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November 1, 2014

At least anecdotally, that’s what customers of Lou’s Pet Shop in Gross Pointe, Mich. like to believe. Little Louie is a Flemish giant rabbit, just one of the many store pets or mascots, that help owner Donny Cook with marketing and other events.

“People really connect with Louie and our other store pets, and it’s become a good way for us to promote different things in the store,” Cook said.

Of course. natural foods for small pets is a great promotion focus for Little Louie and it was a perfect tie-in during the Easter season. Little Louie was available to pose with children for Easter portraits and during that timeframe, Cook ran promotions on all-natural foods for small pets featuring Little Louie in the advertising.

The excitement surrounding Little Louie and the products he promotes is to be expected, considering the growth the all-natural category has seen in recent years.

“All you have to do is look at the consistent growth of all natural foods in the human sector in the past 10 years and how it has permeated into dog, cat and other segments,” said Dean Reyes, executive vice president and director of marketing and sales at Higgins Premium Pet Food. “It’s no longer a fad but instead it’s become a healthy lifestyle that people have embraced for themselves and their pets.”

One thing to keep in mind is that people aren’t just looking for an all-natural label on the package.

“Consumers really are reading labels in more detail than ever before,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager for Oxbow Animal Health. “It’s a good thing from our perspective because manufacturers are being held accountable to producing products with healthy ingredients, and it creates a transparency that benefits the retailers and the manufacturer as well as the animals themselves.”

Therefore, it’s important to make sure employees are well educated on the products and what they contain, so they can help customers as they shop and answer their questions.

All-natural foods are an easy sell in the small pet category. After all, these products are made from ingredients more like what small animals would eat if they were living in the wild. For many of them, their natural instinct is to forage, and foods filled with hay, fruits, vegetables and herbs provide a perfect opportunity to satisfy their foraging instincts.

“It’s like a treasure hunt while eating and the treasures they find are good for them,” said Lisa Kniceley, marketing and trade sales specialist, Vitakraft Sunseed.

In addition to encouraging good nutrition, many customers are turning to all-natural foods because many are made in the United States, mostly from ingredients grown and harvested here as well.

“People are skeptical of imported products, and food in particular, so there’s a real value to being able to produce foods all made in the United States,” Stock said.

Oxbow’s hay is all sourced locally, most of it from their own farm, and other ingredients come from trusted sources. Vitakraft also knows the importance customers place on products being made in the USA, and provides shelf talkers for its products to help let customers know.

Oxbow Animal Health has been promoting the importance of feeding small pets healthy foods made from all-natural ingredients for years since the launch of its flagship Essentials brand in the early 1990s. But lately the all-natural category for small pets has experienced exciting growth, with more options available for retailers to provide their customers.

“We have definitely seen a shift to companies focusing on formulating food with the right ingredients and with that animals are living longer due to better nutrition and better care,” Stock said.

Oxbow Animal Health has expanded its options to include the Bene Terra organic line in 2008 and the Natural Science line in 2012. Natural Science includes ingredients that you don’t find in many conventional foods, including tomato pomace, cane molasses and herbs such as rosemary and thyme.

Another familiar name in the natural food category is Higgins Group with its Vita Garden and Sunburst lines. Both are all-natural with added vitamins and minerals. The Vita Garden is a pellet diet that contains pre- and pro-biotics as well as plant-based DHA omega-3. Made without wheat middlings, this product is also gluten free. The Sunburst line contains fruits and vegetables along with the natural pellets making it a food and treat all in one.

A newcomer on the market is Vitakraft’s SunSations Natural Diets, part of the Sunthing Special Sunstations line that includes food, treats and toys.

These species-specific diets for rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and hamsters/gerbils are made of hay, fruits, vegetables and greens, each tailored to the specific species. For example, the rabbit formula is high-fiber thanks to its timothy hay, while the guinea pig formula is not quite as high in timothy hay but has additional vitamin C.

“Having a variety of all-natural products on the shelf is a definite must,” Cook said. “Customers are coming in looking for these products and if you don’t have them available you will be losing out on a pretty good revenue stream.”

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