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Healthy Food, Healthy Animal

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It seems to be a natural cycle of things that at the beginning of each year we all take a renewed focus on the basics in life. And for small pets, as for any living thing, one of the basic necessities in life is food.

Customers might not purchase a lot of extra treats, toys or new cages after the excess of the holidays, but they still want to make sure their precious pets are well fed.

Hay, pellets and fruits and vegetables remain popular mainstays of small pet diets, and manufacturers are constantly improving both the products and the packaging to make them more appealing to consumers.

“People are humanizing their pets more and more, therefore they’re looking for innovative, nutritional foods for their pets, often mimicking their own personal food preferences,” Lisa Kniceley, trade sales specialist for Vitakraft, said.

For the small pet food world, that means producing hays and foods that are GMO free, all-natural and grown and produced in the United States.

New Trends

Hay may be a staple of small pet diets, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

Oxbow Animal Health recently unveiled a new line of compressed hay called Harvest Stacks. It comes in three different flavors to provide excitement in the small pet’s diet: Western Timothy, Western Timothy with Carrots and Western Timothy with Chamomile.

In addition to the interesting flavors, it is unique in the use of its compression technology to take all-natural, long-strand hay and form it into compact, easy-to-feed portions.

“These Harvest Stacks produce 80 percent less airborne dust than loose hay, making a much cleaner, healthier product,” Melissa Ross, marketing operations manager for Oxbow Animal Health, said.

Another popular product is Vitakraft’s Sunaturals Hay. The all-natural product is vacuumed to help minimize dust. Both Oxbow and Vitakraft’s hay products proudly boast they’re 100 percent North American grown, and important priority for many customers.

Getting the Right Mix

One thing that customers seem to be looking for recently is species-specific products. Rabbits, gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs might all have a basic diet of hay, but they all are different sizes and have different nutritional needs.

Because people want what’s best for their pets in order to help them live a long and healthy life, they are paying more attention to getting products that provide the proper nutrition for them. In fact, purchases of special-mix foods for animal type grew 15 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to the 2013-2014 National Pet Owners Survey by the American Pet Products Association.

Making sure you have an all-encompassing range of small pet foods available for customers is essential in being the retailer pet owners come to on a regular basis.

Vita Prima foods by Vitakraft are species specific, with foods for rabbits, rats and mice, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas and hedgehogs. This line was recently reformulated to offer a more complete nutritional profile, including Omega 3, DHA, prebiotics and probiotics, specifically formulated for each species.

Oxbow Animal Health also has species-specific products in its flagship Essentials line, and they recently added a Mouse and Young Rat diet to provide a complete food that meets the nutritional needs of young, growing mice and rats.

“This diet is a uniform block, which prevents selective feeding behaviors commonly associated with mixes and seed-based diets, which enables us to provide a life-stage specific diet for mice and rats,” Ross said.

Another new species-specific product is the Carnivore Plus diet for ferrets that’s grain and gluten free.

“Ferrets rely on a diet made up of more protein than other small animals, and this gluten-free product appeals to many customers who are eating gluten free in their own diets,” Linda Cope, of Marshall Pet Products, said.

In addition to having products available for all different species, Cope recommends having a variety of sizes of products available.

“Some customers are looking for small bags of food to provide a fresher product each day, while others are looking for big bags and fewer trips to the pet store,” Cope said.

All Natural on the Rise

Organic and all-natural food choices are another popular trend in the small pet food category.

“We launched our BeneTerra line of organic products in 2008, and have seen strong growth in this line ever since,” Ross said. “Every year it seems that more customers are making the decision to invest in an all-organic nutrition for their animal companions, and we’re happy to meet this growing demand with an entire line of USDA-certified organic products.”

Of course, the hay products from Oxbow and VitaKraft are also all-natural products.

“Animal owners can feel good feeding their pets our Sunaturals Hay, and they appreciate a product that is not only natural but uses homegrown hay,” Kniceley said.

Creative Marketing

While food is a staple for pet owners, a few creative marketing techniques will not only help  increase sales, but will also serve to help build the relationship between the retailer and the customer.

For retailers that sell small animals in their store, recommending a specific food is often part of helping a customer pick out a new pet.

“We usually recommend not changing their diet right off the bat, so even though it’s ultimately up to the customer, we tell them what we’ve been feeding the animal here in the store,” Tina Townsend, manger of The Pet Place, Boone, N.C., said.

Townsend feeds her pets Oxbow products, which they purchase through Oxbow’s Store Feeding Program.

“This is a benefit we offer to members of our Preferred Store Program, which not only helps save stores money, but through their recommendations it leads to increased trust from customers, which is always a positive thing,” Ross said.

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