LOS ANGELES (AP) — Heather and Bobby Hill found their pot of gold in cat poop. Sales of a litter box that automatically cleans itself have been creeping up for years but in the last two, they grew nearly 400 percent and turned December into the couple's busiest time of year instead of its slowest.
"UPS has to send multiple trucks out because of these litter boxes. Even carriers are having trouble keeping up with the volume," Heather Hill said.
The couple opened Countryside Vet Supply in West Plains, Missouri, in 1988. In 1999, they bought a domain name and converted to online sales only, selling through their own website and eBay.
The litter boxes and other tech-driven products they sell — like automatic dog doors and cat toys with a hiding mouse — have turned their $800,000-a-year company into one that does $8 million in annual sales with eight employees.
As sales of self-cleaning litter boxes, automatic drinking fountains and interactive toys increase, last year's whiz-bang gadgets, like GPS collars, pet fitness systems and canine cameras are becoming commonplace. This year, "nobody wants to deal with scooping poop," Hill said.
Ten years ago, the Hills became authorized dealers for the PetSafe brand. The company's oribinal ScoopFree Automatic Litter Box, which works with a disposable tray so "you never have to touch any icky stuff" is on sale for $129.95 and has been their best-selling product. Other brands available on eBay and through other outlets include the CatGenie Self-Washing Self-Flushing Cat Box (about $270) and Litter-Robot 2 Open-Air Automatic Self-Cleaning Litter Box ($369).
The Pet Loo for dogs, which comes in small, medium and large, and is sometimes called a "backyard in a box," sells from $99.95 to $149.95. The artificial grass in a plastic box drains into a pee pod and is designed for house training or for times when dogs living in apartments and condos can't get out. The pods, which come seven to a pack, last about four days each. The Hills and several other outlets sell them, including www.shop.thepetloo.com . Sales of the loo are up 40 percent, Hill said.
The red PetSafe Drinkwell Avalon fountain keeps fresh water available all the time. It sells for $79.95. Sales of the Avalon fountains have gone up 200 percent in the last two years, Hill said.
In an unfortunate sign of the times, sales have also skyrocketed for a glucose monitoring system for diabetes in pets. "It increases month after month. If you go back to when we first started offering them, it has increased hundreds of times over," Heather Hill said.
Their Advocate PetTest Blood Glucose Monitoring System is on sale all month on their website, www.CountrysidePet.com , for $49.99, with 50 free test strips and 50 free lancets, she said.
"A couple of years ago, our busiest time of year was spring, with vaccination and worming season, but with all the electronic gizmos now, everything has changed around," she explained.
They carry things like invisible fences and doors that will open only if a dog or cat is wearing an identifying chip on its collar. Bobby Hill tests most products himself, his wife said. "We want to know what it is doing to the dogs, so we test them on ourselves. Bobby has tried a majority of the products. If it's good enough for my pets, it should be good enough for us," she said.
Some of the pet feeders on the market include the SureFlap SureFeed Microchip Pet Feeder, which sells for $149.99, and the Wireless Whiskers' AutoDiet Feeder, called the world's smartest dog or cat feeder because it can handle up to eight cats and holds 5 pounds of hard food. It sells online for $159.99.
Speaking of kibble, we all know people who play with their food. Given a chance, cats will too. Add a little technology and you have Friskies Pull 'n Play — food strings and party mix stuffed in a Wobbert, a toy that cats can endlessly bat around.
Hungry cats can eat the strings that come in three flavors. The strings form Wobbert's ears and the party mix makes noise. Wobbert, the strings and a small bag of party mix sell for $5.99 and are available nationwide at stores that sell Friskies. www.friskies.com/PullnPlay .
One of the few toys the Hills sell online is called the Frolicat Pounce Interactive Pet Toy, a battery-operated hide-and-seek game that will send your cat after Marshal Maus, who spins around, changes direction and hides under obstacles. Sales on it have gone up between 30 percent and 50 percent in the last two years, Heather Hill said. Right now, they are selling for $27.95 with free shipping.