Having Fun With Ferrets

When it comes to categorizing pets, ferrets get lumped in with small animals, but they should probably have a category of their own.

They are part of the Mustelidae family, and not rodents, like most other common small animal pets, which means they have somewhat different behavior patterns, and a longer lifespan, ranging from 8 to 12 years. They are also obligate carnivores, the same as cats, which means they need protein rather than grains for a healthy diet.

The ferret category is a small one, but thanks to the devoted nature of ferret owners, it is a niche category that can be important to a retail business. Of course, having ferrets for sale can help drive sales of other ferret products, but it’s not a necessity.

In order to become known as a ferret-friendly store, keep a variety of different brand foods in stock, make sure your associates are well-versed in the basics of ferret care, and stock some fun accessories. With just a little bit of shelf space devoted to ferrets, you can become the go-to destination for ferret owners.

Food: Think Variety

When stocking ferret food, make sure to get a few different brands.

“Ferrets are notoriously picky eaters, and by offering only one brand of ferret diet, you might not meet your customers’ needs,” Gail Shepard, director of marketing for Zupreem, said.

Retailers need to keep in mind that many ferret owners have more than one ferret, and each animal will prefer a different food.

“Often, ferret owners will buy two or more varieties of food and mix them together, and then the ferrets pick out what they like to eat,” Shepard said.

When choosing which foods to stock, think all natural and grain free. Just like other pet owners, people with ferrets are paying attention to the quality and nutritional content of their pet’s food, and knowing it’s made with all-natural ingredients appropriate for ferret health, is an important factor when making a purchase. EVO Ferret Food is grain free and potato free, and comes with high levels of turkey and chicken for the carnivorous ferrets. The brand just got a packaging makeover, with a new design to more effectively communicate the benefits of the food.

Zupreem, known for its Premium Ferret Diet, expanded its offerings to include a grain-free option a few years ago.

“Both are high-protein, corn-free products that are popular with ferret owners,” Shepard said.

Marshall Pet Products also has a grain-free option, Carnivore Plus, which came on the market in 2013. It’s a good alternative to its popular Premium Ferret Diet, one of the first ferret foods to come out.

Supplements and Treats

Everybody likes to give their pets treats, and ferrets are no different. Marshall Pet Products has a line of Bandits treats for ferrets, with popular chicken and bacon flavors. Bright new packaging helps these stand out on the shelf. The company also has a new offering, their Goodbye Odor line.

“Our GoodBye Odor treat was developed after customer feedback,” Linda Cope, global marketing manager, said. “The original item was a liquid to put in the water, but sometimes ferrets don’t drink their water.”

The treats are a new option that not only help neutralize the ferret’s natural musky scent with natural ingredients including yucca schidigera, but also help build the bond between the ferret and the owner.
A food and nutrition category wouldn’t be complete without a supplement, and Nupro offers a supplement designed specifically for ferrets. While it’s not a new product, the all-natural supplement fits in with the trends customers are looking for.

“A supplement is a good way to complement a ferret’s diet and make up for the amino acids and enzymes they’re not getting by living life indoors,”  Janis Gianforte, president of Nupro, said.

The combination of liver, kelp and flax seed will help with digestive issues as well as improving the ferret’s skin and coat.

Living the High Life

While ferrets are often allowed to roam freely through their houses, they still need a cage for at least part of the day or night. A well-stocked ferret department will not only include a few cage options, but also plenty of accessories to make the cage colorful and interactive. Ferret Nation has a high-end line of cages that are popular in part because of double doors that open the full length of the front.

“Ferret owners are really into decorating their cages, and these doors make it easy to access the cage for either cleaning or decorating,” Tara Whitehead, marketing manager of Midwest Homes for Pets, said.

Ferret Nation also provides plenty of accessories for the cages, all in coordinated colors of teal and purple fleece.

“We did a lot of research with ferret groups and bloggers before coming out with our designs,” Whitehead said.

Ferret Nation supplies shelf, ramp and pan covers customized for their cages, to help protect ferrets’ sensitive feet. They also have a fun, hanging bed called the Cozy Cube.

“The Cozy Cube was designed after finding that ferrets like to nest inside things, but they also like the sensation of hanging,” she said.

Marshall Pet Products also offers a nice variety of hammocks, toys and accessories to fill up the cage.

“We’ve created themes for a lot of our accessories, to give customers some options when decorating their cages,” Cope said.

A banana hammock and hanging monkey work well for a jungle theme, and the frog lodge and turtle tunnel can turn a ferret’s cage into a pondside retreat.

With new items and new packaging, your ferret shelves are sure to pop. Be sure to highlight the products with an endcap or special display.

Making Small Pets Feel at Home

Increasingly, people look at their pets as part of the family. And this feeling of connectedness has extended beyond cats and dogs to include small pets as well – gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets and the like.

And partly because of that, consumers are looking for much more when it comes to finding a home for their pet. Rather than just a functional cage that will contain their pet and keep them safe, people are looking for a home for their pet that will be spacious, comfortable, fun, safe, and often something that will look as nice among their own furniture.

With that in mind, manufacturers have some new offerings in both cages and bedding to help meet consumers’ increasingly sophisticated tastes and high standards for their pets. It also provides a great opportunity for sales, as about 18 percent of small pet owners replace the cage once a year, according to the 2013-2014 Pet Owners Survey by American Pet Products Association.
Whether they’re upgrading from a starter cage to a more extensive habitat, or they’re just in the market for something that looks clean and fresh, cages are not a stagnant category.

