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Nothing Says Happy Holidays Like a Ferret in a Santa Hat
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 19 Dec 2014 23:03:49 EST

Since Neil, a 5½-inch-long tortoise, already donned a Santa hat and an elf cap for past holiday celebrations, this year Cindy Breninger, a legal secretary who lives in West Sacramento, Calif., made a 4½-inch-tall Christmas tree for him to wear over his shell on Christmas morning.

Neil—wearing his new tree—is featured in the family Christmas card. His Christmas stocking, stuffed with a new bag of lettuce, will be placed next to stockings for Ms. Breninger’s two children and their parakeet. “Having our pets included at Christmas rounds out our little family,” she says.

During the holidays plenty of people shower their dogs and cats with treats, toys, costumes and even visits with Santa. Now, more families are trying to include other types of pets in their Christmas festivities, including guinea pigs, ferrets, hamsters and rabbits.

Some 28% of owners of these “small animals” are expected to buy their pet a Christmas present this year, spending an average of $16 per gift, according to the trade group American Pet Products Association. An estimated 50% of dog owners will buy their dog a gift, spending an average of $10, and 36% of cat owners, spending $7.80 per gift, the group says.

“No pet is left out at this point,” says Steve Chattin, vice president of specialty merchandising at Phoenix-based PetSmart Inc., which increased its holiday merchandise for pets that aren’t dogs or cats by 30% this year over the year before. New items include gingerbread houses and scuba-diving Santa decorations for fish tanks and reindeer antlers and Santa hats for guinea pigs.

Hamsters are harder, Mr. Chattin says. “You try to put a hat on a hamster and their natural instinct is to take it off,” he says.

Red, green and white shredded-paper bedding to line animal cages is a big seller to “pet parents,” PetSmart’s term for its customers.

“A lot of cages are showing up in the living room these days and it’s starting to become a focal point for holiday decorating,” says Mr. Chattin, who decorated the snake habitat that sits in his home’s foyer. “The pet parent wants to make the cage or aquarium as festive as their own home.”

To accommodate families wanting to take their rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs out for holiday gatherings, San Diego-based Petco Animal Supplies Inc. recently introduced a small red plaid carrier designed for these animals. “It’s a fun way to take your pet to Grandma’s house,” says Jennifer Loesch, a vice president of merchandising.

For the holidays, Petco offered pets that came to the store on certain days a photo with Santa. Shoppers brought in mice, birds, iguanas and hedgehogs.

Many dogs happily sport Christmas sweaters, hats and bow ties, but persuading other species to wear clothing over their fur coats isn’t always easy. Petco says its new holiday stoles, made for rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets, were designed in consultation with a veterinarian to be sure the fit is safe and comfortable, especially given the animals’ propensity to chew, burrow and squirm. Ms. Loesch says “the stoles have Velcro closures for a quick breakaway if they want to wiggle out of it.”

For those less likely to wiggle, Ms. Breninger sells Santa hats for tortoises online.

The Santa hats, Christmas sweaters and winter caps that Marshall Pet Products Inc. makes for ferrets are designed to be easily escaped. “They don’t stay on that long, just long enough to take a picture,” says Linda Cope, Marshall’s global marketing manager.

Demand for holiday-themed ferret hats is so strong that next year Marshall, based in Wolcott, N.Y., plans to add a witch hat for Halloween, a party hat and a top hat for black-tie events. The Uncle Sam hat, sold for over 15 years, has become increasingly popular as more people involve ferrets in Independence Day parties, Ms. Cope says.

Frustrated by the dearth of holiday movies for ferret lovers, Alison Parker, a Vancouver-based filmmaker, directed “Santa’s Little Ferrets,” which she plans to start shopping to television networks early next year. “If you’re a dog or cat person, you’re covered when it comes to holiday movies,” says Ms. Parker. “There’s nothing out there for people who have ferrets.”

Ms. Parker made sure the main scene of the film, a living room decked out for Christmas, would draw plenty of action from her starring animals. “I knew they would jump up and down in the wrapping paper, knock over the nutcrackers, spill Santa’s glass of milk and destroy all those Christmas cookies, and they did,” she says.

Many small animals are instinctively shy and prefer hiding rather than being the center of the party. “For a guinea pig, the only defense mechanism they have is to freeze or run and hide,” says Teresa Murphy, co-owner of Guinea Pig Market based in San Mateo, Calif.

To help guinea pigs endure the holidays, Ms. Murphy sells a Santa hat for them to hide in. Flexible boning helps keep the rim open for easy climbing in and out, but it is still comfortable enough for humans to wear, too, she says.

The Busy Bunny, an online retailer based in Petaluma, Calif., sells natural willow branches shaped into candy canes, sleighs, snowmen, bells and wreaths, designed for rabbits to chew. “People put these under their tree for their bunny to open on Christmas morning,” says owner Lisa Matheson.

She doesn’t sell costumes. “Bunnies are more nervous than dogs, and I think dressing them up could be quite stressful, especially if they got caught on something,” says Ms. Matheson. “Besides, they’re just going to chew it off anyway.”

Dara Foster, a pet stylist based in Port Washington, N.Y., advises pet owners to remain calm and loving when trying to dress any animal, but especially hamsters and guinea pigs. “They don’t understand voice commands, but they’ll pick up on your energy,” she says. “And avoid anything with sleeves if you possibly can.”

Ms. Foster mostly dresses dogs on behalf of private clients and pet-product companies and for media events. But she anticipates her client list soon will include other types of animals as more owners seek ways to humanize them.

“Treating a pet like a family member makes you feel really happy,” she says. “If people could put a Christmas sweater on a fish, they would.”

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