Interest in small mammals has increased substantially over the course of the past year, and customers continue to purchase small pets at very high rates. Growth in the segment is pushing food sales higher, retailers reported. Pet owners are demonstrating more nutritional awareness and greater interest in natural diets when shopping for their pets, according to industry insiders.

Small animals are popular with consumers for a variety of reasons, including novelty, availability of information and the relatively small amount of space they require to be comfortable, insiders said.

“The small-mammal category is one of our stronger departments right now,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws, a pet store in Harleysville, Pa. “Reptiles are where it’s at, but small-mammal sales are also very strong. Business is booming. My sales are up substantially over last year. If my numbers weren’t up at this point, I would be discouraged, but the first few months of 2021 were super strong. The reasons for this are multifaceted. People are home and they’re bored, and animals give them a way to relieve that boredom. Small pets are also easier to accommodate in terms of space.”

Many consumers are more aware of the segment than in the past, with easier access to care information encouraging new purchases and interest in small mammals.

“Our small-mammal business is growing,” said Chris Cochran, manager of Critters Pet Shop in South Elgin, Ill. “More information [about small mammals] is more readily available than ever, and more people are keeping them. As more pet owners enter the segment, demand for small-mammal foods continues to grow as well.”

Interest in the nutritional content of small-mammal food is growing, with many customers expressing their concern for their pet’s dietary health and well-being.

“When purchasing a small-animal diet, customers are looking for species-specific food with natural ingredients, with no added sugar or fillers, as well as probiotics and prebiotics to maintain digestive health,” said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist for Kaytee, a brand of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Garden and Pet. “Each small animal requires varying levels of protein, fat and fiber, so it is important to pet parents that a that a diet [is specifically formulated for] their small animal.

“Food format is also important when it comes to choosing a small-animal food,” Nicklas added. “There are two formats to choose from: pelleted diets and medley diets. Medley diets provide pets with needed nutrition and mental stimulation through a mixture of different ingredients and pieces. Ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, seeds and pellets are mixed together to provide optimal nutrition.”

Kaytee offers several medley diets for small pets, including Food from the Wild Nature’s Foraging Blend and Fiesta Gourmet Variety Food.

“Food from the Wild blend includes timothy hay-based pellets along with natural foraging ingredients [formulated] to support optimal nutrition,” Nicklas said. “This medley … [includes] a foraging mix of whole fruit, vegetables and flowers right in pets’ food. Our Fiesta Gourmet Food is a mixture of pellets, fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds that brings variety to small pets’ everyday feeding routine.”

The shift toward natural diets with high-quality ingredients means customers are scrutinizing products more closely than they had in the past.

“Customers are doing their research and they’re becoming more educated, which is good because that keeps animals healthier and happier, and helps ensure our customers stick with the hobby,” said Mike Hresko, owner of House of Tropicals, a pet store in Glen Burnie, Md. “Customers sometimes ask about natural foods specifically. Pretty much all of Oxbow’s treats are natural, for example. Customers look at that when they make a purchase. I didn’t really think much about it, but there were enough people looking for natural treats that I added it to my offerings.”

Manufacturers also report that natural options are performing well.

“Premium, all-natural diets drive the majority of our sales in small-animal foods,” said Tim Norsen, vice president of sales, pet specialty, for Vitakraft Sunseed, a manufacturer in Bowling Green, Ohio. “This was not the case five or even 10 years ago, when more plain mixes dominated the assortment. We are fortunate to have top-level nutritionists both here and in Germany who bring the latest innovations and insights from consumers both here and in Europe.” 

The company relaunched its Vita Smart small-animal diets last year with new all-natural formulations.

“These flagship diets … now include proprietary extrusions made with ancient grains,” Norsen said. “Ancient grains generally have higher-quality plant-based protein, fiber and vitamins than modern grains.” 

Treat Them Like Family

While sentiment toward small animals has probably not reached the levels seen in the dog and cat segments, where pet owners have humanized their canine and feline friends for quite some time, small animals are increasingly looked at as family members.

“The pet humanization trend does extend to the small-mammal segment,” Nicklas said. “Many pet owners treat their pets like family members and, as such, seek the same natural, high-quality food options they feed the rest of their family. Pet parents understand the importance of providing a well-rounded diet including the enrichment benefits of real fruits, vegetables, flowers and timothy hay. One of the current trends in pet food revolves around the idea of ancestral feeding. In human food, best nutrition is often considered that which is closest to nature.”

In the past, many customers shopping for small-animal foods frequently demonstrated a level of concern different from that seen when they were shopping for other pets, retailers reported. Now, attitudes are shifting.

“Just like with dog and cat food, people find out the big brands have [something undesirable] in them, and nobody wants to use that brand anymore,” Cochran said. “That same mentality is definitely starting to move into the small-animal segment as well.”

The emphasis on quality and variety comes directly from the trend toward pet humanization, industry insiders stated.

“Variety is basically how all of us get a balanced diet,” Herron said. “That is part of the whole pet humanization trend. We don’t want to eat the same food every day. We would get bored. I try to encourage treats and other enrichment with food. It goes to the whole health of the animal.”

Pricing Trends

Premium Mindset?

While small-animal customers are focused on providing variety and high-quality diets for their pets, many still demonstrate sensitivity to price point, according to industry insiders. Overall, however, consumer interest in premium diets is rising.

“The pet humanization trend has found its way into the small-pet category,” said Tim Norsen, vice president of sales, pet specialty, for Vitakraft Sunseed, a manufacturer based in Bowling Green, Ohio. “Many small-pet owners are more conscious of the ingredients in their pets’ food and treats, and are often willing to spend a little more on premium products that have added health benefits for their pets. It’s no longer a matter of just making sure the animal’s physical nutritional needs are met: Pet owners are interested in products that cater to their pet’s mental and emotional health.”

Essentially, the customer base is not uniform, and a wide variety of interest levels, economic conditions and experience inform customers’ purchasing decisions.

“Small-mammal customers are very segmented,” said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist for Kaytee, a brand of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Central Garden and Pet. “While some are sensitive to price point, others prioritize high-quality diets for their pets. To best merchandise small-animal diets to support the segment, it is important to offer a variety of price points and diet styles.”

This tension between price point and quality has always existed, retailers reported, though many report that consumers are shifting toward quality.

“A small percentage of my customers are sensitive to price point,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins Feathers Paws & Claws, a pet store in Harleysville, Pa. “But the majority aren’t. If I felt that they were, I would switch up my offerings.”

Consumers who are more educated on the care of their animal also appear to skew toward a preference for higher-quality foods.

“It really depends on the customer,” said Chris Cochran, manager of Critters Pet Shop in South Elgin, Ill. “Some are more informed and seek out higher-quality foods. Others who are maybe buying stuff for their kids may be more concerned about the price point. Customers who are into [small mammals] themselves don’t mind paying the extra amount for better foods.”

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