Looking Good

To help meet the growing needs of consumers, Marchioro is expanding its line of cages this year to include some new sizes, including a cage that is 16-by-16 and either 12 or 40 inches high, depending on the height the consumer wants. They will also have a cage that is 20-by-20-by-57.

“This one is unique to the industry, with its small footprint and expansive height,” Brad Forgette, executive vice president of Marchioro, said.

The additional height provides plenty of room for ramps, tubes and other accessories, to keep them interested and active.

“It gives owners more enjoyment to see their pets having fun,” Forgette said, adding these cages will be in the same simple yet elegant design of other Marchioro cages. “We try to appeal to a wider audience, creating cages that will attract adults of all ages in addition to children. We aim to provide a habitat a 20-something person wouldn’t be ashamed to have sitting on their living room table.”

In addition to ramps and exercise wheels, the Marchioro cages are equipped with ventilated tubes, so waste can drip out and gases can escape.

“Just like humans, our pets are healthier when they’re active,” Forgette said. “We have ventilation in our tubes to ensure that the animals aren’t breathing in harmful gases when they’re exercising and having fun.”

Another elegant yet functional habitat comes from BioBubble Pets. These totally clear, conical-shaped homes can be expanded upward and customized to fit each person’s preferences. Created by aquarium designer Al Venezia, the BioBubble products have a look that leans toward the aquatic world, but with a versatility that suits small pets just as well.

Pet owners can choose to purchase a standard BioBubble Premium, which is a base and a top, or they can add to it with risers that come in mesh, clear and cage varieties. In between the risers you can add a screen to separate the levels, or a bungalow deck, which provides a place for small pets to sleep and eat.

BioBubble just recently introduced a new Terrarium riser that is twice as wide as its original risers and 15 inches tall. It will stack with the premium base as well as the Terra base and features interchangeable viewing panels in either clear or mesh. This new riser allows for larger animals, including guinea pigs and small rabbits.

A unique feature of the BioBubble habitats is the CarbonFresh pad that can be placed in the bottom of the bedding tray.

“One of our priorities is to help pet owners keep their cages clean and fresh,” Kari Simigran, communications manager of BioBubble Pets, said. “We have created a pad infused with a special activated carbon that helps neutralize odors and keeps everything smelling good longer.”

Comfortable Bedding

It’s not just the outside of the cage that matters to consumers. Finding bedding that keeps pets comfortable is also a priority, and next to food, bedding is one of the most purchased items of small pet owners.

“There are two things people are looking for when making purchases of bedding,” Lisa Kniceley, trade sales specialist for Vitakraft, said. “They want items made or grown in the United States, and they want something that is environmentally friendly.”

Biodegradability and sustainability are two big selling points in bedding since the product is used in such large amounts. Both Vitakraft and Oxbow have products that appeal to a consumers’ eco-conscious while providing a healthy environment for the pet.

Vitakraft has its Sunseed Fresh World Bedding made in the United States from recycled paper. Baking soda helps increase absorbency and odor control. When paired with the new Super-Absorbent Cage liners introduced in 2013, clean-up is easy. The cage liners wick away moisture to help keep bedding dry, and once the bedding is soiled, the liner can be folded up and the entire mess thrown away.

Oxbow Animal Health has also introduced bedding for the environmentally conscious consumer. Eco-Straw is an all-natural wheat straw bedding that can hold up to 300 percent of its weight in moisture, as well as being flushable, compostable and naturally mold resistant.

“Our decision to add a bedding to our product line was driven by our commitment to helping meet the basic needs of pets in the healthiest ways possible,” Melissa Ross, marketing operations manager of Oxbow Animal Health, said.

Another company making great strides in this area is Absorption Corp. Their colorful CareFRESH bedding bits are blended with low-dust pellets and create for a super adsorbent litter, while their line of bedding products contain odor control to help keep a pet’s habitat smelling fresh.

Their premium soft bedding is also made from wood pulp, a natural and sustainable resource, and is 100 percent biodegradable and compostable.

Set It Up

The best way to sell more cages is to have them out. Use them for the small pets in the store, or set up a display with a few different options. Of course, there isn’t the space to have them all out and assembled for customers to take home, so Marchioro has answered retailers request for a smaller footprint on the shelf with its new line of cages.

“We have new packaging that takes up less space, making it more profitable for retailers because they will be able to have more inventory there to sell,” Forgette said.

The boxes will have a lifestyle picture of each cage so customers will be able to visualize the product without it being set up.

Most importantly, have a variety of products available. Not only are pet owners looking to keep their small animals active and healthy, they also want cages that fit in with their own style, and of course, every person’s style is different.

Absorption Corp Becomes Healthy Pet

Absorption Corp is now Healthy Pet, reflecting its focus as a pet products company.

The Healthy Pet brand has been used by Absorbtion for both cat and small animal proiducts, and will not become its corporate brand as well. Healthy Pet® will be an umbrella for all of the company’s pet products, with major category brands such as CareFRESH and Critter Care maintaining strong product visibility to ensure consumer familiarity and loyalty.

A new logo and website recently debuted to reflect the change and all other company contact points making the transition over the next 30 days.

“Since our acquisition by J. Rettenmaier & Söhne, we have defined our strategic course as a highly effective, consumer-oriented pet products company spanning all categories,” Ted Mischaikov, CEO, said. “2014 will see renewed innovation in our core small animal offerings along with entry in to the cat category with a line of exceptional natural fiber cat litters. As a platform for pet products, Healthy Pet will focus the global resources and expertise of JRS to effect significant growth.”

