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The article below appears with the express permission of Pet Business Magazine
Back to Nature

In order to assess the quality of commercially produced small animal diets, retailers must have a basic understanding of the animals’ diet in nature.By Debbie Ducommun

Nutrition plays a tremendous role in determining the health and longevity of small animals. Retailers who provide customers with the correct food for their pets and sound advice on feeding can help ensure a long, healthy relationship between pets and their owners, and between pet owners and the store.

The small animal food department has been maturing over the past several years, and manufacturers now offer commercial foods for nearly every species of animal kept as a pet. It’s still a good idea for retailers to be familiar with the natural diets of the species most commonly kept as pets so they can evaluate and select which commercial diets to sell. The best commercial diets will be based on the natural diets of each animal’s wild ancestors.

The majority of small animals kept as pets, including mice, rats, hamsters, and hermit crabs are omnivores, meaning they can eat both plant and animal matter. Ferrets are strict carnivores and hedgehogs are insectivores, while rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, degus and prairie dogs are all herbivores.

Diet Details

Retailers should educate rodent owners to buy a packaged commercial diet formulated specifically for their pet. Some rodent owners try to make their own grain and seed mix by buying a little bit of several different bulk foods and mixing them together. This, however, will not supply a nutritionally complete diet. Commercially packaged grain and seed diets include added vitamin and mineral supplements to make sure they will meet the pets’ requirements. These supplements are usually included within small nuggets in the mix, so rodent owners who buy these products should know that it is important that their pets eat all the nuggets. While processed commercial foods are carefully formulated to meet the nutritional requirements for each species, it’s still a good idea for pet owners to supplement their pets’ diets with more natural foods—in some cases, it’s a necessity. Some commercial foods are so processed that they no longer have some of the characteristics of the animal’s natural diet. For instance, the hay in processed rabbit and guinea pig pellets is so chopped and pulverized that it can no longer cleanse the intestines like natural grass does. As a result, rabbits that eat only pellets can suffer from hairballs and intestinal disorders such as enteritis. A diet for rabbits and other herbivores must include grass hay to provide this natural action.

The main type of grass hay that is packaged for small animals is timothy hay. Orchard grass hay, while less common, is also available. Grass hay should be fed free-choice to all herbivores to keep their digestive tract operating normally and to help wear down their molars, which grow continuously. Alfalfa hay cannot be substituted for grass hay because alfalfa hay is too high in protein and calcium. Alfalfa should only be fed in small quantities as a treat.

Retailers can easily evaluate the quality of the hay they purchase by its color. Good-quality hay will be green, while poorer-quality hay will be brown. The coarseness of the hay will also affect its quality, with thinner leaves and stems being of higher quality and thicker ones lower quality.

Nourishing Nature

Even thoroughly tested commercial foods may lack some of the nutrients in natural foods. A commercial food is usually made from only a few ingredients, whereas a natural-food diet can provide a wider variety of foods and, therefore, a wider variety of nutrients. Natural foods also contain enzymes, phytochemicals and, perhaps, other unknown compounds that are highly beneficial. For instance, phytochemicals, while not considered nutrients, are plant chemicals that have protective or disease-preventive properties. Some of these compounds can be destroyed during processing. For these reasons, it is a good idea for retailers to recommend that small pet owners supplement their pets’ diets with fresh, natural foods. Daily fresh, leafy, green vegetables are a good addition to the diets of herbivores.

Omnivores should have fresh fruits and vegetables. Insectivores should have live insects, and these are also great supplementary foods for omnivores. Bagged or boxed commercial diets can also lose nutrients due to oxidation, even if they contain preservatives.

Retailers should only buy the amount of food they can sell by the expiration date, or within two to three months of the purchase. Advise customers to buy only a two-month supply of food for their animals and to store it in a durable airtight container to prevent nutrient loss and bug infestation.

Vitamin C, a required supplement in the diet of guinea pigs, is especially vulnerable to degradation, so an additional supplement of this nutrient in their diet is recommended. Tasty tablets are the best and most fun way for guinea pigs owners to give their pets their daily vitamin C supplement.

Marketing Tips

The trend of packaging foods in standup, re-sealable pouches instead of plastic bags not only makes these products easier to display but also offers a benefit to pet owners. These packages can help keep foods fresher and are more resistant to bug infestation, as the larva of the moths and beetles that spoil grain products can actually chew through plastic bags. A fun idea for a promotion that will help attract small pet owners to a store to buy food is to offer a free package of treats with every bag of food purchased (limit one per customer). This is a promotion that could be run one day each month or perhaps for a day or week a few times a year. Giving away free samples of food is a marketing technique used extensively for dog and cat foods, but it is rarely used for small animal foods. Small animal owners are just as concerned about their pets liking a specific food, and a free sample can overcome their reluctance to try something new.

Small animal food, like dog and cat food, also lends itself to a frequent buyer club. Purchases can be recorded by the number of bags of food bought, total weight of food bought, or dollar amount of each purchase. When a certain total is reached, the customer is rewarded.