Small-mammal product sales are growing, as a wide variety of customers seek new pets and the various supplies needed to keep their furry companions happy and healthy, pet retailers and product manufacturers report.
“The pandemic was an undeniable catalyst in the segment growth we’ve witnessed over the past two-plus years,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager at Oxbow Animal Health, a manufacturer in Omaha, Neb. “As the majority of adults and families found themselves at home, many made the decision to welcome a pet into their lives. With Gen Z contributing significantly to recent growth, it’s clear that small animals make a great fit for the lifestyles of this generation. As more consumers welcome rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats and other small animals into their homes, care essentials including litter and bedding grow in direct correlation.”
Some retailers report that there’s no sign of sales slowing down.
“We’re definitely seeing sales go up,” said Linda Weckesser, owner of Critters Pet Shop in Necedah, Wis. “The small-animal segment is continuing to grow. We haven’t seen a post-COVID dip. Sales are still staying strong, so far.”
The customer base expanded during the pandemic, as young adults and older consumers purchased small companion animals.
“I’ve definitely been seeing more young adults buying small-animal pets,” said Jasmine Schenewerk, manager at Midway Tropical Fish & Pets, a retailer in Kent, Wash. “Customers still buy small animals for their kids, but they also buy these pets for themselves. I’ve been seeing people in their late 20s come in for small animals, specifically.”
While children are still the largest source of demand for small-animal pets, the segment is attracting a wider range of people, said Marge Seidewand, who co-owns Pet World, a retailer in Rochester, NY, with husband Jim.
“It’s interesting because we even see older retired people looking for a pet that’s a little smaller than a dog or cat, and they know their grandchildren are going to like it, too,” Marge Seidewand said. “It’s a combination of young and old as well as teenagers and some 20-year-olds buying small animals.”
Staple products, such as bedding and litter, continue to perform well as a result of the rise in ownership of small animals. Products made from recycled paper materials are particularly in demand, retailers reported.
“Customers are still looking for that compressed, recycled paper bale,” Jim and Marge Seidewand said. “CareFresh and Clean and Cozy from Kaytee are the two main brands.”
Shredded aspen is another popular option that has wide appeal among customers.
“We sell shredded aspen,” said Andrew Potts, owner of Herp Hobby Shop Reptile Breeding
Center in Oldsmar, Fla. “We sell a lot of that stuff, which has crossover appeal for small mammals, hedgehogs, short-tail possums, and, of course, rodents, hamsters and gerbils.”
The benefits of aspen have caught on in the marketplace, retailers reported.
“Aspen has really grown in popularity,” Jim and Marge Seidewand said. “We like aspen bedding and shredded aspen. It is definitely not as dusty, it’s cleaner, and for some animals, we’ve more than tripled business. We went to alternative products as best we could find them.”
Independent retailers have come to rely on an assortment of brands in the segment, and many had to expand their lineup to meet customer demand when availability issues plagued various manufacturers.
“We’ve been trying almost every brand available,” Jim Seidewand said. “We’ve mainly expanded into other available brands, some of whom are good partner companies for us. We gave and probably will continue to give some of that business aggressively to those brands that tried to supply us.”
Manufacturers and suppliers have worked continually to meet consumers’ needs through new product introductions.
“We’ve witnessed continued growth among pet parents who are passionate about providing the happiest, healthiest life for their furry family members,” Stock said. “We believe in the importance of providing a variety of bedding options to meet the preferences of as many pet parents as possible.”
Oxbow is introducing its new Enriched Life Washable Floor Mats, Stock added. These soft fleece mats come in multiple sizes and can be used inside or outside the habitat. The mats are machine washable and feature non-slip flooring and a multilayer design to keep pets dry, Stock added.
Several bedding products do well at retail, with some retailers reporting that recycled paper litter sells best, while others find aspen or other alternatives are rising in demand.
“Customers are mostly looking for bedding and litter that are easy to use, with added scent,” Weckesser said.
Offering a variety of options may help drive sales, industry insiders reported.
“Most independent pet retailers are quite familiar with litter and bedding products but may not be familiar with all the options on the market,” Stock said. “Likewise, we encourage retailers to embrace opportunities to take the time to dialogue with younger generations of consumers who may be more likely to invest the time and energy in researching options that best support their pets. For example, we encourage pet parents to use both a litter and paper-based bedding to build a superior substrate for their pets.”
Retailers often rely on staple supplies such as bedding and litter to keep customers coming through their doors, insiders report.
“Litter and bedding are essential as repeat sales items, just as much as food,” Schenewerk said.
However, although manufacturers, distributors and retailers have worked together to make sure products are available in spite of shipping issues and problems with availability, the industry still has to deal with out-of-stocks.
“The supply issues still aren’t rectified yet,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins, Feathers, Paws & Claws, a retailer in Harleysville, Pa. “There are still a lot of zeros on the invoice, and [distributors and manufacturers] all blame COVID and stuff sitting in the harbor, waiting to be shipped.”
Some retailers have focused on making substitutions for popular products, which has generally gone down well with customers.
“What I do get in, people are OK with,” Weckesser said. “My customers haven’t had any problem switching. They prefer the other stuff, but I carry quite a few different kinds, and they buy them. I haven’t had to make too many substitutions. If one place doesn’t have something, I go to the next place. I carry Kaytee, Oxbow and Easy Clean.”
Health Conscious Consumers
Just like dog and cat owners, small-animal owners are humanizing their pets more than ever and becoming increasingly discerning about the brands and products they purchase for their animal companions, industry insiders report.
“People are more concerned about their small animal’s health, overall,” said Tom Herron, owner of Fins, Feathers, Paws & Claws, a retailer in Harleysville, Pa. “There’s also a lot more attention being given to enrichment with small animals. Oxbow has been really big in pushing that. The whole enrichment thing started in zoos, and that’s permeating into the pet industry, and not only in the small-animal category. Customers are much more aware of enrichment than they used to be.”
Customers identify closely with their pets, and as a result many are opting to purchase larger enclosures, which typically means they purchase more bedding.
“Customers are definitely humanizing their pets, even lizards and reptiles,” said Linda Weckesser, owner of Critters Pet Shop in Necedah, Wis. “That trend is across the board. We recommend getting an enclosure that will be a lifetime cage. Otherwise, they’re just going to be back buying a bigger one later. Customers usually do go for the bigger one.”
Natural bedding and litter products are also in demand, partially out of concern for pet health.
“People are tending to look for more natural bedding options,” said Jasmine Schenewerk, manager at Midway Tropical Fish & Pets, a retailer in Kent, Wash. “A lot of customers are more health conscious, because they don’t want their pets to have any respiratory issues. Customers just want to spend to get the best quality. They’re definitely more aware overall of their pets’ health issues. People are also opting for larger enclosures … I tell my customers, typically the bigger the enclosure, the better. And that’s what most people look for.”
In their quest to provide the very best for their pets, many consumers are turning to their local pet stores and brand representatives for guidance on how to care for their animals and what products to buy, insiders said.
“As more Gen Z consumers have entered pet parenthood, for example, there’s an increased desire to engage directly with the brands they trust—not just about nutritional staples like food and hay, but to engage with experts regarding all aspects of the daily health and happiness of their pets,” said Lucas Stock, communications manager at Oxbow Animal Health, a manufacturer in Omaha, Neb. “This includes areas like hygiene and comfort in the habitat. For these consumers, choosing the litter and bedding option that best supports their pets is an important decision, and one they’re willing to invest time and energy to learn more about and evaluate before deciding what’s best. While the ideal solution will vary by individual, consumers are generally seeking out products that are safe and effective while keeping their companions clean and comfortable.”