June 6, 2017

Back in 2009, Disney had the foresight to tap into the snowballing small animal ownership craze when it released the live action 3-D film “G-Force.” The movie’s heroes—we are talking guinea pigs, hamsters, moles and other CGI-animated mammals—escape from their cage to save the world from a dastardly evil with the help of high-tech exercise balls.

The flick may not have broken box-office records, but it helped increase awareness of the importance of fitness for these cuddly critters—a movement that certainly hasn’t lost any traction eight years later.

Companies and brands have since proliferated the market with a bevy of wares designed to keep these pets healthy, stimulated and in better shape. And while the simple and classic exercise wheel remains a mainstay on many store shelves, they’ve also “reinvented the wheel” in other ways by creating newer and more innovative on-the-go-geared goods.

Exhibit A is the new LED Run-About Ball, a seven-inch exercise orb illuminated by a soft LED light enclosed in a protective lens cover. Kaytee—a Chilton, Wisconsin, pet supplies company now celebrating its 150th anniversary—won “Best in Show” for this creation in the small animal category at Global Pet Expo 2017.

Exhibit B is the recently introduced Silent Runner wheel from Exotic Nutrition, a family-owned business based in Newport News, Virginia, that’s known more for its exotic pet feeds. Available in three sizes, the Silent Runner eliminates the noisy and chancy center axle from the design of its exercise wheel and implements dual ball bearings for a smooth and quiet operation.

Enlightened Exercise
“We know that it’s critically important for small animals to have opportunities for physical activity, but retailers also have a responsibility to educate customers on the benefits of providing this exercise, especially with a new pet purchase,” said Melanie Allen, product specialist with Hagen Group in Mansfield, Massachusetts, which first launched its Living World brand in 1972.

Terri Hallberg, owner of a Petland store in Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees, noting that her staff is trained to walk new small animal customers through the department and point out the value of purchasing exercise products and toys.

“These are often items that need to be a suggested sale because many customers don’t even know these fitness-focused products exist. So we get our staff to recommend these as essential add-on purchases,” said Hallberg, whose biggest sellers in this subcategory are made by Kaytee: the Silent Spinner wheel, Puzzle Playground jungle gym and FerrTrail Flex-E Funnels. “Fortunately, manufacturers are making these products more colorful and in interesting shapes and sizes.”

The other good news is that kids—as they are with computers and electronics—are quick to remind mom and dad that fun-and-fitness accessories are must-haves just like food and litter. But consumers of any age still need to be enlightened about the right kind of exercise equipment for their particular breed.

“Small animals with tails, like mice, hamsters and gerbils, do well with most exercise products because they’re very kinetic in their daily lives. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are more laid back and don’t do well with rolling balls or spinning wheels,” said Jane Morehouse, product research and development manager for Hayward, California-based Kordon LLC, known for its Oasis Pet Products line. She notes that retailers can help spread the gospel about appropriate exercise by recommending a right-sized cage to customers—a habitat large enough to encourage movement and accommodate fitness accessories.

“For example, guinea pig habitats should be at least 36 inches long, as they often jump straight up into the air and take off in a short burst of speed,” Morehouse said. “Chinchillas and sugar gliders do best in tall cages with branches and perching platforms they can jump on and off, while rabbits need a cage large enough to allow several bouncy steps in any direction.”

Working out Anywhere
Moving small and large rodents and lagomorphs alike out of the enclosure and into an open but controlled environment should also be encouraged. That’s where portable playpens and harnesses/leashes come in handy.

In the former category, MidWest Homes for Pets has made a name a la its Critterville, a flat-folding product that provides six panels and a play area exceeding nine square feet. Marshall Pet Products put a different spin on this concept with its Pop N Play Ferret Ball Pit, which can keep the pet running in circles with Marshall’s Super Thru-Way 15-foot tunnel attached to the pit’s two entrances.

More manufacturers are also making it easier to take furry companions for a short walk by offering handy accessories, such as Ware’s Jog-NWalk extendable/retractable leash. Living World’s Harness and Lead Set, meanwhile, features an easy-to-slip-on design and a breathable and stretchy polyester fabric harness.

In-the-cage accessories that inspire action also demand shelf space. A fresh take on an old concept is the new Double Coconut with Ladder: a suspended rubberwood bridge ladder connected by two coconut shells at either end, courtesy of Chicago-headquartered Prevue Pet Products—first founded in 1869. And while a hamster (if it could talk) would argue that you can’t do much better than a cardboard tube, it likely never tried the Puzzle Tube, an interactive chew-and-exercise toy made from seagrass and java wood by A&E Cage Co., a hard goods manufacturer from Burlington, New Jersey, with over 30 years’ experience in the pet biz.

Spur Sales
To boost sales of exercise and fitness items, think outside the box.

“Any new products should be near your front door, with well-worded signs and short, easy-toread messages,” said Paul Juszczak, director of sales and marketing for Marshall Pet Products in Wolcott, New York—the world’s largest breeder of ferrets that’s been making pet products for 21 years. “These products should also rotate around your store as new merchandise becomes available. Arranging your display by use rather than category can also increase sales in more than one category.”

That means not only trying to bundle fitness/exercise SKUs together, but also attempting to pepper in a few other items within that real estate that are slightly different—such as chew toys—Juszczak adds.

In addition, take your merchandise out of the box, use it in your live animal displays and generate excitement by hosting interactive pet-and-play events with patrons.

“We set up exercise pens in the store and put a few rabbits in there, and the customers love it,” Hallberg said.

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