Feeding small and exotic pets
Trends in nutrition and products for rodents, birds, fish and reptiles
By Treena Hein
The popularity of pets continues to rise, and for many Canadians, small and exotic pets are a suitable and stimulating choice.
A June 2016 report from Euromonitor International, Pet Care in Canada, lists small mammals as very popular pets in Canada, especially among young families, with rabbits, guinea pigs and mice reaching top spot. Rodents are certainly relatively easy to care for, economical and have short lifespans.
Some larger birds and reptile pets, however, can live several decades and are expensive to both buy and to keep. Even hermit crabs can live up to 10 years, and their care involves everything from proper tank substrates, lighting and humidity, to providing the correct shells for these crustaceans to move into as they grow. Indeed, ownership of many of today’s small and exotic pets goes beyond the relationship with the pet and becomes an interesting hobby involving hours of interesting research and trying out different environments, enrichment ideas, and food.
Whether it’s dogs, cats or smaller/exotic animals, the same trends are evident. Pets are now valued as family members and their owners want to feed them higher-quality and more natural products. “A greater number of pet owners — especially those with exotic species — have started to pay closer attention to product ingredients and quality,” notes the Euromonitor report. “Pet humanization tendencies, economic recovery, more educated pet owners and the growing popularity of pet specialist retailers have combined to create this trend.”
And with the increasing availability of better-quality food, owners of fish, birds and reptiles in particular are having more success at keeping these pets healthy and living longer.
Supporting the success of pet owners is central to the success of Toronto-based Canadian Aquatic Feed. It started up in 2011, at a time when aquarium-keeping was on the decline, notes Javier Caicedo, senior sales manager. This is due to the fact that there were, and still are, very few high-quality feeds on the market. Also, “for new aquarium owners, overfeeding is very common,” Caicedo explains. “Overfeeding low-quality foods leads to fish health problems and death due to bloating. Also, water can get polluted and dirty very quickly. These low-quality foods make it hard for aquarium owners to achieve a successful aquarium. Many get discouraged and quit.”
Company founder Darius Chodocinskas, who had many decades of fish-keeping and industry experience, therefore decided to create his own premium ornamental (pet) fish pellets and launched them in 2012. “NorthFin formulations consist of marine protein-based diets such as Antarctic krill, sardine, spirulina and organic kelp,” Caicedo explains. “Feeding your fish an easily digestible marine protein-based diet allows the fish to fully digest and absorb more nutrients in comparison to terrestrial proteins such as soybean, corn, potatoes and chicken feather meal.”
About 97 per cent of NorthFin ingredients are sourced in Canada. Export started in early 2016, and the company now ships products to the U.S., UK, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Australia and the Philippines. The company says expansion to many other countries is in the works.
Beyond better success at keeping pet fish alive and healthy, Euromonitor pinpoints other reasons for the popularity of pet fish in Canada: demand from Asian immigrants and the aging population (with fish needing less attention than other types of pets). “Marginally improved economic conditions are also playing a role,” the research firm notes, “in increasing consumers’ willingness to absorb the high costs of fish ownership (tanks, plumbing and equipment) and maintenance.”
In comparison, Euromonitor reports that Canada’s pet bird population has consistently declined since 2008, around the time the last recession began, with high up-front costs being a factor along with tighter import restrictions. Like expensive fish and snake pets, birds are considered an investment, and their owners are better educated than ever about nutrition and are willing to spend more to ensure their pets live long and healthy lives. “Premium offerings are maintaining their sales shares,” confirms Euromonitor, “while economy bird food is continuing to lose its share.”
According to Danita Morrison, owner of Things for Wings web-based pet bird food and enrichment toy business in Vancouver, most bird owners do a lot of internet research and understand that seeds do not provide complete nutrition. “I recommend a diet of about 80 per cent pellets,” she says, “and the rest fresh veggies, sprouted seeds, mash and bread.”
To help bird owners, Morrison created her own line of premium pet bird food called Avian Organics, which includes pre-made mash and “bread” mixes. One delectable mash called Strawberry Patch Pudding contains buckwheat, quinoa, kamut flakes, oat flakes, sesame seeds, coconut, strawberries, almonds, and ceylon cinnamon. Sour Cherry Pecan Bread mix is a delicious blend of kamut flour and flakes, oats, cherries, coconut, poppy seeds, pecans, almonds, dandelion leaf, ginger and cinnamon.
In addition to rodents and fish, Euromonitor also lists reptiles as growing in popularity. “One advantage of owning a reptile is the ease of care required — it is straightforward to set up a terrarium, and set up the right environment (temperature and feeding schedule) in order to host a pet reptile in a home.”
Ryan Goldin, co-owner of Reptile Feeders in Norwood, Ont., says most reptiles eat live food, but turtles and some geckos, such as crested geckos, will eat a pelleted or powdered diet along with fresh fruit and vegetable snacks. Reptile Feeders supplies pet owners, pet stores, zoos and wild bird rehabilitation centres with live insects, worms and rodents. They also sell dry goods and some other types of small animal food. “We’re seeing incremental growth in reptile ownership,” notes Goldin. “We’ve added some new worms such as hornworms for our customers, and we’ve also increased the nutritional quality of our live rodents by feeding them high-quality food. In Canada and internationally, some snakes are worth thousands of dollars, and owners want the food to be as nutritionally rich as possible, so we aim to raise ‘feeder’ rodents of only the highest quality and health.”
Reptile Feeders’ sister company, Entomo Farms, produces human food-grade insect protein that is currently being incorporated in protein bars, chips, pasta sauces and more. The firm also has contracts with many North American pet food manufacturers of fish, gecko, cat and dog foods, and approval for export to the EU for pet feed incorporation is underway.