Healthy Pet, founded as Absorption Corp over 25 years  ago, is a multi-category pet product manufacturer and marketer dedicated to helping pets and their owners stay active, happy and natural. The company’s popular brands include ökocat, CareFRESH, Critter Care, Puppy Go Potty and Healthy Pet products as well as the Arm & Hammer line of small pet bedding under license.

“Healthy Pet is devoted to a holistic approach to pet care where the pet’s physical, emotional and ecological well being are balanced and enhanced,” Samuel Cohen, vice president of  marketing and sales, said. “The Healthy Pet brand is defined by a new and uniquely comprehensive approach to pet products built on three fundamental elements; active, happy and natural. Physically healthy pets are active, with the energy and strength to play with their human family members. Emotionally healthy pets are happy, finding fulfillment by practicing natural behaviors. Ecologically healthy pets live in natural, clean habitats and environments.”

Healthy Food, Healthy Animal

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.

No More Odor

Small animals are very often “starter pets” in households with small children and also popular classroom companions. Consequently, good stain and odor control is key to happy co-existence.

Interestingly, when people bring dogs and cats into their homes, they take care of stain and odor issues from the get go. Yet, there is a common misconception that small animals don’t smell. Consequently, retailers often find themselves in the role of educators recommending suitable products. And, there’s no shortage of products out there.

According to Becky Mata, manager of Animal Kingdom in Santa Monica, Calif., customers faced with stain and odor problems often want a personal recommendation to ensure that they will be able to eradicate their own issues.

“Customers regularly ask what products we use to clean our store cages,” she said. “We only stock all natural products and, in fact, we use everything we stock on our shelves. Further, we try and educate owners that no matter the size of the small pet, the cage should be thoroughly cleaned on a weekly basis.”

Jason Casto director of product development at Central Garden and Pet, in Schaumburg, Ill., manufacturers of the Kaytee line of small animal products, agreed.

“It’s important that small animal owners are never disappointed by odor control issues or difficult cage cleaning,” he said. “The better the cleaning experience with starter pets will possibly keep them engaged in the pet industry as future owners of other pets.

“Kaytee’s latest litter pans have built-in metal hooks for attaching and locking the pan in place so that it doesn’t get tipped or knocked over. The metal hook clip is also chew proof.”
With the same goals in mind, Ware Manufacturing headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., recently added to their line of critter bathing products.

“Our new Critter Potty/Dustbath can be used for either litter training pocket pets, or to support dust bathing behaviors in dwarf hamsters and gerbils,” Heather Cappel, creative coordinator for the company, said. “The Critter Potty/Dustbath comes with free samples of both the dust bath and litter so that pet owners can gauge how their pet responds to the possible uses.

“We have also introduced the egg-shaped Chinchilla Dust Bath in a larger size making it more roomy and comfortable for natural chinchilla dust bathing. The enclosed design helps to keep litter and dust inside, minimizing the mess in the cage. The lid also snaps off for easy cleaning.”

Color Coordinated

Because small animals are so popular with children, the color of the cages as well as the accessories such as litter pans is very important.

“We’ve always focused on bright and cheerful colors that appeal to both children and their families,” Cappel said.

This extends to bedding with odor control, too and hence the popularity of products such as Kaytee’s new multi colored Birthday bedding and Absorption Corporations’ CareFresh’s confetti bedding.

Last year, Absorption Corporation reevaluated their compressed small animal litter products and introduced CareFresh Litter Plus in small and large pellet sizes.

“We added little bits of blue bedding into the mix for additional absorbency, odor control and to encourage small animals’ natural foraging behavior,” Jim Gorrell, brand manager, said. “It’s been very successful with sales nearly tripling since it launched.

Controlling Smell

Attacking odors with all natural products from an internal standpoint is another way of handling the situation.

GoodBye Odor is an additive added to a small pet’s food or water to prevent odors usually associated with pet excrement.

“The product contains natural plant-based amino acids and takes about three – five days to balance the pet’s system in order to make a noticeable difference,” Linda Cope, media relations spokesperson for Marshall Pet Products based in Wolcott, N.Y., said.

The product, originally developed for human use, has been successfully used on ferrets, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and other small pets.

As a way of promoting the product and creating a word-of-mouth buzz, the company runs a bi-monthly contest on their website offering entrants an opportunity to win a six-month supply of this product for their pet.

“It’s a great way for us to interact directly with small animal owners and get insight into their take on pet ownership,” she said. “We’ve also started to manufacture the product in treat form with GoodBye Odor Treats for Ferrets. It’s made in the USA with all-natural ingredients and is veterinary-tested and approved.

“And, because it’s a treat, it’s something that young owners will enjoy giving to their pets. Treating is a great way to interact with a pet and enhance that human-animal bond.”

Many times a customer might ask for something they can spray to eliminate odors in a room, but that is also safe for pets.

Kanberra Gel and Kanberra Spray, are all-natural products that clean air and surfaces, attack mold and mildew, and neutralize odors.

Their proprietary blend of oils contain pure pharmaceutical grade tea tree oil, and no chemicals, which makes it safe to use around pets.

Zero Odor, is another option.

Its patented formula bonds with odor molecules in an irreversible reaction that’s powerful, yet odorless, non-toxic and biodegradable.

Small Pets Bring Big Rewards

Being successful with small pets requires that stores continue to educate not only their employees, but the general public, on responsible pet ownership.

By recognizing and treating signs of illness, feeding a high-quality diet and recommending the best habitat to customers, stores will continue to enjoy a high rate of success.

