exo small animal

Consumer demand for litter and bedding for small-animal habitats has grown, driven in part by an increase in pet ownership, industry insiders report. Strong sales in the category are also tied to a few key emerging trends, such as demand for more spacious small-animal enclosures and eco-friendly products, according to retailers and manufacturers.

“We continue to see unprecedented growth in our small-animal bedding sales, and we do not anticipate that slowing down anytime soon,” said Leslie Ellis, consumer communications and promotions manager for Healthy Pet, a manufacturer in Ferndale, Wash.

While pet ownership has been on the rise, Ellis said it is not the only factor driving growth.

“We are seeing increased overall usage of bedding in small-animal habitats that are now bigger than ever,” Ellis said. “We believe this stems from pet parents wanting to provide the very best care for their pets by giving them a habitat with a lot of space and plenty of bedding to burrow or nest in.”

Larger enclosures are popular, retailers agreed, and this factor adds yet another source of demand for litter.

“People are starting to get away from basic habitats, such as the simple square cage with a plastic bottom,” said Nate Infurna, manager for Pratt’s Pets, a retailer with stores in Arizona. “Our customers are going for cages and enclosures that we typically wouldn’t have sold in the past. We’re seeing higher demand for Kaytee Crittertrail habitats, for example. Those are moving much more quickly than simpler cages.”

Today’s small-animal owners have higher expectations—and more specific preferences—when it comes to products for their pets.

“There is a significant call for more features within the small-animal category that offer more customized and breed-specific products and solutions,” said John Gerstenberger, vice president of product development for Ware Pet Products, a Phoenix-based manufacturer. “The small-animal category is no longer a one-size-fits-all category. … health concerns tend to be the most prevalent, with convenience a close second. Consumers across the pet industry are looking for natural good-for-you products, and small-animal litter and bedding is no exception.” 

Many small-pet owners are on the lookout for environmentally friendly options when shopping for bedding, and manufacturers are responding by offering alternatives to traditional products.

“We most recently launched a new rabbit and ferret litter that is currently available on Chewy.com, Petco.com and at PetSmart stores, and will soon be available for all retailers,” Ellis said. “It’s a highly absorbent, clean white, dust-free paper pellet made out of reclaimed cellulose fiber that is 100 percent biodegradable and compostable. It works great for rabbits, ferrets or any small animal that can be trained to use a litterbox.”

The litter is designed to remain dry for a longer amount of time and offers exceptional odor control, Ellis said.

Ware Pet Products is seeing increased demand for eco-friendly and sustainable products, and its Kapok Build-A-Series line of hideouts and toys fits the bill. The two-in-one products feature soft kapok bedding coupled with an easy-to-assemble toy or hideout that can be created from the packaging.

“Kapok by Ware Pet Products is a green alternative to small-animal bedding,” Gerstenberger said. “Products in the line are printed with vegetable-based inks, and the packaging becomes a fun hideout or toy.”

The use of vegetable-based inks makes the products safe to chew, Gerstenberger added.

Keep Your Arrangement Fresh

Retailers find that stocking litter and bedding options near enclosures continues to be an effective way to drive sales.

“Our small-animal housing and habitats are all on one shelf set, and bedding and hay [products] are right next to it,” Infurna said. “These are items that go hand in hand, so when customers purchase a cage, they can easily find the bedding and hay right there.”

Another approach is to constantly rearrange displays to change up what customers are seeing when they come in to fulfill their repeat purchase needs.

“We’ve organized our bedding and litter section in several ways,” said Darlene Brooks, owner of Pet World, a pet store in Auburndale, Fla. “We’ve found that changing it up is really the most important thing. We’ve tried displaying litter and bedding along the bottom of the shelving in the enclosure area. We’ve tried keeping it next to more flashy items, such as treats and toys. We’ve also stocked litter and bedding in blocks. I don’t think that any particular arrangement really sells better for us. It’s more about changing it up and keeping it fresh.”

Repeated visits to restock on bedding lead customers to routinely purchase add-on items whenever they come in, retailers reported.

“Customers who come in for bedding usually pick up treats and that kind of thing,” Brooks said. “We try to keep our endcaps near the bedding section changed up so customers see something different every time they come in. Our customers tend to buy a little bit of everything.”

Product Supply Strain

While the increased demand for litter, bedding and other small-animal supplies has been a positive for retailers overall, the spike—coupled with various logistical issues—is making fulfillment difficult, leaving some stores with empty shelves and frustrated customers.

Finding litter and bedding at the distributor level is proving difficult, retailers stated, with nearly every consumer-accessible source—including online and big-box retailers—listing many small-animal bedding items as out of stock.

“I see a lot of out-of-stocks,” Infurna said. “It’s hit-or-miss. It has to do with the supply chain right now. Basically, the pet industry has experienced an increase in demand for live animals. That includes everything from birds to small animals, such as hamsters, gerbils and rabbits. We’ve probably seen record sales in the past year, starting off in March 2020. There has been a huge increase in small-animal purchases, along with purchases of supplies.”

The impact of these availability issues on retailers varies somewhat, depending on geographic factors and general luck, but every retailer PPN spoke with reported some potential problem associated with restocking bedding supplies.

“It’s been hard, especially with bedding because [distributors] just haven’t had any available,” said Mercedes Spradling, general manager for Rockstar Pets, a pet store in Tooele, Utah. “We’ve been doing our best to keep product in stock.”

Other retailers are seeing supply shortages but report that bedding and litter have not been impacted as substantially.

Clayton Burton, manager of Denny’s Pet World, a pet store in Kirkland, Wash., reported that while shipping and supply issues affect almost all product categories, stocking pet bedding and litter has been slightly less problematic.

“It’s still an issue, but it isn’t as big a problem as it has been in other categories,” Burton said.

Indies Become the Go-To Source

Typically, independent pet retailers have found that price point is a primary concern for customers when they are purchasing small-animal litter and bedding. This means competition is usually tight in the segment, but with supply constrained, local independents are finding that customers are turning to them to meet bedding needs.

“I haven’t seen any decrease in the amount of bedding we sell,” Burton said. “I’m sure there are a handful of people who order it [online], but we still see plenty of demand. I have had several customers come in tell me that they were just at Petco, and it was completely sold out of bedding and litter. The salespeople at Petco sent their customers to me to find bedding.”

The small-animal segment is somewhat insulated from online competition, according to some retailers.

“I don’t think online retailers are much of a source of competition in the small-animal category, for us at least,” Brooks said.

Local independent pet retailers are finding themselves the go-to source as other retailers struggle with the same problems with meeting demand. Because independents tend to be more nimble when confronting restocking issues, insiders reported, they are finding that they often turn into the last reliable source for necessary pet products.

“We’re seeing it everywhere you go,” Infurna said. “Some of our [regular] customers are trying to go online to buy their bedding, but several have told us they can’t order anything because [online retailers] are out. That’s just a byproduct of what’s going on right now. If customers can’t get what they want, they’re going to try to shop [elsewhere]. … I was at Petco last week, and whole areas [of the store] were just empty. They can’t get anything else because there’s nothing else out there to get right now.”