Brands Share Insights on How Retailers Can Benefit from Expert Knowledge on Small Animal Nutrition

By Pet Age Staff//February 28, 2024//

Brands Share Insights on How Retailers Can Benefit from Expert Knowledge on Small Animal Nutrition

By: Pet Age Staff//February 28, 2024//

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While small animal food and treats are far from being a large segment in the pet industry, they make exceptional repeat-sales items that have been showing a slight yet steady growth since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. Savvy retailers who have been stocking their shelves with these products are seeing a consistent rise in sales with repeat business among their critter-keeping customers.

There’s no doubt that nutritious ingredients are important factors to avoid health issues and will ultimately lengthen a pet’s lifespan. With a slight slant towards younger generations, today’s small animal parents are interested in natural ingredients that are ethically sourced. That means fewer processed ingredients and more offerings that are closer to their natural state.

Premium nutrition is a priority for small animals, and many of today’s most popular diets are designed to mimic the critter’s natural diet, including those that are rich in forage, which includes Timothy hay or dried grass.

Today’s small animal parents consider their pet — be it a guinea pig, rabbit or chinchilla — as one of the family and, as such, these consumers seek expert knowledge to help support their companion animal’s health and well-being. This is where pet retailers play a key role in providing consumers with valuable information and strengthening their relationship with their customers.

Pet Age recently posed several questions to pet brands related to the care of small mammals. What follows is a look at small companion animals through the lens of pet brands with expertise on small pets.


How does a diet support a small animal’s dental and digestive health?

Claire Hamblion, Marketing Director, Supreme Petfoods: Ensuring optimal dental and digestive health for small animals hinges on the provision of a high-quality species-specific diet. This is particularly crucial for small herbivores, as their highly specialized digestive systems have evolved to thrive on a fiber-rich diet, mirroring their natural habitat where they spend much of their time grazing and foraging for plant material.

To prevent life-threatening conditions like gastric stasis, it is imperative that these animals have plenty of fiber in their diet. This can be achieved by providing unlimited quantities of high-quality hay, equivalent to a body-sized amount daily, together with a carefully measured portion of nuggets every morning and evening. The nuggets should also be high in fiber.

The importance of a fiber-rich diet extends to dental health. Chewing on fiber-rich plant material helps prevent the continuously growing, open-rooted teeth of small herbivores from becoming overgrown. When teeth become too long, eating and grooming can become difficult and uneven wear may also cause sharp dental spikes on cheek teeth and painful mouth ulcers. As well as being high in fiber, all of Supreme’s Science Selective nuggets have no added sugar, further supporting dental and digestive health and reducing the risk of obesity.


Kellie Hayden, Marketing Specialist, Oxbow Animal Health: A proper diet is vital for small herbivore dental and GI health. The diet of a small herbivore should consist of at least 70 percent high-quality grass hay, such as Western Timothy hay or orchard grass hay. Animals like rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas evolved to consume large amounts of fiber in the wild to keep their GI tracts moving in a healthy, consistent manner — this is called peristalsis — and keep their constantly growing teeth worn down. The diets of their domesticated counterparts need to reflect this to help ensure pet wellbeing. We mean it when we say to offer small animals unlimited amounts of grass hay. While a large amount of fiber is important, hay lacks many of the micronutrients that animals need — a uniformly nutritious, species-appropriate fortified food with chelated minerals can help provide this nutrition as about 20 percent of the daily diet. Species-appropriate greens should make up 8 percent of the daily diet, and healthy treats should make up a maximum of 2 percent of the daily diet.


Elizabeth King, Co-Owner, Equine Balanced Support: A species-appropriate diet is crucial for the dental and digestive health of small mammals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters. Their continuously growing teeth necessitate a diet with wear-inducing forage like hay and leafy greens to prevent dental problems. Additionally, these fibrous foods aid in digestion and prevent gastrointestinal issues.

Hay should be the base of most small animal diets, particularly rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas. They need the long fiber found in the hay to promote long periods of chewing to wear down their teeth. Overgrowth of teeth can cause numerous problems: difficulty chewing, wounds in the mouth, and premature death. This discomfort makes animals more prone to biting. Foods rich in fiber are the primary food source in their wild environments; their digestive systems function best when this is the case.

