By Dr. Becker
Many owners of rabbits and herbivorous rodents believe pelleted diets supplemented with fruits, veggies and grains are best for their pets.
But the fact is a hay mixture is more species-appropriate nutrition for these little exotics.
Rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus are hindgut fermenters. They have simple, single-chambered stomachs and are equipped with bacteria that digest the cellulose from plants. Hindgut fermenters can consume small amounts of varying qualities of forage all day long and are able to pull more nutrition out of small quantities of feed.
Many owners of these small herbivores mistakenly believe feeding hay as a dietary staple isn’t nutritious and/or doesn’t provide enough nutritional variety.
Benefits of a Hay-only Diet over Other Diets
The natural diet of rabbits and herbivorous rodents is a variety of grasses, forbs, herbs and leaves. Since this diet is difficult to replicate for animals kept as pets, a hay-only diet is recommended over a diet containing commercial fruit and most commercial vegetables (green leafy veggies are fine), certainly fruit and seed mixes, grain mixes and grain-based pelleted feeds or bread, and is also preferable to forage-based pelleted feeds.
For these small animals, hay contains complex carbohydrates, the right amount of calcium, and a balanced calcium-to-phosphorus ratio. When these pets are fed fruits, non-leafy vegetables and grains, they can get more digestible energy than their natural diet provides, which can lead to obesity. Feeding trials have shown that rabbits fed forage-only diets have less adipose tissue than rabbits fed more concentrated diets.
In addition, hay provides forage (plant material, primarily leaves and stems) which requires chewing and grinding, which in turn prevents teeth from overgrowing. Studies show rabbits fed grain mixes have more problems with their teeth than rabbits fed forages.
Also, rabbits and guinea pigs that don’t get hay or fresh forages in their diet tend to do more fur-chewing, which can result in trichobezoars, which are masses of hair that get trapped in the gastrointestinal tract.
Hay also encourages your rabbit or rodent to drink more water, which helps prevent stones from forming in the urinary tract. In addition, a diet of hay discourages overeating, and also helps maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria which can prevent constipation and enteritis.
Selecting Hays to Feed
This is where things get a little complicated. In order for a hay-only diet to be nutritionally adequate for your rabbit, guinea pig or other rodent, it must contain a variety of hay from different locations. Feeding different types of hay offers your exotic the same level of nutritional diversity that a variety of fruits and vegetables offers you.
What hays you feed should be based first on excellent hygienic quality (meaning they are free of mold, mold spores and dust). Excellent hygienic quality hay feels dry, has no smell of mold, is greenish in color, and is uncontaminated by beetles or mites.
They don’t all need to be highly nutritious, as long as they contain a high proportion of stems and fiber-rich material. If your pet has a high energy requirement, you can supplement with hays with high nutritional quality.
Lucerne/alfalfa hay is high in protein and calcium and typically contains more energy than grass hay, so it is considered more appropriate for growing animals, whereas grass hays are more suitable for healthy adult pets. Many pet owners who feed hay offer ones that are moderate to satisfactory in nutritional value, meaning the hay:
- Is moderately leafy or has few leaves, mostly stems and many flower clusters
- Has a mild hay smell
- Is slightly bleached out in color
- Contains moderate soil or grit contamination
Feeding hay of this nutritional quality offers advantages when a pet needs increased energy from his diet, since it can be accomplished by either increasing the amount of fresh forage offered (grass, herbs, and leafy green veggies) and/or by feeding an additional hay with high nutritional value.
Keeping Your Pet Healthy through Proper Nutrition
The healthiest diet for pet rabbits, guinea pigs, and other small herbivores is a hay mixture and/or fresh grass, herbs and green leafy vegetables, plus a very limited amount of pelleted feed for vitamin and mineral supplementation. Offering this type of diet rather than grains and fruits can help your little companion avoid a number of health problems.
If you are only able to offer hay from a single source, it’s recommend that you add 1 tbsp/kg of high-fiber pelleted feed with a balanced vitamin and mineral content.
It’s extremely important to replace hay daily, because what your pet doesn’t eat is intentional on his part. Offered a variety of hays, he will eat what is most nutritious for him and leave the rest. If fresh hay isn’t replaced daily, your little guy may not eat enough food. So don’t assume if there’s still hay left, you don’t need to replace it with a fresh supply.