It’s important that all small animals begin their journey to a new family with a clean bill of health. Practicing healthy veterinary care is the first step to a happy customer base.

“As a vet, I would hope each store would have experts caring for their exotics who will be consistently looking for their behavioral habits and know when they are ill,” Dr. Irving Ingram, DVM of All Creatures Animal Clinic in Arizona, said. “They should also council customers to seek out information that is not biased. When searching online for recommendations, seek out a serious website, such as UC Davis or Colorado State University.”

Enrichment is an important part of a small animal’s life. The goal of enrichment is to stimulate the natural behavior and instincts of pets through physical or psychological stimulus.

Filling a small pet’s habitat with interactive toys and accessories will help to stimulate their curiosity, and it takes very little planning. Most small animals enjoy chewing, caching, or hiding, food, constructing nesting areas and climbing.

Cater to their curiosity with hidden treats, interactive toys or interesting accessories that enable them to explore their environment.

Feed a High Quality Diet

While unlimited hay provides the fiber necessary to keep a small herbivore’s digestive system moving properly, vitamins and minerals are supplied in the form of a complete fortified food.

“Many conventional feeds contain fats, sugars, starches in the form of nuts, corn, seeds, and fruit,” Melissa Ross, marketing operations manager for Oxbow Animal Health, said. “Pet owners should avoid these items, as small herbivores such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are not designed to digest them. Instead, owners should choose an all-natural food which contains an ideal amount of fiber, carbohydrates and proteins. Approximately 20 percent of a small herbivore’s diet should come from a measured amount of a high quality fortified food.”

It’s critical that pet stores understand the individual requirements of each species, which may include supplements. Some animals require very specific nutritional supplements, such as vitamin C for guinea pigs.

“Major national brands are adequate for the majority of pets but we need to realize that when specific health arises, diet is a big part of maintaining health,” Dr. Ingram said.

Cages and Bedding

The physical needs of an animal will depend completely on the type of animal being sold. Some require cages, others, terrariums. The trend is towards oversized habitats that are stylish, affordable and easily integrated into a home’s décor.

Innovation in versatile product design is being seen throughout in the pet industry.

“The BioBubble Premium is versatile by design,” Kari Simigran, communications manager of BioBubble Pets, said. “BioBubble utilizes sets of clear risers and mesh inserts for a series of stackable expansions that can be customized according to the type of animal you are keeping. Carbon inserts keep the habitat smelling fresh and creative toys that snap neatly into place allow customers to create a completely customized habitat for any land- or water-based animal.”

A floor is also an important part of the habitat. Coverings such as wood shavings make a soft place to lie down, but beware of high-odor woods such as cedar, which can irritate your pets sensitive nose.  Newer products in the marketplace are designed to keep habitats cleaner, longer.

“With an inner layer to help trap moisture and odor, Vitakraft’s Cage Liners help make cage cleaning fast and easy,” Phoebe Stanley, marketing coordinator for Vitakraft Sunseed, said. “The quilted surface is highly absorbent, non-toxic, and helps keep cage clean and dry.”


“In addition to essentials such as hay, water, and fortified food, it’s also important for pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas to have ample opportunities for enrichment,” Melissa Ross, marketing operations manager for Oxbow Animal Health, said. “Enrichment can be offered in many forms, including: healthy treats offered in moderation, variety in a pet’s feeding regimen, and safe, healthy accessories for a pet’s environment.

“One great way to provide enrichment is by providing accessories to enhance a pet’s environment.  Woven hay accessories such as Oxbow’s Timothy CLUB items are the perfect accessories for all small animals. Timothy CLUB products are made from 100 percent hand woven Timothy hay and make great additions to small animal habitats.”

Commercial treats can be found in a variety of flavors, shapes, and sizes. Hay pellets, yogurt, and even peanut butter make excellent treats for nearly any species. Take care not to overfeed.

“Pet owners should think of treats as a dessert,” Dr. Ingram said.  “Keep to a minimum, they are fine for helping with training and making pet owners feel better about treating their pets, but it’s critical not to overdo it.”

With a little planning, you can provide safe toys and accessories that entertain animals and educate the public on responsible pet care, a goal that every store should keep top of mind.

Keeping Busy

Small pets like gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, rats, mice, chinchillas and rabbits are fun playmates. Their silly antics and dastardly deeds are fun to watch and they thrive on interaction with their human companions. Toss a couple of well-designed toys into the mix and the fun never ends.

But, those that lack appropriate enrichment may turn to tearing up their habitat, chewing their cage bars or “barbering,” the practice of gnawing at their own fur. Changing up their habitat, treats and toys helps keep small pets psychologically healthy.

Toys can divert small pets from unwanted behaviors like furniture chewing, too. Give a rabbit something healthy to chew and maybe he’ll leave the La-Z-Boy alone.

Timali Pet Rabbit Toys has a complete line of toys, including several styles of activity zones. The wooden tables allow rabbits to climb up, scurry under and play with many colorful rope toys dangling below.

Timali also sells innovative configurations of ropes and wooden shapes in abstract forms and clever designs like a colorful carrot, or seasonal Christmas tree. Their DIY Rabbit Toys Kit challenges rabbit owners to build their own creative playthings from blocks, sticks and ropes in many colors.

Keep Them Busy

Ferrets should spend at least four hours per day outside their cage, and if they don’t have stimulating toys, they turn to shiny objects like car keys and Grandma’s diamond earrings. An investment in quality toys is a worthwhile one.

At the 2013 Global Pet Expo, Marshall Pet Products launched the Cruising Critter Raceway with live, in-booth ferret racing. The spectacle drew the crowds and the ferrets thrived, as the racing tubes satisfy their natural tunneling instinct.

