Nothing is as fresh and delicious as fresh grass for rabbits. But is it always the most healthful? Is hay an equivalent alternative?
About Hay for Rabbits
Hay is the most important food for keeping rabbits strong and healthy. So why is hay such a critical diet ingredient for rabbits? And what is the best hay for rabbits? Read on to discover more.
Table of contents
- About Hay for Rabbits
- Why is Hay so Important for Rabbits’ Health?
- How Much is Enough?
- About Grass
- Enter: hay. Good, nutritious, quality hay.
- Distinctive Hay and Grasses
- Common Rabbit Hays and Grass
- What Makes a Hay Good?
- Can Rabbits Eat Haylage?
- Can Rabbits Eat Horse Hay?
- All About Cuttings
- Wholesale Hay
Why is Hay so Important for Rabbits’ Health?
The number one element necessary for every rabbit is fresh grass and hay, and specifically, it is the high fiber in the hay that maintains a rabbit’s intestinal well-being. Simply put, a rabbit’s intestinal tract will not be able to operate without this critical fiber. If there is no or too little fiber in a rabbit’s diet, the food in his gut will dramatically slow down, leading to a host of physical problems and illnesses, and even death.
In addition to intestinal health, the fiber in hay and grass is necessary to maintain a rabbit’s proper dental health. Unlike humans, rabbits’ teeth grow constantly and need to be worn down so they can perform the necessary actions of eating, swallowing, and grooming. Chewing and gnawing on hay and grass provides the sawing action necessary to keep the teeth filed and under control.
Hay contains two kinds of fiber – indigestible and digestible. The indigestible fiber, along with water, is what helps to usher the food through the rabbit’s gut, allowing the intestines to move efficiently while allowing them to absorb necessary nutrients. The indigestible fiber is what is expelled in the hundreds of small fecal pellets passed every day. The action of the digestible fiber enables digestion of nutrients and absorption of vitamins and fatty acids.
How Much is Enough?
Since their very life is dependent on fiber in the form of grass and hay, how much do rabbits need to eat every day? That answer is, it depends. It depends on the type of hay and grass the rabbit is fed. A rough answer is that hay should be 80 percent of a rabbit’s diet. The best way to gauge how much a rabbit is eating is to keep refilling the hay rack after checking it after approximately 24 hours. A rabbit’s hay should not be left for more than 24 hours.
What could possibly be better for rabbits than sweet, freshly cut grass? The answer is nothing, but there’s a hitch: the amount of fresh grass a rabbit would need each day is way more than can be fed to a pet, in-home rabbit. Here are a few reasons why some owners don’t or can’t feed their rabbits large quantities of grass.
- Predators: Rabbits are prized by many other animals, not the least of which is dogs. Leaving a rabbit outside long enough to consume what he needs is tantamount to death.
- Yards: Some owners simply do not have access to green space.
- Stress: Some rabbits get stressed outside.
- Poisons: Some yards have naturally growing, toxic plants.
- Time: Making sure a rabbit gets what he needs requires a good bit of supervision.
Enter: hay. Good, nutritious, quality hay.
There are many grass and hay options for keeping rabbits healthy. The following are several types of quality hay:
- Timothy hay
- Meadow hay
- Orchard hay and grass
- Oat hay
The following are types of grass that are good for rabbits:
- Oat grass
- Wheat grass
- Barn dried hay and dried grass
Distinctive Hay and Grasses
Can rabbits eat alfalfa hay? Alfalfa is really a legume instead of grass or hay. It is rich, very high in minerals and protein, and can actually be rather fattening for a rabbit when fed in large amounts. In fact, its protein level can be as high as 20 percent, depending on when it is harvested. When it is mixed with other types of hay, it makes a wonderful treat for rabbits. It is also good for rabbit kits as well as for rabbits who are not thriving health-wise.
The secret to producing nutritious, dried grass is to dry it quickly, which maintains nutrients that would be lost if they were left to dry naturally. Readigrass for rabbits, or ready grass for rabbits, is one of these healthier varieties. Barn dried hay and dried grass are also healthful options.
Rabbits find these grasses to be a nice treat. They have a fresh, green appearance and contain more protein than hay. Because of their higher protein levels, it is best to monitor a rabbit’s consumption and avoid overfeeding these grasses.
Common Rabbit Hays and Grass
Many different types of quality hay and grass are available for rabbits, with the more popular options being meadow, Timothy, and Orchard grass. These hays work well as the basic ingredient for a rabbit’s diet, and they can be interchanged to add variety in taste and texture. Also, each brings a different mixture of nutrients to the table, so a mixture provides a good balance of vitamins and minerals.
The best choice of hay for rabbits, especially adults, is Timothy hay. It is a perennial plant that grows mostly in cool climates. It should have a mix of stems and leaves. Since it is dried naturally, Timothy hay has a fresh smell and green appearance, making it a delectable choice for rabbits.
Timothy hay offers high fiber and lower protein content than some other hays and grasses. The combination of fiber and low protein is excellent for maintaining optimum intestinal tract operation. It is also a good option for rabbits with a delicate digestive system and skin issues.
This hay should be offered in unlimited quantities, making it a “free choice” food that is always available for rabbits.
See also: What do Baby Rabbits Eat?
