The small-animal segment continues to grow steadily, with increasing livestock sales producing reliable demand for dietary products. Customers are increasingly interested in premium, nutritious options, and attitudes continue to shift toward pet humanization beyond the dog and cat categories.
Small-animal owners are searching out foods that they perceive to be more nutritious, and many are aware of labeling and ingredients lists.
"The passion of small-pet owners is rivaled only by their commitment to researching and understanding the quality of the nutrition they choose to offer their pets," said Kellie Hayden, marketing coordinator of collateral and campaigns for Oxbow Animal Health, a manufacturer of small-animal food based in Omaha, Neb. "As a result, we’re seeing a sustained interest in wholesome and natural food options that deliver essential nutrition without the kinds of unnecessary fillers and mix-ins that can cause issues for small pets."
This is part of a wider, ongoing trend within the pet industry that largely began with the humanization of cats and dogs.
"That’s what we’re moving towards as a society," said Emily Russell, small-animal breeder room manager for Preuss Pets, a pet store in Lansing, Mich. "People are seeking out the organic option and responsibly sourced options for themselves. They want that same thing for their pet. Small animals are becoming more popular in people’s homes. Customers want to cater to these animals and keep them healthy and happy for life. The best way that they can do that … is to be confident in the food that they’re feeding their animal—that it’s nutritious and it is formulated based on research into animal needs."
Increasingly, this shift toward nutritionally conscious purchasing habits is leading consumers to seek out premium small-animal food options in packaging that conveys quality.
"The humanization of pets has allowed consumers to justify spending on higher-quality products for their animals," said Jim Seidewand, owner of Pet World, a pet store in Rochester, N.Y., and board member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). "The average consumer is better educated as to what they’re looking for. … and better educated consumers are sometimes willing to spend for premium ingredients that are not available in low-end foods."
Food packaging that can effectively communicate to shoppers that the product offers high-quality nutrition is likely to be more popular with today’s small-animal owners.
"The packaging has to carry that feeling through that it’s a premium product with premium ingredients, and that it’s natural," Seidewand said.
This is part of a broader market shift within pet specialty channels, where upscale products continue to gain market share.
"In pet specialty, premium diets lead the way in terms of sales and product options," said Tim Norsen, vice president of sales of pet specialty for Vitakraft Sunseed, a pet food and treat manufacturer based in Bowling Green, Ohio. "Pricing can be high, but the target consumers for these items are growing. Millennials and gen Z represent well over half of small-animal shoppers, and they have a strong desire to feed healthy and natural diets."
Seidewand agreed that younger pet owners are drawn to the category, and that demographic is not largely limited to children as in years past.
"There’s a wide demographic interested in these pets," Seidewand said. "Certainly, children keep hamsters and gerbils. But we have many customers in their teens but also their 20s and 30s who are keeping all sorts of small animals, and particularly ferrets."
Supporting and Growing Sales
Independent retailers have an edge in the small-animal segment, in that they are flexible and can more easily make adjustments to meet customers’ needs.
"The most important change a retailer can make is to create a small-pet fixture that is easy to navigate," said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for Supreme Petfoods, a pet food manufacturer in Suffolk, United Kingdom. "We work with retailers to help them take a category approach that is tried and tested, including the use of planograms that put on-shelf best practices into action."
Focusing on education and making sure staff are prepared to answer questions is another strategy retailers can use to support sales.
"It’s no secret that online competition continues to be the greatest challenge affecting most brick-and-mortar retailers," Hayden said. "Take steps to ensure that your sales associates are experts in the aisle. One great way to accomplish this is by taking advantage of educational materials and training opportunities offered by leading manufacturers in the category."
Focusing on collating quality dietary offerings and providing customers with value is key to meeting their needs.
"Customers can go to a lot of the larger stores where they’re going to have a ton of variety, but we like to keep with the ‘good, better, best’ philosophy," Russell said. "Customers can get an inexpensive food here, and it will be very good. But they can also get a more expensive but more nutritious, better quality, longer lasting food as well. … We might not have as much variety, but we have top-quality, trusted products."
On the Market
Meeting Specific Needs
Human food trends are echoing in the pet space, with younger pet owners using their own preferences to inform their food purchasing decisions as it relates to their small-animal companions.
"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," said Gina Nicklas, small-animal marketing specialist for Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a brand of Central Garden & Pet. "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 wild, small animals are natural gatherers, so providing a diet that supports those natural foraging instincts promotes all-around health and wellness."
