Small Mammal Diets Deliver on Health

Traditional offerings are still popular in the small mammal diet segment, but increasingly, dietary diversity and health-conscious labeling is beginning to creep into consumers’ consciousness.

"Customers understand the advantages of varying small mammal diets," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "This helps ensure that the small pet is getting a wide variety of nutrients from many different sources of food and treats."

More customers are purchasing multiple small mammal pets at one time, Davis added, and she is seeing growth in her small mammal department.

Pet owners are increasingly interested in improving health and longevity for their small animals.

"People care a lot more than they used to about the diet that they’re feeding to their small mammals," said Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "We try to make it so that [small mammals] have a long and happy life, because they don’t live as long as a dog or a cat. Their lifespans are so short, and people want to do everything they can to kind of extend that."

In addition, small mammal pet owners tend to find a food they like and stick with it.

"Customers can be very brand loyal with their small mammal foods," Davis said. "Oxbow foods are very popular with our customers, and if we have a shortage on the shelves, the customers won’t switch brands. They will select another type of food within the Oxbow line."

Price Point

Quality Versus Cost

As usual, customers are sensitive to price point, but due to the relatively low overall prices of small mammal foods when compared to other pet food offerings, pet specialty retailers reported that small animal owners are more focused on quality and brand loyalty than how much they’re paying for small mammal foods.

"We have several price point levels for our small mammal foods, as we do with other categories of food," said Stacy M. Davis, purchasing director for That Fish Place/That Pet Place in Lancaster, Pa. "Some small mammal pet owners are looking for better ingredients for their pets and are willing to pay for what we consider premium brands, while others are looking for economical foods, but they all want something natural and with very few chemical additives."

Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash., said that many customers pay no attention at all to price.

"A good portion of our customers have a hamster, for example, and usually if they have a hamster, they have kids, and if they have kids and a hamster, they probably have a cat and a dog," she said. "So they’re so used to buying a $50 bag of cat food that I don’t think they even glance at the price on the small animal food."

Parsons generally carries Sunseed, Kaytee and Oxbow, and her small mammal foods section is organized by brand. She focuses on restocking frequently—sometimes twice a day if shelves are heavily shopped—to keep things tidy and eye-catching for customers.

"It just looks good when it’s full," she said. "We face our shelves as much as we can. I try to fill up first thing in the morning on a Saturday, and later in the day when it quiets down, I try to refill it again so it looks good for the next day. If you don’t have it on the shelf, customers may not ask."

Other retailers prefer to stock food offerings by animal. At Carol’s Critters in Tallahassee, Fla., Carol Hoover stocks based on animal type, she noted, and she caters to customer requests as well.

"I’m small enough that if someone specifically wants something, I will get in a particular line for them if it’s something I can get," Hoover said. "I carry a lot of the Oxbow line. I don’t use it myself, but I carry it because people have asked for it. It really just depends on what I get requests for."

Customer Education

Knowing the Assortment

A key component of an effective sales strategy for small mammal diets is making sure customers and staff are educated on the options.

"We have employees that have been here for a really long time," said Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "We are fairly knowledgeable, and we make sure [that customers] know as much as they can about caring for their animal when they leave, and that includes diets."

It’s important to explain the benefits of feeding a better diet, Parsons added. With customers more health conscious and focused on choice, it’s also useful to stay informed as to what’s available in the market.

"Consumers do want choices, so bringing in new products, offering variety and trying to meet the requests will generate the most sales," said Ken Korecky, CEO of Exotic Nutrition in Newport News, Va. "Continually monitoring the market for new products and becoming educated on the newest trends seems to work well for retailers." 

When it comes to small mammal foods, retailers are well suited to beat their online-based retail competition, as most customers aren’t buying these diets online.

"For most people, buying online probably doesn’t really seem worth it," said Carol Hoover, owner of Carol’s Critters in Tallahassee, Fla. "It’s just a few bucks. With dog food or something that’s $50 to $60 it might be worth it, but not with most of the [small mammal] stuff. Besides, customers want to come in and pick out different toys and chew things. I find most people are hands on for the small animal stuff."

New Products

A Growing Selection

While consumers tend to stick to tried-and-true brands in the small animal food segment, innovative new products are coming on the market and gaining attention.

In 2018, Supreme Petfoods, headquartered in Ipswich, England, introduced its Selective Grain-Free diets shortly after it launched its Selective Naturals treat range, said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for the company.

"It’s been a very exciting year for us," Hamblion said. "We’re continuing to refine and improve our recipes wherever possible, and, most recently, we’ve improved the size and shape of our Selective Hamster food to make it more suitable for the popular dwarf breeds."

The company is planning additional releases within the segment this year, she added.

Specialty diets are also becoming more common on the market.

"We recently released our Premium Insectivore Diet, which is a chicken-based protein diet suitable for a variety of insectivores," said Ken Korecky, CEO of Exotic Nutrition in Newport News, Va.

The Premium Insectivore Diet provides poultry-based protein and is formulated for sugar gliders, hedgehogs and other animals. The company also recently released VitaGlow all-natural feed supplement, and it introduced its Honey-Berry Instant-HPW sugar glider diet in March, as well as EZ-Worms, which is a blend of dried soldier fly larva and dried mealworms.

"We are seeing a trend in the variety of foods consumers are searching for," Korecky said. "Our retailers are requesting larger selections of flavors and ingredients to provide for their customers’ requests. We are also seeing a greater demand for natural and fresh ingredients."

Customers are demanding quality products, and small mammals are increasingly looked upon as members of the family.

"Premium diets continue to grow and perform well at retail," said Tim Norsen, national sales manager for Vitakraft Sun Seed in Bowling Green, Ohio. "The humanization of pets in general means that small animal consumers, especially with larger species, seek out quality nutrition and are willing to pay more for it."

Vitakraft launched its Sunseed Vita Balance diets at Global Pet Expo this year. These rabbit and guinea pig diets are made with timothy-based pellets and have a unique shape designed to encourage gnawing and support dental health, Norsen stated.

Demographics of Small Mammal Owners

Small mammal purchases are increasingly skewing older, and millennial consumers are choosing these critters when other pet choices aren’t an option. Supreme Petfoods in Ipswich, England, has studied the segment, said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for the company, and she noted that in the company’s survey of 700 pet owners, they found the customer base is increasingly skewing toward people in their late teens and early twenties.

"[We found] higher levels of ownership by millennials who want a pet but can’t commit to a cat or dog due to their lifestyle," she said. "These owners are often highly committed and highly educated and are really looking to ensure their pet has a long, happy and healthy life."

The trend toward living in smaller apartments or in dorm rooms might also be affecting what pets they buy.

"I’m located in a big college area," said Carol Hoover, owner of Carol’s Critters in Tallahassee, Fla. "My customers are almost entirely in their early twenties. They’re allowed to have exotics in apartments. Small mammals are a very popular line."

Still, this trend appears to be highly dependent on retail location, and other retailers indicated that their customer base still skews toward families with kids in the small mammal segment.

"It’s an event to come in," said Kelly Parsons, manager of Denny’s Pet World in Kirkland, Wash. "Customers bring their kids, and everyone wants to pet a bunny. Having the animal foods does keep them coming back."