Feeding Hay to Herbivorous Pets

Here I will be investigating the need to feed hay and it’s alternatives.  I will mostly cover small rodents and rabbits but will also mention farm animals and horses.

What is Hay?

Hay is dried grass.  It’s as simple as that.

It is usually cut from fields in the late Summer/ Early Autumn and then is sold throughout the rest of the year.  Hay can have differing colours with newly cut hay being a much greener colour than older hay.

The type of hay purely depends on the type of grass or crop that was cut and dried.

Hay can be cut to different lengths, made from different grasses and contain other plants. For instance, the hay I feed Carl contains Dandelion and Marigold.

Hay tends to be fed when either it’s not possible to feed grass all of the time or there isn’t enough grass.

Small animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas tend to be kept in cages with little access to grass much of the time.

With large animals such as horses or cattle, however, hay may be fed when there isn’t access to enough lush grass.  Though hay may not always be as good to feed as grass. The nutritional value of grass may reduce as it dries and it containing less water means more needs to be drunk.  However, as a replacement to grass, hay is usually completely fine.

 

Why is hay important?

Grass, hay or alternatives to hay is the staple dietary component for most herbivores.  Not only does this mean sheep, cows and horses need to eat it but also rabbits and guinea pigs.

 

These animals have digestive systems that rely on a very high fibre diet and a large amount of roughage (grasses/ hays) needs to pass through it to keep the guts moving.  If they stop eating this or don’t eat enough they are at risk of their guts stopping.  This is worsened by many of these animals being unable to vomit.

Why is this important?

Rabbits, for instance, groom lots so develop hairballs in their stomachs.  Unlike cats, rabbits are not able to vomit these back up leading to the potential for blockage.  The high fibre diet ensures that the guts keep moving and, in doing so, stop a blockage developing.

Herbivores bodies are designed to have constant energy production from food.  If this stops then it may lead to low blood sugars.

These animals also rely on the naturally good bacteria in their gut to both break down food and prevent bad bacteria invading and causing them to become ill. If they don’t get grass or hay this bacteria will not get the fuel they require to survive and thrive and therefore could die, affecting digestion.

 

Guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits, as well as the aforementioned farm animals have continuously growing or erupting teeth. These teeth need to be ground down to prevent them overgrowing or becoming sharp next to the tongue or cheeks, causing damage. These animals must eat plenty of grass or hay as the movement of the teeth across this and each other allows them to become ground down.

If teeth do not grind down against each other appropriately they will become unevenly worn.  This uneven wear will make eating more difficult and prevent them getting adequate nutrition which can then lead to greater problems such as gut stasis, where the guts stop working.  It can also cause the teeth to develop sharp points which cut into the tongue or cheeks leading to severe pain.

 

How Much Hay do they Need?

The amount of hay needed depends what species your pet is. A rabbit requires 80 to 90% of their diet being hay or grass. A guinea pig, on the other hand, need slightly less than this; requiring approximately 70% of the diet being hay. The reason why these need less is that they must also eat fruit and vegetables daily to get enough vitamins C, which is not the case in rabbits. Fruit and veg will give some of the nutrients it Hay would otherwise and it also helps to grind down the teeth.

calm cat
A farm cat asleep on a large bale of haylage

It is often for that rabbits and guinea pigs should have approximately the same amount of hay during a day as their body size. However, rabbits and guinea pigs should have hay available throughout the day which is both clean and easily available for them to eat. This means that should be separated from the bedding.  Their bedding hay often has droppings and urine getting mixed in and therefore affecting not only is quality but reducing the likelihood of your pet wanting to eat it. For instance, you wouldn’t want to eat and go to toilet in the same room, and this is the same rabbits.

One way to do this is to provide hay in a hay net or a hay rack and keep this regularly topped up, checking is plenty of hay at very least twice a day. If out in a garden, remember these animals can eat grass which may even be healthier for them dependent on both the quality of hay and that the grass. This means they will need to have as much hay throughout the day. However, before giving your pets access a garden you must make sure you don’t have any poisonous plants throughout it.

If you do your pets could eat these and then become unwell. Alongside this, weed to killers can also be dangerous to make sure that you don’t use these on any grass that your pets may eat.

 

Other animals have slightly different requirements for hay. Horses, sheep and cattle all need about 2.5% of their bodyweight in hay each day. This does, however, depend on how much grass they have access to as well as whether horses are ridden, and how much, and if the cattle or sheep are pregnant or producing milk. It also depends on the amount of water within the hay.

Some horses are fed haylage rather than hay which contains more water and therefore they will need to have a higher weight to accommodate the weight of the water. Many cows and sheep are fed silage which again weighs more than hay due to the water within it and so need more than that. Realistically, the best way to feed hay is just to give a slight excess of it unless the animal is overweight at which stage, it should be reduced slightly until that animal no longer gains weight or, have a healthy weight.

 

Types of Hay

The main types of hay a Timothy hay and alfalfa hay.