The Cruising Critter Raceway includes two racing tubes and an easy-to-clean floor mat with a checkered-flag finish line. It also provides stimulating play for hamsters, rats and guinea pigs.

The Pop-N-Play Ball Pit, also from Marshall, thrills ferrets, who like to burrow and explore. Drop a couple of smaller toys or treats in there and watch them root out the goodies. It has a Velcro tab that affixes it to furniture to prevent tipping, and the fabric easily wipes clean.

Marshall also offers a Bed Bug Play Center that includes a soft play mat and cross bars that dangle toys overhead.

The Super Pet Comfort Wheel is ideal for gerbils, hamsters and guinea pigs. It comes with a wire stand and a clip to affix it to the cage.

Super Pet also manufactures the classic Small Animal Run-About Ball, which allows gerbils and hamsters to explore the house.

– Kristen Ryan

Chomping Away

Ever heard the phrase, “long in the tooth?” It’s not just another unflattering idiom that compares people to rodents. It can be a serious issue for small-pet owners.

“When rodents gnaw on things, it keeps the teeth from overgrowing and creating problems,” Ron Reid, Vitakraft Sunseed’s zoologist and nutritionist, said. “Sometimes you’ll see the lower teeth growing up and wearing down the upper, possibly causing severe damage to the animal.”

Just like their wild ancestors’ impressive chompers, small pets’ incisors grow constantly, so small-animal owners must offer their captive pets the opportunity to chew.

“The types of food they eat in the wild allow them to keep their teeth in proper shape, but when they’re in captivity they don’t have the opportunity to forage,” Reid said. “That makes it more difficult to maintain their teeth.”

Living World Colorful Cardboard Chew-Nels can be connected to make long, chewable tunnels. They are filled with bedding material so small animals can play, chew and burrow happily.

Chew Time

All types of pocket pets including rabbits, degus, chinchillas, gerbils, hamsters, rats and mice need to chew, though they chew for varying reasons.

Rodents like hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice need to gnaw. Reid likens gnawing to the way a dog scratches an itch, using just its front teeth.

“Chew sticks like Vitakraft Sunseed’s Crunch Stick line are designed not only for nutritional value and vitamin fortification; it gives them an opportunity to chew things that are hard,” Reid said. “Also, these animals need psychological props: toys, wheels and things to chew on all satisfy psychological needs.”

Vitakraft Sunseed’s Yogurt Glazed Crunch Sticks are designed to last, with a natural wood stick in the center. They come in packages of two that include a cage clip. Their All Small Animals Chew Treats come in several forms including Tooth Sticks, Denta Blocks and Chew Twigs.

Marshall Pet Products offers 3-packs of natural pine cones that bear the tag line, “Nature’s Tooth Brush.” Pine cones help satisfy rabbits’ urge to gnaw.

Rabbits, degus and chinchillas don’t gnaw as much as the rodents, but it’s also important for them to have things to chew on to keep their teeth in good shape. When they chew, or masticate, their food, their mouths move from side to side, so they also need to work their molars.

While chew sticks help them shape their front teeth properly, they also need crunchy foods like pellets, and grasses like hay, alfalfa and timothy. These varying textures help maintain healthy tooth structure.

Toy Time

Marshall Pet Products offers several toys made from timothy hay with no dyes, colors or preservatives. The Woven Grass Play Ball and Bunny Chew Ring are healthy, interactive toys that encourage chewing. The Hay Tumbler is a completely edible cardboard toy filled with timothy hay.

Living World Alfalfa Chew-Nels are durable tubes made from alfalfa or cornhusks. They provide interactive play, long-lasting chewing and hiding places for treats.

Many small-animal chews are fortified with vitamins and minerals, so they also contribute to pets’ nutritional needs. Hartz Salt and Mineral Wheels attach to the cage with an included hanger and provide needed nutrition while actively engaging pets.

Hartz Nibble Sticks for gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and mice come in packages of twelve.

Chewing and gnawing products also contribute to small animals’ psychological well being.

“All small pets need stimulation: things to chew on, toys to play with,” Reid said. “That’s a very important part of their development, so the more things you can do to stimulate them in that environment, the more beneficial it’ll be to the animal.”

Without appropriate chew toys, animals may chew their fur or cage bars.

Marshall’s all-natural Chew Toy With Apple combines psychological enrichment and chewing. Rabbits can roll the wooden toy around their habitat as they chew.

The Living World Teach N Treat Toy is an interactive toy that challenges pets to observe, listen and learn and can be configured for three varying levels of difficulty.

Drs. Foster and Smith offers many interactive chewing toys for small pets.

Carousel Chew Toys are wooden cages shaped like a carrot or an apple. Inside are pieces of colorful, natural loofah. The toys roll while pets attempt to get to the chewy bits. The Knot Nibbler is a colorful tangle of wooden dowels tied around a wooden ball. The brand is committed to providing healthy, affordable pet products.

-Kristen Ryan

Resting Responsibly

As the natural market continues to grow and expand, natural bedding has seen its segment get larger and larger.

Typically, natural bedding is made from either natural materials or 100 percent recycled materials.

Lisa Kniceley, inside sales rep for Vitakraft Sunseed, said they offer many eco-friendly and natural bedding produts.

“One of the natural products we currently offer is our Eco-bedding,” Kniceley said. “This unique, patent-pending paper crinkle is made from 100 percent recycled paper in the USA. Baking soda and Zeolite have been added for excellent odor control and absorbency. Eco-bedding is biodegradable, hypoallergenic and one of the best ever materials for rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters to use for tunneling, nesting and environmental enrichment.”