Orchard Hay/Orchard Grass
A heartier type of hay, Orchard hay/grass is another cool seasonal plant that can withstand prolonged dry weather and maintain its levels of fiber and protein. Compared to some other hay and grass, it offers less protein and calcium, but it is extremely high in fiber. It has a fresh, sweet smell that translates into an appealing flavor. An option is to mix this hay with Timothy hay to entice rabbits who are picky eaters.
Meadow Grass Hay/Meadow Grass
The name Meadow Grass Hay aptly describes this type of hay, which, as opposed to other varieties of grass and hay, is actually a combination of grass and hay occurring naturally. It is, therefore, a true “natural” product. Once the grasses are harvested, they are then dried before being put in bales. The main issue with Meadow Grass Hay is that the levels of minerals, proteins, and fiber can vary significantly, which means it should be fed in limited quantities.
This hay is typically harvested at a point in the plants’ growth where there is plenty of munchy material for rabbits to enjoy. It contains lots of minerals, vitamins, fiber, and is lower in protein than other options. This is a good hay to mix with other hay and grass.
This is another high-fiber food that is tasty and tender and especially good for adult rabbits. It is also especially good for dental and intestinal health. Another similar, tender, sweet, and high fiber option is Readigrass for rabbits.
Bermudagrass contains ample minerals and nutrients that are similar to those in Timothy and Orchard Grass, but the issue here is that rabbits generally don’t like it.
Following is a chart that shows the breakdown of crude fiber and crude protein for grasses and hay types.
|Type of hay/grass||Crude Fiber||Crude Protein|
Think herbal tea for rabbits, and that’s what Herbal Hay is all about. It starts with a regular type of hay, such as Timothy, to which various herbs are added. The most added herbs include chamomile, marigold, or dandelion. Herbal Hay is a good option for rabbits whose owners cannot give them much outdoor foraging time. Many owners grow their own herbs for ready access and to keep costs down.
What Makes a Hay Good?
Following are three factors that must be present for hay to be of good quality and safe for rabbits to eat.
First, it’s important to take a good whiff to ensure the hay is fresh and appealing. Would it be something you’d want to eat if you were a rabbit? Beware of any musty, moldy smells as this is a showstopper for any hay being considered to feed to a rabbit.
Second, no dust! Dust is a sign that the hay has been sitting around too long. Also, dust can be damaging to a rabbit’s respiratory system.
Third, storage must have been out of sunlight and in a dry area. It must also have been in a container that is not airtight. Storage in something airtight promotes growth of toxins that can be lethal.
Can Rabbits Eat Haylage?
The first question here is, what is the difference between hay and haylage? The basic difference between the two is how they are processed.
Hay is cut and left to dry in the field, and after it is dry, it is then baled and stored. The concern with this method is that before baling, the hay needs to be almost completely dry to prevent it from becoming molding or otherwise spoiling. This process is dependent on good weather, which leads to some stress for farmers who must plan their harvesting accordingly.
Haylage is harvested earlier than hay and left to dry in the fields for less time. When it is dry and then baled, it is wrapped in plastic.
And herein lies the difference between hay and haylage. Hay needs most moisture to be removed to keep it free of mold, while haylage relies on being free of oxygen, which therefore prevents mold from developing.
Can Rabbits Eat Horse Hay?
Perhaps the safest hay for a rabbit to eat is “horse hay.” In fact, the different varieties of horse hay are the same as those for rabbits, including Alfalfa, Orchard Grass, Timothy, and bermudagrass. Just like rabbits, horses are extremely susceptible to becoming ill from hay that is moldy or contaminated by pesticides. Horse hay is also much cheaper than rabbit hay, which is sold in small packages in pet stores.
All About Cuttings
The stage of growth when hay is cut makes a difference in how many vitamins, minerals, fiber, and minerals it contains. The number of cuttings a farmer can cut in any one season is dependent on many factors, including weather and availability of equipment and labor.
Many people sing the praises of a first cutting, but it is not the best source of hay for rabbits. It contains fewer nutrients and is difficult to digest because of its many large and coarse stems.
This hay is of a higher quality because it contains more leaves and stems that are softer and easier to digest. It contains more protein and fat as well as less crude fiber.
Some areas will have a long enough growing season to achieve a third cutting of hay. This cutting is typically high in nutrients, but sufficiently low in fiber to make it an option only when combined with other, higher quality hays.
Instead of buying ready-packaged, in-store hay, a good option is to locate a local farm that grows hay.
Purchasing Hay Directly from the Farm
Opting to purchase hay directly from the farm ensures the freshest available product. The time to buy the best hay for rabbits from the farm is between August and November. This is when there are the most options for hay types and probably the best prices, depending on the overall harvest of the year. Buying hay at other times means it has been in storage, which means taking a close look to be sure it has been stored properly.
Storing Hay at Home
Once hay is purchased from the farm, the question becomes, where and how to store it? The hay will probably come in bales which should be stored in a cool, dry location, out of direct sunlight, and at most, at room temperature. Do not store it in an airtight container because of the danger of toxic mold forming. A good storage option is a clean garbage container. Stored properly, the hay can last for several years.
Since hay is such a critical part of a rabbit’s diet, it is important to understand the differences in hay types and quality, so you can make the best decision for keeping your rabbit healthy. Each type of rabbit has different nutritional requirements. Learn about the diets of Mini Rex Rabbits and Netherland Dwarf Rabbits.