Alfalfa hay is much higher in energy so is great for young and growing animals.  But it can lead to obesity in older animals. It is recommended guinea pigs, chinchillas and rabbits switch to Timothy hay as adults in most cases.

There are also other types of hay such as Oak hay which can be fed instead of meadow or timothy hay to horses. Oak hay is good for overweight horses due to it’s fewer calories.

There is also meadow hay. This tends to be finer. Whilst it is great for bedding in small mammals, it’s not the best for feeding. Meadow hay isn’t the best feeder hay as it easier to eat.  Though this sounds beneficial, it means it grinds his teeth down less as it takes less time to eat. As a result, it’s poorer for dental health.

Sometimes the best option is to buy hay baled with a mix of grasses creating several types of hay within one bale.  Often this type of hay is obtained from the farm rather than from a pet store.

 

Pre-packaged hay designed for small mammals can come with other ingredients mixed with it. A common one is Dandelion’s which both improves the taste and with picky animals but can help with kidney disorders especially if alongside Marigold. This is seen with Burgess hay. Often adding things to hay can also improve how well your pet eats it and therefore can help those picky eaters.  Other manufacturers add in Carrots and Apples.  These extra flavours improve how well some animals eat the hay and thus improve their health.  Along with that, it encourages foraging behaviour and thus is good for enrichment.

Burgess Dandelion and Marigold Hay when out of packaging

One thing to look for is the stem length.

To aid grinding down the teeth, and to improve their guts, long stem hay is advised. This is where the grass was longer when cut and has not been shredded down further.

A large proportion of the good quality hay in pet stores is now sold like this though not all of it. The aforementioned Burgess Dandelion and Marigold hay is cut to a shorter length. This may be good for those pets with longterm dental issues (which grinding more won’t help) whereby they can’t chew well.  However, short-stemmed hay will not wear down the teeth as well so it’s weighing up the pros and cons of each type of hay.

My own guinea pig has Burgess Dandelion and Marigold hay and he has had no dental problems. But, Carl has had urinary tract issues so the benefits of this of this hay is worthwhile.

 

What should I look out For with hay?

Hay should be sweet smelling and not be too dusty.

With horses, dusty hay is often soaked in water, especially for horses with COPD.  Soaking hay reduces it’s nutritional quality and, in most cases, it should not be left to soak for longer than 10 minutes.

Soaking hay isn’t a technique used with small animals and, instead, buying dust extracted hay is the best option. Dust extracted hay is recommended as small animals have sensitive airways so dust is likely to irritate.

It is important to make sure there is no mould in the hay, whatever the species. Something else look for is whether or not there is Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) in the hay. Ragwort is a very poisonous plant and is well known to cause liver damage in horses, farm animals and humans. I have not heard reports of whether or not it causes this in rodents and rabbits however, I feel that the likelihood is that it will. Therefore, if a bale of hay contains any rag worked I strongly suggest that you not only discard the whole bail without feeding it to your pet but, also contact the suppliers immediately to ensure they investigate this further as they potentially need to recall the whole batch.

The bright yellow ragwort plant. Watch out for it when dried in amongst hay

Mould should also not be in a bale of hay. Mouldy hay causes respiratory diseases but can cause issues to the guts as well and make your pet very unwell. Therefore, like you’ve rag worked is in a bale, I suggest that you discard the bail and contact the suppliers ASAP.

 

The colour of the hay depends on its age, when it was cut, the type of the hay and its quality. Usually, hay should be slightly green coloured however as said this does vary. The main thing easily is sweet smelling as this is a sign of not only good quality but also the lack of mould.

 

Alternatives to Hay

Many people are allergic to hay.

Alternatives to hay depend on the species. Horses often are given hayage as an alternative. This is higher in energy and is, therefore, more likely to cause obesity and so may be avoided in overweight horses. However, haylage may be much lower in dust, but I have experiences with mould within it.

 

Cattle sheep and goats tend to be fed silage which is very acidic. This has been partially fermented and should not really be fed to small animals.

 

In most cases, guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas should be fed hay. There is an alternative called ReadiGrass which is partially dried grass. Realistically though, if you are allergic to hay you’re likely allergic to this.  It is not suitable to use instead of hay due to it being very high in calcium and energy which increases the risk of obesity. However, ReadiGrass is great as an occasional treat.

In summary

The main take-home message is that guinea pigs, rabbits, chinchillas and herbivorous farm animals need hay or grass as a main part of the diet. Hay aids both dental and digestive health.

Unless animals are overweight, they ideally should be offered hay continuously. This is definitely the case in rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas and if these become overweight the best option is to reduce their pellets or muesli feed.

There are several types of hay such as meadow, Timothy, oat and alfalfa hay. It is important that you avoid hay containing lots of dust or any mould or Ragwort in it.

Freshwater should always be provided alongside hay. If your animal stops eating hay you must seek veterinary advice straight away. Also, ensure that the supplied with hay offer before such as within a hay rack or hay net to prevent it becoming mixed with their droppings or urine.

 

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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