Kniceley said that eco-friendly products make environmentally conscious consumers feel confident that they are helping the environment when they purchase Vitakraft Sunseed’s Eco-bedding, which has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

“Founded in 1993, this independent, not-for-profit organization promotes responsible forest management and has earned the reputation for having the most rigorous and credible forest certification system,” Kniceley said. “By buying FSC certified products, we can all do our part to protect the world’s forests.”

CaribSea has two different types of natural bedding that are made from coconuts, the coco fresh for small animals and the coco soft for reptiles.

Their bedding products are made from coconut coir.

“Coconut coir can hold seven times its weight in water,” Jud McCracken, sales manager of CaribSea, said.  “The bedding is made differently than others. It is shredded mechanically instead of decomposed. It is a softer product.”

McCracken said the product has no environmental impact.

“It’s a waste product,” McCracken said. “There are no trees being chopped down. It’s completely natural, 100 percent safe for you to use.”

Kaytee  offers a pine small animal bedding and litter natural bedding. It’s manufactured with all-natural pine shavings, and provides an earth-friendly place for a pet to lie on and burrow in.

The natural pine oils suppress microorganisms and keep the environment clean and fresh. Earth-friendly, absorbent, and comfortable, Kaytee pine small animal bedding and litter is recommended for habitats that are open and well ventilated.

Another small animal bedding is Nodor Natural Bedding from Hartz. It is an ultra-absorbent, long-lasting cellulose fiber bedding for rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, mice and other small animals.

It controls odors from pet waste and is powered by Nodor, their odor encapsulating technology.

Petell Pet Products offers a cedar bedding that is an all natural, absorbent, biodegrable bedding. It is meant for small animals and caged birds, as it provides a soft, comfortable and clean nesting area for pets.

Even non-traditional pet brands are jumping on the natural bedding trend.

Arm & Hammer natural pet bedding helps keep an odor free home. It’s compressed to six liters but expands to 14 liters. It controls ammonia and pet odors with pure and natural Arm & Hammer brand baking soda locked into absorbent cellulose fibers. This helps cages to stay drier, pets stay cleaner and homes smell fresher.

Less Is Sometimes More

According to the American Pet Products Association’s National Pet Owners Survey of 2011-12, 89 percent of dog owners purchased treats for their dog in 2010. Of those 89 percent, 23 percent purchased natural treats, a statistic APPA didn’t keep before 2010.

As the natural trend gains popularity, companies continue to expand the lines they offer and improve their treats.

Sojos uses real whole foods in their treats to help optimize health and wellness.

“Sojos treats are all natural and baked to crunchy perfection,” Maggie Johnson, owner of Sojos, said. “Sojos Good Dog treats are tiny bones packed with the flavors of grandma’s home cooking; chicken pot pie, apple dumpling and blueberry cobbler are among the recipes offered. We also have Sojos grain-free treats; they are made with lamb and sweet potato and duck and cherry. Our big dog line is made using hardy recipes like beef stew and biscuits and gravy.”

Sojos uses a short ingredient list, and their treats are not made with sugar. Another important aspect for Sojos when gaining customers is their packaging.

“Natural pet food and treats attract consumers who want the very best,” Johnson said. “When you are offering premium quality products, ensuring that the packaging is also top-notch is part of the criteria.

“As for us, since we are using human-quality ingredients, we like to illustrate that through our packaging design.

“Our packaging designer does not mimic the pet food industry’s look and feel. Instead she like to reflect the look and feel of premium products you would find at the high end gourmet food market.”

Homemade Touches

Jesse Figueroa is the 22-year-old owner of Barkn Belly Bakery, a company he started when he was in high school, because his dog almost died from a reaction to a dog treat.

“We are a certified organic dog bakery that uses fondant to decorate our cakes,” Figueroa said. “No other dog bakery has created something like that. We use local organic or all natural ingredients. We are all about the healthy ingredients. My family and I are very into being super healthy, so why shouldn’t we do the same with our pets?”

Figueroa created all his own recipes from scratch and did a lot of experimentation with different ingredients to get the perfect flavor.

“I have been in business technically for four years now,” Figueroa said. “I started it as a hobby and I just created them for my dog originally.”

Jean McCarthy, the owner of New Hampshire-based North Woods Animal Treats, said the company bakes hand-made, small batches of all natural, human grade ingredient cookies.

McCarthy said that the natural section is as large a section of the pet industry as it is in other industries at the moment.

She said everyone wants to live healthier lives and leave a smaller footprint.

“The natural concept is here to stay,” McCarthy said. “We see it getting larger in areas in which we consume, so it will also continue to grow in the pet industry, in all kinds of areas.”

Annette Fry, the founder and chief canine confectioner of Biscuits by Lambchop, originally created the treats for her dog Lambchop, because of his dietary needs.

“I had to cook for him and balance his meal,” Fry said. “It took a couple of months until I was happy with it. I was doing the nutritional analysis for it all as I went along. I have a physical therapy background. At first I was terrified of making a mistake, but it wasn’t that hard once I got over the overwhelming-ness of my dog being sick.”

Going Mainstream

It’s not just small companies who are creating natural treats.

Pet Botanics has seen their Grain-Free Meaty Treats gain in popularity.