Specially formulated pellets cater to each species’ nutritional needs. While fresh vegetables and fruits offer vitamins and hydration, they should be given in moderation to avoid health issues like diarrhea or obesity. Constant access to fresh water is crucial for digestion and preventing dehydration and urinary problems.


How would you describe premiumization when it comes to small animal food and treats?

Claire Hamblion, Marketing Director, Supreme Petfoods: Premiumization refers to the trend for high quality diets, rich in natural ingredients and tailored to the individual species-specific needs of small pets. These premium products may come at a higher price point and in the current global financial climate, you might expect cost to heavily influence purchasing decisions. However, when budgets are tighter pet parents are prioritizing quality brands that they know and trust. This is reflected in the growth we have seen at Supreme in recent years, and an increasing demand for premium quality food and treats, with both our top of the range Science Selective, and mid-range great value Tiny Friends Farm products performing well.


Kellie Hayden, Marketing Specialist, Oxbow Animal Health: Ensuring Premiumization isn’t just about high-quality ingredients and appealing packaging, it’s also about providing a premium experience for pets and pet parents alike. This can mean offering a variety of such healthy treat flavors as Oxbow’s Simple Rewards multiple offerings like Carrot and Dill or Apple and Banana. This premium experience can also mean the bonding moments that pet parents share with their little one when giving their pet a treat. Premiumization can also mean premium nutrition and taking the guesswork out of providing pets with a healthy diet. For decades, Oxbow has provided premium nutrition in every bite to small animals though our Essentials, Garden Select and Organic Bounty fortified foods.


Elizabeth King, Co-Owner, Equine Balanced Support: Premiumization is different in small animal food and treats than in the dog and cat markets because people look for dog foods that resemble what they might want to eat themselves. This distinction does not mean premiumization does not affect small animal products. The driving factors are less about what the pet owner thinks might be tasty and more about what is best for their pet and the environment.

Pet owners are willing to spend more on products that are “natural” and come in environmentally friendly packaging. Organic is another sought-after keyword for customers searching for better products for their small animals. Educational information on the packaging also boosts customer confidence.


How does sustainability play an important role in small animal diets?

Claire Hamblion, Marketing Director, Supreme Petfoods: We all have a collective responsibility to look after the environment and create a healthier, more sustainable world. Here at Supreme our dedication to sustainability is deeply rooted in our values. To reduce our environmental impact, we prioritize local suppliers and source ingredients close to our headquarters whenever possible. This has the added benefit of helping us to maintain control over the quality and composition of our products. Alongside this, in 2023, Supreme set a goal to reduce transport miles by 100,000 by the end of 2024. We are on track to not just achieve this goal, but to exceed it. This has been helped by collaborative efforts with several key partners, tackling challenges such as the redelivery of cancelled or rejected loads, optimizing truck space utilization and curbing pallet use attributed to small order quantities.

Reducing waste is another important focus. Over 92 percent of our product range already features fully recyclable packaging, and we are striving to achieve a 100 percent recyclability rate by the year 2025. Of course, recycling doesn’t just mitigate the environmental impact of waste — diverting plastic from landfill contributes to a circular economy where recycled plastic can be transformed into new products. And while our immediate focus may be on small pets close to home, we don’t forget animals further afield. We have a zero palm oil policy, reflecting our commitment to reducing deforestation and protecting endangered species such as orangutans and the Sumatran rhino.


Elizabeth King, Co-Owner, Equine Balanced Support: The role of sustainability in small animal diets is mainly in the packaging and shipping of their food. Because these animals are primarily herbivores, their food production has less impact on the environment than that of dogs and cats. However, packing and delivering these products still has a significant footprint. Choosing products sold in pouches instead of plastic containers reduces weight and space when shipping. As customers value sustainability, brands and retailers will need to keep up with the new recyclable or compostable options for packaging their products more and more.

Non-GMO and organic products also support sustainability practices. The land and local animals’ health is preserved by growing the grasses and vegetables used in small animal feeds without pesticides. There are few choices now, but with the increasing demand from pet owners, this will likely be a growing niche in the small animal pet food and treat category.


Does humanization play a role in small animal food and treats?

Claire Hamblion, Marketing Director, Supreme Petfoods: Yes, absolutely. Many owners view their small pets as integral members of the family. Today’s pet parent is well informed and seeks nothing but the best for their four-legged family members, prioritizing high quality premium products. Rabbits are a great example of the humanization trend – 80 percent now live indoors and aligning with this lifestyle, Science Selective House Rabbit performs well and continues to show strong growth.

