The small-animal pet category has greatly evolved in recent years. Today’s small-animal owners are clear about wanting the best for their pets, driving demand for more spacious and species-specific setups, and accessories that help support a higher quality of life.

“Significant trends in the small-animal-habitat category include habitats with large, open-living capabilities as well as a focus on convenience,” said Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist- small animal for Chilton, Wis.-based Kaytee, a brand of Central Garden & Pet. “Innovations include habitats that allow consumers to connect and expand for additional living space, habitats with open tops for easy pet access, and habitats with easy assembly and cleaning capabilities.”

John Gerstenberger, vice president of product development and sourcing for Ware Pet Products in Phoenix, said that there has been increased ownership in small animals—likely a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and people being at home much more than ever. As a result, he has seen a surge of interest from consumers seeking a greater variety of décor-friendly cages. He has also noted continued interest in natural chews.

Michelle Hughes, sales associate for One Stop Country Pet in Brattleboro, Vt., said that she’s seeing these trends in action. The small-animal customers who come into the store are discerning about the products they’re choosing for their pets.

“Small-animal pet owners want open space to give their pets the happiest life possible,” she said. “They want their pets to have ample room to move around and to have space for different toys. People are caring more about these pets than ever, and just like a cat or dog, [these pets] become part of the family.”

Kim McCohan, chief happiness officer at Bend Pet Express, which has stores in Bend, Ore., agreed and said that she’s witnessed a drastic shift toward “more natural habitats and less plastic.”

“The days of the neon purple plastic tubes are waning, and spacious metal enclosures with as much natural habitat interior as possible are taking the lead,” she said. “Small-animal owners are doing more research and creating their own ‘habitat’ whenever possible with items that truly are, or can be, species specific. Today we have owners who want to re-create natural environments as best as possible. For example, we have a chinchilla owner who traded their small horizontal common ‘rodent’ enclosure for a large parrot enclosure and installed wood shelving and rocks to allow their chinchillas to jump and snuggle into tight spaces, like they would in their native habitat.”

Species Specific Reigns

According to industry insiders, species-specific habitats for small-mammal pets are in higher demand than ever.

Megan Rogers, small-animal department head at Clark’s Pet Emporium, with two locations in Albuquerque, N.M., said that today’s customers expect species-specific habitats. It’s no longer acceptable to just pick up any cage.

Nicklas stressed the importance of species-specific habitats as well, explaining that they are key to giving small mammals what they need to thrive.

“Each small animal comes from a unique area of the world, making their living needs different,” Nicklas said. “With this instinct in mind, it’s important to offer hamsters a habitat with a tall bottom base where plenty of bedding can be placed to allow for burrowing and tubes and tunnels for exploration. Chinchillas originate from mountain regions where they climb, jump and perch. This makes it important to offer chinchillas a habitat with multiple levels to climb and areas to perch.”

Hughes said that many of One Stop Country Pet’s small-animal customers have owned these pets in the past, and they are typically well educated on the specific habitat that is best suited to their pet.

“Small-animal pet parents know that their pet is not going to thrive in a habitat that is not designed for them,” she added. “They care about providing their pet with a high-quality life, and they know the habitat is key to that.”

Gerstenberger agreed.

“Consumers see their small pet’s home as a personal space, and they want to provide what they feel is best for them but that still allows them to interact with the household,” he said.

Optimal Assortment

The variety of products that a retailer carries, as well as how informed the staff is, can make a huge difference in customer interest and differentiate a brick-and-mortar from online competitors.

“It’s all about the pet,” said Jason Savitt, president of Prevue Pet Products in Chicago. “Retailers need to be educated on the cages, toys and accessories that they are recommending for specific animals. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Different budgets must also be accommodated. Knowledge, expertise and helping a customer curate the right environment and experience for their animal is the most valuable difference between shopping at a store or buying something random online.”

How a retailer’s small-animal product assortment is presented matters, too.

“To help make all shoppers happy, it is a good idea to differentiate your assortment by species,” Nicklas said. “Separate small-animal products by species and make that clear. A guinea pig pet parent is looking for different products from a hamster pet parent. When a separation is made, shoppers can more easily find what they need, and it offers a more enjoyable shopping experience.”

Gerstenberger said that a well-thought-out assortment can replace the need for massive quantities. Quality over quantity counts.

“Have a solid offering,” he added. “This does not mean having 12 of everything but rather that you ensure your assortment covers the pets’ and parents’ needs via a good/best offering.”