“A large majority of other dog food treats on the market are wheat, rice or corn based,” Barbara Denzer, vice president of marketing at Cardinal Pet, said. “The Pet Botanics Grain-Free Meaty Treats contain no grains and their number one ingredient is salmon. They come in two varieties, soft and chewy and crispy and crunchy, and contain Pet Botanics’ Botanifits, a special blend of botanicals that promote long term health, fitness and well being of dogs.”

What makes this better than other natural or non-natural products, according to Denzer?

“By using a highly palatable number one ingredient, like salmon, and by not including any grains, not only are the Pet Botanics Grain-Free Meaty Treats delicious to dogs, but they are actually formulated to be healthy for them, too,” Denzer said. “Ingredients such as salmon help provide omega 3 and 6 fatty acids and Pet Botanics’ Botanifits include green tea, cranberries, peppermint, chamomile and more, which help with everything from bladder health to aiding in digestion.”

Loving Pets has a vast variety of natural treats, like their Barksters Krisps, which are all natural, low in fat and are made using only U.S. farm-grown ingredients.

The sweet potatoes variety contain high levels of Beta-carotene, an antioxidant that supports cellular health and eyesight.

The brown rice variety offers dogs a good source of dietary fiber, which promotes digestive health and has been known to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Brown rice is also a good source of essential vitamins and minerals.

Whole Life Pet Products offers consumers freeze-dried, single-source treats, including chicken, turkey, beef and cod.

They also produces the only USDA certified organic line of freeze dried treats certified by the Oregon Tilth.

QT Dog offers a line of products specially designed for those who are looking for something natural, but also different.

For example, their ChurpiChews are made from milk, salt and lime juice and have no chemicals or perservatives.

And, it’s not just dogs and cats getting fed more natural options.

Peter’s Nature Treats from Marshall Pet are made with all natural ingredients for rabbits, chincillas, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and other small animals. They are available in banana, papaya, carrot and apple.

The Wheels Are Turning

Small animals, like hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, chinchillas and ferrets, all require daily exercise, as physical activity can impact their health as well as their mental wellbeing.

“Exercise helps keep their weight under control, provides behavioral enrichment and keeps small animals’ brains active,” Carolyn Gates, VMD, said. “Small pets that don’t get enough exercise tend to have behavioral problems and medical issues.”

Physical exercise requirements vary among species. Hamsters, gerbils, mice and rats love to tunnel through their cages, and hiding food at the end of a tube inspires pets to venture farther in search of it, ultimately making them work for their food.

Super Pet’s Hay and Treat Dispenser is an exercise wheel with a twist. One compartment dispenses hay while others provide sneaky hiding places for treats. As it spins, it releases the goods. This encourages small animals to interact with the toy and figure out the trick to scoring delicious treats.

A Challenging Task

“When it comes to exercise, there are a lot of variables to consider, including the species, the diet and the animal itself,” Gates said. “It’s tough to force many small animals to get enough exercise. It’s not like a cat, where you can dangle a toy in front of it, or a dog that you can put on a leash.”

Exercise wheels and balls certainly come to mind when owners are considering their pets’ exercise habits, and many manufacturers have expanded these product offerings to include some pretty creative options.

Ware’s Flying Saucer is an exercise wheel of sorts. Its dish shape makes running across the saucer more challenging than a traditional wheel.

Super Pet’s exercise balls range in size from a “mini” size for tiny mice, to a “mega” size for guinea pigs. As an added bonus, most children are enthralled by the idea of their tiny pet running around the house while still in captivity.
For those who see a traditional exercise ball as old school, perhaps a super-deluxe version like Super Pet’s Dazzle Hamster Exercise Carriage would be more appropriate.

This ball is surrounded by a chassis of sorts, which makes the whole thing resemble Cinderella’s carriage.

For those who want their pet to roll in style, Super Pet’s Critter Cruiser is a tail-finned sports car wrapped around an exercise wheel.

Some owners worry about the noise some of these items may make when used by nocturnal animals while the rest of the family is sleeping. Products like Super Pet’s Giant Silent Spinner, address that concern. It’s a wheel that’s specifically designed for quiet, middle-of-the-night workouts.

When it comes to ferrets getting enough exercise, they can be walked on a leash, but should always be in a harness, not a collar, because their tube-like shape makes it easy for them to slip out of a collar.

Marshall Pet Products’ Ferret Walking Jacket is a stylish purple harness that features Velcro closures and quick-snap buckles for easy on and off. It comes with a matching, elasticized leash.

– Kristen Ryan

Ferret Business

We recently talked with Peter H. Reid, president and COO of Marshall Pet Products, based in Wolcott, N.Y., about his company and their commitment to quality ferret products.

Q: How did you get into the pet industry?

Reid: I got into the pet industry a few years after college. It definitely wasn’t planned, it gets into your blood, you know you are helping to make the lives of children, families and pets great. 

Q: Marshall Pet is a leader when it comes to ferret and small animal products. Tell us about this niche market, and why it’s important.

Reid: Marshall has been involved in the pet business since 1939, breeding and raising world class quality ferrets.  About 21 years ago, we entered into the product and nutrition business to make sure anyone who decides to own a pet ferret will have the very best products to care for their new pet. Since then we have expanded into the dog, cat and equine markets.

The ferret market fills an important niche. It is often a first or second pet to a household.  It is smaller in nature, but large on personality, which is why they are so popular.  They are great for all demographics and adapt well to the lifestyles of the household they are in.

Q: At one point you had a ferret in the office, who got the chance to test out all the new toys before they hit the market. What inspires the new products, like the recently introduced two lane ferret racetrack the company introduced at Global Pet Expo?

Reid: Yes, we often will have ferrets at the office and more recently focus groups all over the USA and Canada that get to test out new ideas and give us excellent content and feedback.