Humanization also means that in a similar manner to when shopping for themselves, owners appreciate variety and choice for their small pets. Recognizing this, our product ranges are continuously evolving, with recent new additions to both our Science Selective and Tiny Friends Farm ranges to meet customer demand. Having a wide offering that’s as well merchandized as cat and dog is key to helping retailers attract small pet shoppers.


Elizabeth King, Co-Owner, Equine Balanced Support: Humanization now plays a significant role in small animal food and treats. A trend that started with dogs and cats has spread into the small animal category. Pet owners increasingly view their animals as family members and, as such, want to ensure they provide the best possible options for their furry friends. It also means they are more likely to purchase holiday gifts for their pets and shop for birthdays or “got you” day gifts.

With health and wellness front and center on pet owners’ minds, they search for products that fit the current trends in human products. They are looking for something with a positive health benefit instead of just a candy-type treat or food with ingredients that resemble junk food. Products that are less processed, have no preservatives, and contain “superfoods” will also stand out. Providing more options for these shoppers will fulfill their needs: species-specific feeds and treats that include wholesome ingredients and health benefits. Providing accurate information about small animal needs can help pet owners make educated choices.


What should retailers know regarding small animal nutrition to best educate their customers?

Claire Hamblion, Marketing Director, Supreme Petfoods: It is important that retailers recognize that owner knowledge has come a long way in the last decade. Many of today’s pet parents are highly knowledgeable. Of course, a brief conversation isn’t always enough to determine an owner’s level of expertise, but as far as possible retailers should tailor their advice to the individual. This will not only ensure owners get the information that they are seeking, but also help foster strong customer loyalty and repeat store visits for years to come.

And when it comes to small pet nutrition, I think there are three key messages. Firstly, a species-specific diet tailored to the individual needs of the pet is key to small pet health and wellbeing. Secondly, high fiber diets are essential for small herbivores and, last but not least, small pet diets should be free from added sugar.


Kellie Hayden, Marketing Specialist, Oxbow Animal Health: “Mix” foods that contain seeds, fruits, or large amounts of sugars and starches in various forms should be avoided. While these foods often make marketing claims of premium foraging experiences, these foods have been around forever and are just being repackaged as something new. These claims can be misleading to customers and market an exciting food experience for their pet while not being transparent about the risk of nutrition imbalances that these mixes can cause.

We’ve all seen it — when presented with a mixed food, small animals usually pick out the tasty seeds or fruits first, and usually never eat the pelleted food. Unfortunately, the pelleted food is what contains all of the micronutrients that pets need — and that’s what pets aren’t eating in mixed foods!

Why does this happen? Small animals are concentrate selectors; this means that their brains are hard-wired to eat the most calorie-dense, delicious pieces of food first. This instinct served them well to survive in the wild. If this instinct is left completely uncontrolled in a domestic setting, however, it can quickly lead to nutritional deficiencies. Deficiencies of this nature can result in diminished animal wellbeing (and potentially costly vet bills for pet parents if or when they attempt to correct health issues). This is why serving uniform nutrition to small animals is so vital — limiting their choice to only fortified food pieces will help to ensure that they’re actually eating the right amount of vitamins and minerals they need every day.


Elizabeth King, Co-Owner, Equine Balanced Support: To best educate customers, retailers need to understand the similarities between small animals and the unique nutritional needs of each species. Feeding regimens have many parallels: limit sugar, avoid overfeeding, provide ample opportunities for gnawing, and fresh water should always be available — each species has a different drinking preference. Small amounts of leafy green vegetables are safe for all small animals, but rhubarb is poisonous. Rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs should have unlimited access to hay; timothy hay is a great choice. Although hamsters and gerbils can eat some hay, it is not a staple of their diets. Guinea pigs require significant amounts of vitamin C because they cannot produce it themselves.

Recommending species-specific feeds ensures each animal is getting its nutritional needs met. Many treats are safe for various species, so knowing what is ok for some and not others is important, such as seeds being healthy for gerbils but not chinchillas. Becoming fully educated on all small animals can be overwhelming, so the best tool is knowing where to look things up or who to call with specific questions.