes hanging chew toys especially popular.
"They hang from the cage, and you don’t have to dig through soiled litter to move them when you’re cleaning the cage,” Szanlankiewicz said.
Cleanup concerns also follow the animal out of the cage. Exercise ball accessories can spread pet waste around the home.
The Key to Long-Term
Many people consider the small mammal category to be the gateway pet category.
"We believe that to grow our industry, we must encourage pet ownership, and small animals is where it starts,” said Heather Cappel, creative coordinator for Ware Manufacturing in Phoenix. "Promoting pet hamsters and complete care kits and educating consumers on proper care, quality bedding and healthy diets extends the life of the pet and grows the pet industry long-term.”
Dave Hitsman, Ware's director of product development, agreed that retailers selling live animals encourage industry growth.
"If they want to do anything and everything possible to grow our industry, they should sell the Syrian hamster; they are the most profitable and popular," he said. "They are the most handable. That’s really where pet keeping starts today. It’s the easiest and cheapest way for Mom and Dad to get in. They start there. Once you get started in the pet industry, it’s easy to move up to larger animals.”
Small mammals are often the first pet child have in their lifetime, and creating a positive petkeeping experience can lead to a lifetime of pet owning, Hitsman said. The goal is to create products that enhance the hobby of pet ownership and lead to a lifelong customer.
"Common pet exercise balls allow all the pet waste to fall through the breathing holes, thus causing a mess around the house as they play," Maria Aboujaoudé, co-owner of Alverstone Enterprises Inc. in West Henrietta, N.Y. "Additionally, those balls are made of hard, nonflexible plastic that (can) break easily.”
Aboujaoudé started her company based on the needs of her hamster, Fluffy. The hamster loved running around in a small pet exercise ball, but Aboujaoudé did not enjoy chasing the ball around cleaning up the messes Fluffy left behind. Based on cleanup experiences with Fluffy’s accessories, Alverstone came up with the Orbiciser.
The Orbiciser is a leak-proof pet ball designed to lock the small animal’s droppings between two layers, keeping the animal and the floor clean. Keeping with the easy clean-up theme, Aboujaoudé said it only needs mild soap and running water to clean.
"It allows animals, such as hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, rats, mice and other small caged pets, to leave their cages or enclosures for the purpose of exercise and exploration," Aboujaoudé added. "Air circulates freely, letting your pet breathe and stay cool.”
Mimicking Human Lifestyles
Human trends always trickle down to the pet industry, and a recent trends in small mammal accessories is products that mimic human products. Dave Hitsman, director of product development for Ware Manufacturing, said the company builds homes instead of cages.
"Nobody ever wants to say, ‘I’m gonna put my hamster back in his cage,’ Hitsman said. "They want to say, 'I’m gonna put my hamster back in his home.' They don’t want it to look like they’re putting their pet behind bars. They don’t want to think that every day while they’re at school, their pet is in this cage. So we make everything a little bit softer to make it a better experience for everyone.”
Ware’s Animal House habitat plays into this trend by including accessories that mimic the ones found in a human home. The habitat includes a skylight and a roof-top storage attic, he said, adding that pets use a staircase to access the second floor. There’s a scatterless food dish shaped like a comfy armchair, and the company sells a Corrugated Critter Bus and a Corrugated Critter Barn--two accessories made from renewable, safe-to-chew cardboard--that mimic everyday items in human lifestyles.
"The No. 1 drawback [of our category] is that people say they don’t want to clean the cage,” Hitsman said. "It’s the least enjoyable part of keeping a small pet, so it's our job to change that and create an enjoyable experience.”
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