Hay for Play
While hay is a staple food for rabbits and herbivorous rodents, retailers can also recommend it for smaller rodents as a way to enrich their lives.
As tasty and nutritious as hay can be for rabbits and herbivorous rodents, pet parents should know that hay is more than just food. Although hay is not sold as food for small rodents, it can be used to give them a new experience and opportunity for play. Rats, hamsters and gerbils are all natural burrowers and enjoy the opportunity to engage in this behavior. They delight in being able to burrow and dig in a pile of hay. They can also use the hay to make a nest. Besides giving pets a new activity, hay can provide a new sensory experience, introducing new smells, textures and sounds to investigate and explore. Even ferrets may enjoy playing in hay.
Another way to present hay for play is to stuff it into a large paper bag. This will prevent the hay from collapsing into a heap and will help hold the shape of any tunnels the animals dig. It will also contain some of the mess as the animals dig and play. The more hay that is stuffed into the bag, the more it will hold its shape. Although pet owners might be tempted to place a plastic bag of hay in the cage, retailers should inform them that a plastic bag can present the danger of suffocation, as well as intestinal blockage if swallowed.
Grass hay can be a source of entertainment even for herbivores. The wild rabbits and guinea pigs that were the ancestors of today’s pets lived in grasslands, so grass is their natural environment. Hay is the closest thing to grass that most pet herbivores get to see, and in addition to eating it, the animals enjoy running through it, as well as sitting, hiding and sleeping in it.
Many rabbit and guinea pig owners dole out hay sparingly, but a generous supply is not only good for their pets’ diets, but also for their mental health. A big pile of hay is a fun gift they can give their pets. If a customer complains that hay on the floor of the cage can be soiled, trampled and wasted, staff members can reply, “Yes, that’s true, but your pets will have a wonderful time.”
Don’t Forget to Eat the Flowers
The fiber in grass hay that makes it a valuable staple in the diet of rabbits and herbivorous rodents also makes it mostly indigestible for smaller rodents. Alfalfa hay, made from the alfalfa plant—a legume in the same family as beans and peas—is slightly more edible for smaller rodents, especially the softer leaves. But there are new products available that offer hay mixed with other plants, such as dried flowers and herbs, that are completely edible for pocket pets. Some of the herbs now offered in hay mixtures include chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, clover and mint. Edible flowers found in hay mixtures today include marigolds and hibiscus.
These products provide a new experience for the tiny buck-toothed critters. Not only do they get to dig through the hay to make tunnels and nests, but they also encounter flowers and herbs that add new fragrances and flavors to their lives. Other packages of grass hay now include dried fruits and vegetables, such as carrots and mango, which offer small rodents a fun treasure hunt. A bag of one of these new hay mixes is a great way for small rodent owners to entertain and treat their pets at the same time.
When choosing hay, remember that the greener it is, the better it is. Green hay is softer and more pliable, and it also contains more nutrients than yellow or brown hay. Brown or black hay can also indicate water damage or mold. Avoid any hay that is crumbly, dusty or smells musty.
A sign in the hay aisle can tell shoppers that hay can be used for more than just food. A sign could say: “Hey, hey, hey, pets just love to play in hay!”
When customers purchase products for small rodents, employees can ask them about their pets and what toys and entertainment the owners provide for them. They can ask, “Have you ever bought a bag of hay for your rats? They just love to burrow and play in it.”
Consider handing out a coupon for a bag of hay to customers purchasing food for small rodents to encourage them to give it a try.
Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of the book Rats!, the booklet Rat Health Care and, her most recent book, The Complete Guide to Rat Training: Tricks and Games for Rat Fun and Fitness.