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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Guinea Pig Accessories

Pet shops sell a large number of items for small mammals, some of which are suitable, others just aren’t. Sometimes it can take a while to find items which not only suit your pets but also yourself.

Here I’m going to say what Carl has and also, perhaps more importantly, what he doesn’t have and the reasons I don’t endorse these products.

For various reasons right now his set up isn’t completely how I want it; I plan on getting him a larger cage soon but most of it I’m happy with.

Hay

I’m the first to admit, Carl’s hay isn’t the cheapest option. Hay (and grass) should make up at least 70% of a guinea pigs diet (the next biggest component should be fresh fruit and vegetables followed by a concentrate food, ideally pellets). If you’ve got a rabbit then 90% of their diet should be hay or grass due to them not needing as much fruit or veg.

The hay carl has

I want him to be as healthy as possible which means I would prefer to spend money on good quality hay which suits him. Cheaper hay often has a lower nutritional value (it hasn’t got as much good stuff in) and may be full of dust and, in worse cases, mould.  This is more likely to cause them to be ill so may end up being false economy (alongside it not being nice for your pet).

When I first adopted Carl drank huge amounts of water, a sign of kidney damage/ failure. He hadn’t had the best upbringing and had a large amounts of medications and serious infections which took their toll.

I feed Carl Burgess Feeding Hay with Dandelion and Marigold. I was aware Marigold is supposed to help with Kidney Disease in rabbits and so I decided to give it a try.  The worst it could do is not help (and cost me more!). Gradually over the next six months he began drinking less, he was no longer drinking the huge amounts he previously had.  His improvement could be for a number of reasons, some being that he gradually recovered from his previous problems, however, I like to believe the hay helped.

But would I always recommend this hay? No

Burgess Dandelion and Marigold Hay when out of packaging

Though it suits Carl, it isn’t perfect. One of the main functions for hay is for rabbits and guinea pigs (as well as farm animals) to grind their teeth. Hay should, therefore, ideally, be in large strands. With this product, the hay has been cut shorter. If your pet has this hay they don’t have to grind the hay as much and therefore, especially in those prone to dental problems, this hay may cause more issues. Instead, some other products, including some made by Burgess (eg. long stem feeding Hay), may be more appropriate.

This hay is not designed to be used as bedding, partly due to the expense of it.

Some other types of hay are very dusty. Guinea pigs, like many rodent species, have very sensitive airways. Dust can irritate them and therefore causing them to sneeze, cough or breathe with more difficulty. Along with this, some types are quite old or made from low-quality grass and therefore do not contain all of the goodness they otherwise could have. These should be avoided.

One of these is the Pets at Home brand Timothy Feeding Hay which I’ve always found to be very dusty.

It is also possible in some cases to buy hay directly from a farm. Whilst this may be good a high quality, it must be remembered that this has not been dust extractors like hay from many companies producing products for small mammals. This means that the hay is more likely to contain dust and therefore, irritate their airways more.  If this appears to be the case you should avoid hay from this supplier.

Concentrate Food

Carl is on a pelleted diet.  He’s on Burgess food with mint and he seems to really like that.

Recently a relative fed him for a night.  She couldn’t find Carl’s food so bought him another brand (unsure which) and he left most of it.  With Burgess Nuggets, throughout the course of a few hours (he eats his vegetables in preference to it much of the time), he eats every single nugget.

Burgess Excell nuggets with mint seem to suit Carl

With rodents there is usually a choice of pelleted food or the more traditional muesli style.  I would strongly recommend avoiding the muesli form and instead going with pelleted versions.

Pellet foods are slightly more expensive but they tend to be the better quality diets and with the length of time they last the extra cost shouldn’t be that noticeable in the long term and reduces the risk of other problems.

Muesli style foods tend to have parts which your guinea pig/ rabbit will eat and other things they’ll avoid.  Often people feed them too much leading to them picking out the bits they want.  Owners quite often leave the uneaten bits in the bowl and when these seeds accumulate over a few days they leave their pet with just these to eat.  Their pet will often still refuse these and go without concentrate food for a day or more.