Anyone and everyone at Marshall provides feedback on new ideas and concepts, we tend to be quite the creative group, of course it is ultimately the ferrets that give a thumbs up or thumbs down on product concepts. The racetrack was definitely a compilation of many and it is a riot to race ferrets, great for the home, or store or distributor events.

Q: Giving back to the community is a big part of the culture at Marshall Pet. What are some of the ways you do this?

Reid: Giving back to the community definitely has deep roots at Marshall. It really started with our founder Gilman Marshall and his wife providing that example to all of their employees, and since then it has been engrained in our corporate culture for over 70 years. Everything from schools, fire departments, community events, animal shelters and special events. We give back to those who dedicate so much time to our success; it goes both ways.

Q: Tell us about your business philosophy, and how it impacts the way you run your company.

Reid: My business philosophy is quite simple; find the right people with the right character and skills and let them do their job without being overbearing. Treat people fairly and with respect and they will do the same for your business and its customers.  We have a great team that is willing to do what it takes to serve our customers and future customers.


Becoming Ferret Friendly

Manufacturers are reporting that 2012 brought the first upswing in the ferret industry in four years, and the numbers are still climbing.

Feeding one ferret for a year costs about $200, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg, according to Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing at Marshall Pet Products, the world’s largest provider of ferrets and ferret products.

“A first-time ferret buyer will spend $300-$500 on accessories and food at startup,” Juszczak said. “Then we also know that the average ferret owner comes back within a three-to-four-month time period to buy a companion for their ferret.”

Ferrets need a cage, food and bedding for starters, but the product offerings for ferrets go far beyond the essentials. Owners buy harnesses, treats, toys and even ferret costumes. Books about caring for ferrets are also top sellers.

Some top sellers include Marshall’s Earth’s Balance brand’s 2-in-1 product called the Superchew Edible Toy, and Kaytee’s unique Clean & Cozy Bedding.

The toy is a sugar-free, high-protein treat that entertains ferrets and keeps them busy, while  the bedding comes in several bright colors, including rose, purple, lavender and blue, that will not stain pets. It allows owners to customize their ferrets’ environment according to their own color preferences.

Experts say many pet stores are leaving ferret owners’ money on the table. By focusing on several low-cost, simple marketing tactics, stores can increase register ring in this high-potential category.

“The smart marketers tailor their inventory, tailor their knowledge, train their staffs, help the customer and they’ve got that customer coming back for life,” Juszczak said.

Education Is Key

By stocking ferret food and educating staff about ferrets’ specific needs, stores can increase margin on food alone. Once employees understand the animal’s very specialized needs, they can steer customers away from the kitten food, and toward high-margin, ferret-specific food and accessories.

“Ferret owners had very few options when it came to quality food,” Sara Hamilton, president of the American Ferret Association said. “Now, with the ongoing research of quality foods and further research into the necessary nutrients for the health and longevity of our ferrets, ferret owners are experiencing higher quality food and better education on selecting the right food for their animals.”

For example, ZuPreem Premium Ferret Diet is made with real egg and fresh, never-frozen chicken. It contains no corn or fish meal and requires no supplements. Marshall’s Premium Ferret Diet uses a proprietary, low-heat process that retains more nutrients than some other ferret foods.

Most ferret owners feed more than one type of food, and because most ferret owners have more than one animal, feeding a variety of foods helps to appease them all.
Remember that enthusiastic president of the local ferret club? Invite him in to speak with your staff. It’s free training with an expert.

Gail Shepard, director of marketing for ZuPreem, said ferret owners are highly involved pet owners who often look for stores with ferret-specific expertise.

If  they can find a store with a highly knowledgeable staff, who can answer their questions and they feel comfortable with, retailers might just be able to create a customer for life.

Make It a Destination

“I think the ferret sections in stores can definitely get lost sometimes,” Annie Marcell, brand assistant for Kaytee, said. “It has become such a small section, but retailers can make it stand out and draw more attention to that area.”

Marcell said there’s a need for better merchandising in ferret products.

“Dress that shelf up a little bit,” Shepard said. “Sometimes I’m in a store and it looks like Attila the Hun has just sat down there.”

Shepard suggests placing ferret food, treats, bedding, litter, toys and accessories together, even if this means stocking some crossover products in both the ferret and small-animal departments. Building a ferret-specific area can help increase the chances that ferret owners will purchase more products.

“They’ll have a higher register ring off a ferret product than a kitten product,” Shepard said. “If they can get them into the aisle, they’re selling costumes and treats and gadgets that you can’t get in the kitten aisle.”

Shepard also sees value in featuring ferret products on an end cap, from time to time. It tells customers that the store sells ferret products, and those customers will spread the word to their ferret-loving friends.

Getting ferret owners through the door may be as simple as inviting them. For example, offer to host a meeting of the local ferret club. It brings people into the store, as well as demonstrates the store’s commitment to the animal.

According to Shepard, ferret owners rely heavily on local ferret clubs and online forums to swap tips, share stories and brag about their pets.

“I can lean across the fence and talk to my neighbor about my dog, but I can’t talk to her about my ferret because she can’t relate,” Shepard said. “Ferret owners are on the internet more because that becomes their neighborhood community.”

She suggests featuring a ferret in advertising or social-media campaigns, and cites a pet store with a live chicken named Colonel Sanders for a mascot.

“Every time they post something about that chicken, their Facebook page just goes wild!” Shepard said.

Shepard also suggests holding an in-store adoption event.

– Kristen Ryan


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