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Small Mammal Marketplace: Stimulate Critters with Interactive, Natural Toys

Posted: April 18, 2013, 7:30 p.m. EST

Trends in small mammal play products include socialization, natural materials and intellectual stimulation.
By Laura Doering

Not long ago, small mammal pets may have required only food, water and litter, spent the majority of their days in their habitats. However, today's small animal pet owners are more apt to recognize the importance of offering plenty of out-of-cage time mixed with positive social interaction and a variety of challenging toys to keep their pets happily occupied throughout the day.

Classics Remain Classic
Chew toys remain an important enrichment product for small mammals because chewing opportunities are vital to maintaining good dental health in rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and other critters with teeth that continuously grow.

Lorne Terrault, co-owner of Paradise Pets in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, said she continues to see a heavy focus on chew toys. The material with which the toys are made may change slightly, she said, but sales of these staples remain steady.

SMall animal toys
Chews remain popular, but an increasing number of small animal owners also seek interactive toys. Photo by Carrie Brenner/I-5 Publishing LLC at Pet Supply
Although still smarting from the recession, De Anza Pet Center in Riverside, Calif., offers many traditional small pet toys to customers who want a lower price point, said Caroline Sturgeon, store manager.

"People still buy wood-type toys for their pets to chew on, and there's a carrot-shaped toy with a sisal rope top that still sells pretty well," said Sturgeon, who noted that flip-and-toss-type toys, basic wood toys and plastic igloos for rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters are purchased more frequently.

"Certain animals always have a niche toy, such as tubes for hamsters, chew-type toys for the chewers and climbing toys for the sugar gliders and flying squirrels," said Stefan Wawrzynski, operations director for Brisky Pet Products in Franklinville, N.Y.

Interactive Toys
An increasing number of small animal owners also seek interactive toys. Similar to dog owners who wish to play catch with their pets or cat owners who playfully dangle fishing-rod toys above their pets' heads, small mammal owners also crave one-on-one interactions with their pets.

Small pet owners no longer keep pets solely in a cage, said Peter Reid, president of Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, N.Y. They're out on the floor with their rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, enjoying a more engaging owner and pet exchange.

"In the last year, the toys people have gotten are not just chew toys for the pet, they are more interactive," Reid said. "We're seeing that across the board."

"The emotional connection seems to be stronger with today's small animal pet owner than previous generations," he added.

In addition to fun outside the cage, some manufacturers offer creative ways to increase the real estate of a critter's cage. Super Pet, a division of Kaytee, recently launched its Tank Topper, which is a lid designed to secure to the top of a 10-gallon tank, turning it into a multi-level, high-rise small animal habitat.

The Small Mammal-Bird Connection
The pet bird market seems to share a special connection with the small animal sector in regard to toys and enrichment products. This makes sense, as the same materials used in pet bird toy construction also tend to appeal to small animals, such as rabbits and rats.

Parrots and small mammals seem to have the same penchant for chewing wood, cardboard and other destructible materials, and they gravitate toward items that can be tossed around. It's not uncommon for dedicated rabbit owners to frequent avian-specialty retail stores in search of products their bunnies can enjoy.

"We have seen, as a trend in the last few years, that many of our toys are being used for small animals," said Vickie Canepa, president of Fetch-It Pets Inc., in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "The small animals love to chew and shred all of the natural materials and textures we incorporate into our bird toys."

The company's natural bird toys have been used for sugar gliders, rabbits, hamsters, mice, rats and other small animals, Canepa reported, so Fetch-It Pets now offers a Critter Clubhouse toy line marketed toward small animals. The pinata-inspired toy line offers chewing opportunities, as well as a hideaway for hamsters, mice, rats and other small critters.

"Oftentimes toys are offered in a variety of sizes for a particular-size animal, and you can find the same toys packaged in several ways for specific pets," said Stefan Wawrzynski, operations director for Brisky Pet Products in Franklinville, N.Y.

While Chilton-Wis.-based Kaytee typically markets its bird and small animal lines separately to offer consumers toys that meet their pets' specialized needs, Agatha Ritter-Martin, brand manager, said the company has a couple of exceptions where bird and small animal products are cross-promoted, such as its hanging veggie basket.

"But this is more the exception than the rule," she said.—LD

"We also launched new CritterTrail habitats, including the completely round 360, which has portals that allow for use alongside our existing tubes and accessories," said Agatha Ritter-Martin, Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee's brand manager.

"A new trend is the consumer seeing the importance of having a small habitat inside the cage, which allows the small animals to have a private space of their own," said Vickie Canepa, president of Fetch-It Pets Inc., in Thousand Oaks, Calif. "A small enclave gives an animal security and comfort. It is an important part of a small animal's well-being."

Click here for advice on displaying small animal habitats.

Up for a Challenge
Research on animal intelligence suggests there's plenty going on in the little minds of small animals, which seems to be something many owners of small mammals already know.
"Ferrets tend to have a higher intellect, rabbits are quite smart, and so more owners are looking for ways to challenge their pets," said Reid.
Reid also pointed out that rats enjoy their own significant following and "more people are realizing that you have to challenge their intellect."

Industry insiders said puzzle-type foraging toys, where the pet must manipulate the item to reach a treat, and products that offer mazes and/or tunnels for the animal to navigate, challenge a critter's problem-solving skills and offer owner-pet interaction opportunities as owners encourage their pets to conquer the toy.

Natural Appeal
The natural product trend apparent in a variety of industries lends itself nicely to the small animal companion marketplace, especially because most of these pets need safe, nontoxic items to chew.

"One general trend we've noted is the marketplace move toward products made of more natural materials—products that are unbleached and use minimal colors and safer materials, such as biodegradable and safer plastic," Ritter-Martin said, adding that the company is working toward addressing this growing need.

"For years, the only materials used to make small animal toys were wood," Canepa said. "Now many different types of natural materials are available."

Big Marketing, Small Creatures
As the small mammal toy market expands, manufacturers continue to develop innovative marketing strategies to help retailers with product appeal and make their brands more visible.

Kaytee incorporated the use of QR codes across much of its new packaging to drive consumers to a page on the company's website where they can learn more about product features and benefits, Ritter-Martin said.

"We also are redesigning our packaging to give all our Kaytee products a singular, cohesive look and feel across our product segments so consumers can look to Kaytee's broad range of product offerings to help them meet their needs," she said.

Manufacturers also report using social media as a tool to connect with small animal owners.

"We continue to leverage Facebook and other forms of social media to connect with our consumers," Ritter-Martin said.

Marshall Pet Products created a YouTube channel for its Critter Cruise Raceway toy, which Reid said is marketed to ferret owners but can be used by other small pets.

"We invite ferret owners to post video of their ferrets using the Critter Cruise Raceway," he continued. "We're also promoting it online where owners can post their critter's time."

Some companies also enlist the help of pet owners to test products.

"We're very in tune with our customer base," Reid said. "Before we bring a product to market, we have a large base of customers test the product for feedback. It goes through this household test first. They give us great, honest feedback ... you really can avoid problems before it goes to market."

For retailers, promoting products is as simple as taking the time to show customers how a product can enhance their pet's life.

"In general, manufacturers try to maximize the appeal of the packaging, and therefore the product, but they don't send shelf-talkers or anything else," Terrault reported. "We promote toys mostly through our staff with training that they pass on to customers."


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