Muesli-style foods tend to be higher in fat and sugar, especially the parts most pets find tasty.  This puts them at higher risk of diseases such as diabetes which affect small mammals and are quite common in hamsters.  These foods also often lead to obesity, causing animals to become unfit.  Therefore, when possible, muesli-style foods should be avoided if there is a pelleted version.

Bedding

Carl has space Back2Nature litter as his bedding/substrate.

This is very much like cat litter (in fact the company produces cat litter which looks identical) and is both very absorptive and good at reducing odours. This is great for a male guinea pig as these often smell more than females and, I found that larger areas of this remain dry compared to other substrates.

Carl has Back2Nature bedding which is 100 recycled, dust extracted and reduces odour

 

I have tried CareFresh bedding before, in fact, Carl was on that when I first got in. Though I liked the low amount of dust as well as the odour control properties, I did find  Back2Nature, this was less absorptive. This was a problem for a guinea pig who urinated a lot and meant I was often cleaning out large amounts of his bedding in one go so it cost a fortune.

Personally, I don’t like the use of shavings or sawdust. These are sometimes produced from pine which is toxic to many small animals so they could become ill if eating it.

The main reason I don’t like shavings is that I have seen many eye injuries caused by shavings getting under their eyelids.  This causes damage to the surface of the eye which can be both painful and, in more severe cases, can cause permanent, severe damage to the eye. Carl had one eye removed when he was only eight weeks old and therefore, wherever possible I aim to reduce the risk of him having injuries to his remaining eye. Therefore, I choose not to use wood shavings or sawdust.

Another downfall of shavings is they don’t contain the odour as well leaving cages with this substrate smelling worse.

 

Hay rack

Carl has a hay rack which came of his cage.

This is solid and attaches to the outside of his cage.

The reason I use a hay rack is to ensure that this hay remains as clean as possible and does not get mixed with his urine or droppings. I like the use of a solid hay rack as this reduces the amount of hay spilling out.  It is also more stable and therefore is less likely to cause problems if Carl somehow gets his leg stuck in it.

Carl eating from his hay rack

I have got a metal ball that can be used to feed both treats and hay to him. This is more of an enrichment activity rather than something which wouldn’t contain all of his food as it’s really small. I do sometimes use this though due to its size I don’t use alone for his hay.

A metal wire ball that you can put hay or treats such as veg) in

You can also buy hay nets for small mammals. These are not too dissimilar from the metal ball above however, these are much softer and, often larger. These, like the hay rack, prevent the hay from touching the floor and therefore help to keep it dry. I have never personally used these and therefore cannot fully endorse them however I thought there were worth a mention.

 

Tunnel

All guinea pigs need somewhere to hide.  Even the most confident of guinea pigs spend a large proportion of their lives hiding.  One of the most common hiding places is a tunnel.

The Tunnel Carl Currently Has

Personally, I like using either Sea Grass tunnels or hay based tunnels.  These give Carl something safe to chew which not only means there’s less of an issue if they chew on them but also gives them something to do; enrichment is very important.

The hay tunnel Carl has once gnawed on

It’s very common to see plastic based tunnels.  Though these last longer they will likely get gnawed upon leaving a risk of the plastic cutting their mouth.  There’s even a small risk of them swallowing some plastic which could cause them a lot of damage.

 

Carl also has a log tunnel.  This comes flat and is pieces of wood connected by  wire.  It can then be bent into a circle to create a tunnel or, like Carl’s, bent to create a bridge going onto a raised area of his cage.  This not only is used for him to climb up onto but he can also hide underneath it.  It is also safe for him to chew and he’s had it since I got him over 18months ago and it will last him for years to come.