Kaytee recently launched Food from the Wild, a line of daily food offerings with species-specific premium pellet formulations incorporating foraging ingredients.
Packaging that clearly conveys the healthful messages consumers are seeking out is taking precedent on retailers’ shelves.
"As we learn more from our pet parents, we see that they are looking for foods that support the longevity of their beloved pet’s life," said Gabrielle Navarrete, sales coordinator for Volkman Pet Products, a brand of Volkman Seed Co., a manufacturer based in Ceres, Calif. "Supporting a healthy lifestyle has become the priority over color-popping packaging. Ingredients stand out more to the consumer eye, which correlates with Volkman’s mission [to] better serve our customers."
Volkman recently released its timothy hay box with hay feed sized to meet small animals’ needs. Timothy hay is naturally high in fiber, and helps support healthy digestion in appropriate species, such as rabbits and guinea pigs.
Manufacturers are increasingly offering formulas that are designed to meet specific needs and that allow pet owners to find the best food possible for their individual animals.
Supreme Petfoods has launched Science Selective House Rabbit as an extension of its Selective range, said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for Supreme Petfoods in Suffolk, United Kingdom.
"Lifestyle-specific products have been available for cats and dogs for some time," she said. "Now they will be available for rabbits too. The new product has a formulation to match the needs of rabbits living indoors with a high-fiber mix of forages that more closely reflects natural grazing patterns of wild rabbits."
Science Selective House Rabbit contains timothy hay, grass and the herb thyme, Hamblion said, and it is fortified with vitamins A and D to help keep rabbits healthy, even in low-light winter months.
Oxbow has added formulas to its Garden Select line for younger pets, along with larger sizes to meet the needs of a broader range of pet owners, said Kellie Hayden, marketing coordinator of collateral and campaigns for Oxbow Animal Health, a pet food manufacturer based in Omaha, Neb.
"Offering young formulas is an important step in helping pet parents start their animals off right," she said. "New varieties in Garden Select include young rabbit and guinea pig formulas, as well as a mouse and young rat formula. Offering multiple new larger sizes helps us meet the demands of customers with multiple-animal households."
Manufacturers are also updating existing lines to reflect the changes in demand toward natural products and ancestral dietary options.
"We have recently updated our two primary food lines—Sunseed Vita Prima and Vitakraft VitaSmart—to include new all-natural extrusions that have ancient grains as the protein base," said Tim Norsen, vice president of sales of pet specialty for Vitakraft Sunseed in Bowling Green, Ohio. "The update includes removal of artificial colors and flavors, increased foraging variety and dental support. Ancient grains generally have more protein, fiber and vitamin content than modern grains."
Quality over Quantity
With the variety and innovation in the small-animal diets segment, independent pet specialty retailers face the challenge of selecting their offerings carefully to fit in limited shelf spaces.
"There’s been an explosion of new products," said Jim Seidewand, owner of Pet World, a pet store in Rochester, N.Y., and board member of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). "If anything, there are more good choices out there today than we can stock in our store. … It’s hard to get that list down to a reasonable number of items that can be carried in any given store."
This requires retailers to carefully curate their offerings, with the goal of finding the right mix of products for their customers.
"We handle small-animal diets from four different manufacturers," Seidewand said. "But each manufacturer may offer four or even five different types of products within their line. So the number of small-animal diets we carry today is probably double what it was five years ago. … I think that’s a good thing. It allows for store specialization. We don’t have to carry the same thing that every other store is carrying."
Personal experience with dietary options and a commitment to the product lines on the shelves help retailers best serve customers.
"We only carry products we really believe provide the best nutrition for pets," said Emily Russell, small-animal breeder room manager for Preuss Pets, a pet store in Lansing, Mich. "Because of this, we don’t carry as much variety. We prefer to think that we provide the best nutritional options that we can offer. … We just carry a few select things that we’ve been working with for a number of years."
This simplification of offerings may have the added benefit of helping customers navigate what is an increasingly complex food category.
"Owners of small pets find it hard to navigate to the products they want to buy, so simplifying complexity is key," said Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for Supreme Petfoods, a pet food manufacturer in Suffolk, United Kingdom. "By designing the packaging so species and lifestyle can be seen clearly and merchandising to improve the ease of product selection, we can increase sales. Our research has found that if shoppers can select their small-pet food quickly, it creates time and space to allow browsing and increases basket fill."