What’s This Hay Stuff All About?
Hay is the primary food for most of our small mammals like rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs. While rats, mice and hamsters will benefit from hay in their environment, they don’t need to eat it. Pellets are very nutrient dense. They can lead to obesity if overfed. Pellets should only be a very small portion of your pets daily food intake. On the other hand, grass hays provide the high fiber, low protein diet these small exotic mammals need.
Ok, So Which Hay?
All grass hays provide appropriate nutrients -that doesn’t mean your pet won’t have a preference. The most common grass hay is Timothy hay. It is readily available and usually a good choice for that reason alone. Some people feel that Guinea Pigs prefer Orchard Grass hay. It has a softer texture and a sweeter flavor. Oat Hay has a high stem content resulting in a “crunchy” texture. There are usually several immature seed heads present as well. Organic Meadow Hay is generally a mix of several types of grass hays. Keep in mind that different bags of hay will vary in color, taste, texture and smell – variations in soil, sunshine and weather cause these changes. It is a good idea to transition between bags of hay (even bags of the same variety) rather than perform a sudden switch. A good way to prevent hay bag snobbery (your pet won’t eat his or her new hay) is to offer a variety of hay all the time.
But What About Alfalfa?
Alfalfa hay is NOT a grass hay – it is a legume. It has higher values of protein, calcium and energy. Alfalfa hay is recommended for young, growing animals. It can be used as a treat to tempt older animals that aren’t eating well. In some cases, Alfalfa pellets may be appropriate in small quantities for show bunnies or pregnant bunnies because of their higher energy needs.
How Much Hay?
Small mammals should always have hay available – free choice feeding. In general, a rabbit should consume its body size in hay daily, while chinchillas and guinea pigs eat about two times their body size.
Isn’t this a happy bunny? Now look at him without his hay…
Not Just Food!
One of the other “uses” for hay is to provide environmental enrichment. Hay can stimulate natural behaviors such as foraging and grazing. Hide treats (low sugar, high fiber treats that is) in baskets or hay mangers. Provide deep piles for your pet to burrow through or hide in. Even mammals that don’t eat hay can enjoy both a sense of security and fun from a large pile of hay. Rats, mice, hamsters…even ferrets!
A Final Word on Hay
One very important job of hay is to help our pets with “open root” teeth is to wear them down. “Aradicular” or “Elodont” teeth have continuously growing teeth. The teeth of rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are all open-rooted, while in rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils it is only the incisors that continuously grow. The best way to keep these teeth in shape is to be chewing long stems of fibrous plants (also known as hay!). Without an appropriate grinding motion, open-rooted teeth can grow inappropriately, develop points and even grow in the wrong direction. Once the tooth becomes abnormal only a dental procedure under anesthesia can correct the problem.