This is the log tunnel when straightened
Kong

Kongs were originally designed to fill up with treats/ biscuits for dogs to chew on when you’re out at work/ at night.  Ones for small mammals/ birds are similar and it just gives them something to do.

You can put treats or food into a kong and small mammals chewing it or moving it to release food keeps them busy and mentally stimulated

Carl has a Kong.  I put some of his treats in there and occasionally some of his veg.  He doesn’t tend to use it much though and leaves things in it and I end up just emptying them back out.

Though you can use these it is important to check them daily for things stuck in them and empty them out.  If you don’t, food or treats stuck in them will go mouldy causing you guinea pig to become ill from breathing in the mould particles or eating mouldy food.

 

Wooden Toy

Carl has a weird wooden toy.  It is like a cage on the outside with a wooden ball inside.  He doesn’t play with it much but does chew on it.  This gives him something to do and some animals enjoy moving them around.

The chewing helps to grind their incisors down and allows them to carry out normal behaviour whereas moving it around and exploring helps engage their brains.

Chewing this toy helps to grind their incisors and moving it around keeps them stimulated further. Note; it’s becoming well gnawed!
Beds
One of Carls beds. Its pretty big but very comfy

As mentioned previously, I am worried, perhaps overly so about Carl’s eye becoming damaged and that lead to me buying him beds to place in his cage instead of using hay/ paper bedding/ shredded straw.  He doesn’t always sleep in a bed but he does have the option.

Carl lives in my house where it’s kept warm enough for him.  He also does take some of his hay and create his own bed.  I see this as a normal behaviour and a form of enrichment.  Yes, it’s expensive hay for him to use as bedding but if this is what he chooses to do then it’s up to him.

 

Water bottle

All animals need water.  In the case of mammals, this needs to be given in a way they can drink it.

Usually, small mammals are given water from a bottle or bowl.  Personally, with Carl, I use a water bottle.  This gives him constant access to clean water.  I ensure it is changed daily to make sure it’s fresh and the bottle is clean.  I also make sure that there are no issues with the bottle not working.

Carl likes to play with the nozzle and ball within it.  Though this sometimes causes parts of his cage to be wet it does give him something else to do so I don’t mind replacing some of his Back2Nature a bit more often.

 

Large Classic Crystal De-Luxe Water bottle. Potentially the most popular water bottle for rabbits and guinea pigs.

 

Water bowls are more natural for them to drink from.  However, both guinea pigs and rabbits tend to poo in them which causes the water to quickly become very dirty.  They also, often, tip these over or walk through them leading to their substrate becoming wet too and them having no water left.

 

Using a bottle or a bowl comes down to preference.  So long as animals have water in a form they will drink from is the main thing.  Some animals will refuse to drink from a bowl whereas others refuse to drink from bottles.  The main thing is finding out what your pets will drink from and providing them water in that form.

If your pet is ever going to spend time at the vets (either when ill or being neutered) it is important you inform the staff the way that your pet drinks their water.  This will ensure they will be given water in the way they are used to and so they are more likely to drink which will improve their health and healing.

 

Finally
Kitchen roll holder; a free toy

1 of Carl’s favourite toys and free is the inside tube from a toilet roll or kitchen roll.  He throws this around and chews them.  You can also stuff them with hay (or goodies) and hang them up to the sides of the cage using parcel string if you wish; I’m yet to try this with Carl but it is on my list of enrichment activities.

To End

So that’s a bit of a summary of what he has and why.  I haven’t included his cage in this (he’s getting a new, bigger, cage soon) or his vegetables, I will likely cover those at a different time.; in short, Carl gets a variety of veg and fruit on a daily basis.

To find out more about Carl then click here.

This blog post is a bit different to most of the others but I hope you found it educational and enjoyable.   To discuss anything then please write a comment below, especially if you have any questions.  If you’re interested in reading further animal-related blog posts then please put your email address in the subscription box in the box in the right sidebar to get emails when new blog posts come.  To discuss something with me more privately then feel free to contact me directly.