Having a Hay Day

Retailers who give their customers different hay options can boost sales, as well as help improve the diets of small herbivores.


More and more owners of rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and other small herbivores are learning about the health benefits of feeding grass hay as the main diet to their pets. The general consensus in the pet industry used to be that fortified hay pellets contained everything these animals needed in their diet, but this notion has been debunked, and hay is being recognized for the powerhouse food that it is for small animals.

Among the key difference between hay pellets and other forms of grass hay is the fiber content. Over time, experts discovered that the hay in pellets has been chopped up so fine that the fiber it contains no longer works the way it should in the digestive tract. It’s almost as if it is pre-chewed. Herbivores are adapted to eat large quantities of grass, and the fiber in hay is critical to the normal functioning of their digestive systems.

A diet of only pellets can lead to major health problems. Without an efficient amount of dietary fiber, an animal’s intestines can become sluggish, resulting in bloat and gastric stasis; hairballs that cause blockages and cecal impaction leading to enteritis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection of the intestines. In addition, animals that don’t get enough high-fiber hay run the risk of having overgrown molars and mouth sores, since their molars grow constantly.

Retailers are a key source of information to help educate herbivore owners who still think that pellets are all their pets need. But even among owners who know their pets are supposed to get hay, I occasionally hear from some people that they don’t give their pets hay because it is too messy. Animals may prefer loose hay so they can sleep, burrow and play in it—as well as eat it—but hay has a habit of making its way out of the cage and onto the floor. The result is more clean-up for the owner, and for many owners, this mess is strong deterrent to providing loose hay.

Still, the importance of fiber in herbivores’ diets should outweigh concerns about the mess. Fortunately, there are alternatives that retailers can offer to those reluctant to buy loose hay.

Form and Function
Manufacturers have come up with a variety of hay products that are less messy and more convenient than loose hay. These include miniature hay bales, cubes and cakes. The best products are those that are made from long strands of hay that are just compressed—not cut—to form the smaller shapes. These products retain the same level of fiber as loose hay, while products made with cut hay lose some of the benefits of the fibers. Lately, more and more companies are offering these healthier versions of these products.

Another option that appeals to customers is hay packaged in an edible bowl as a “salad,” with added fruits and vegetables. Hay is also available packaged inside a cardboard box that can be hung inside the cage to help keep scattering to a minimum. Other manufacturers offer herbivore habitats with an attached hay “silo” to help keep hay in a confined area of the cage.

There are two basic types of hay: alfalfa and grass hay. Alfalfa is a legume, a relative of peas and beans, and is much higher in protein than grass hay and lower in fiber. Because of this, grass hay is now recognized as the healthiest hay for adult animals. Alfalfa can still be a substantial part of the diet for growing animals and can also be given as a treat to adults, but retailers should mainly recommend products containing grass hay for adult herbivores. The most common type of grass hay is timothy, but other types of grass hay include oat, brome and orchard grass.

When choosing hay, remember that the greener it is, the better it is, no matter what form the hay takes. Green hay contains more nutrients than hay that is yellow or brown. Yellow or brown hay was either harvested too late, or is old and sun damaged. Brown or black hay, or hay that is crumbly, dusty or smells musty, can indicate water damage or mold, and it should be avoided.

Marketing Tips
Retailers should instruct all staff members to be on the lookout for customers buying food pellets for herbivores and engage them in conversation. After first asking about their pets, employees should then ask if the customer has plenty of hay on hand for their pets. If the customer says something like, “Oh, hay is too messy,” this creates the perfect opportunity to introduce them to other less messy hay products.

Small hay bales, cubes and cakes might be best displayed near bags of pellets, instead of with the bags of loose hay, to make sure customers see them. To make sure these items grab the customers’ attention, they could even be displayed in an end cap with a sign that says, “Tidy Hay Means Less Mess.”

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.

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