The Hay Way

Retailers who educate rabbit and guinea pig owners about the benefits of hay can boost sales in the small animal department.


Rabbits and guinea pigs are two of the most popular small pets, and because their diets should be composed mostly of hay, hay products should be one of the best sellers in the small animal department.

The main benefit hay offers to the health of herbivorous pets comes from its high fiber content. This fiber is necessary for the proper functioning of the digestive tract of herbivores. Not only does the fiber help food move through the intestines, it is also necessary to keep small animals’ molars from overgrowing. Because the natural diet of herbivores is so high in fiber, their teeth are designed to grow throughout the animal’s life. If the teeth didn’t grow constantly, they would soon be worn away to stubs. Because their molars are continually growing, pets who don’t receive enough hay in their diet are at risk for overgrown molars, which interfere with eating and cause injury to the inside of the mouth.

There are two basic types of hay: alfalfa and grass hay. Grass hay is made of grass planted specifically for hay, cut and allowed to dry. Timothy hay is the most common type of grass hay sold commercially. Alfalfa hay is not grass, but is the dried alfalfa plant, which is a legume, related to beans and peas. Grass hay is the best type of hay to give rabbits and guinea pigs, and should be available to them at all times. Alfalfa hay is higher in protein and calcium than grass hay, and rabbits and guinea pigs have problems metabolizing too much protein and calcium. Therefore, alfalfa hay should not be given too freely, but instead offered in limited quantities as a treat.

Greener Pastures
When choosing hay, the greener the better. Green hay contains more nutrients than hay that is yellow, and it is softer and more pliable. Yellow or brown hay is stiff, dry and brittle because it was either harvested too late or is old and sun damaged. Brown or black hay can also indicate water damage or mold. Avoid any hay that is crumbly, dusty or smells musty.

Grass hay can also be a source of entertainment for herbivores. The wild rabbits and guinea pigs that were the ancestors of our 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, moving it around, sitting on it, hiding in it and sleeping in it.

Hay is not very digestible for rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils, but these animals are natural burrowers and hay can give them the opportunity to engage in this behavior. They delight in being able to burrow and dig in hay. They can also use the hay to make a nest.
Besides giving pets a new activity, hay can also provide a fresh sensory experience. It introduces smells for them to investigate, as well as a new taste to test, even though they probably won’t actually eat much of it. It even gives them a new texture and new sounds to encounter and explore. Even ferrets may enjoy playing in hay.

Make it Known
Not all guinea pig or rabbit owners know that their pets should have free-choice grass hay. Retailers should make sure their customers who own herbivores know that hay is not just a treat. They should think of hay as their pets’ basic food and pellets as a supplement. Store employees should ask every customer buying guinea pig or rabbit pellets if they still have adequate supplies of hay at home, and if not, recommend adding hay to their purchase. This will give staff members the opportunity to educate the customer on the importance of hay in the diet of herbivores.

While many owners of rabbits and other herbivores like to offer grass hay to their pets in an elevated rack to prevent it from being soiled, the animals prefer it to be scattered in their cages. When customers buy hay, employees can explain why the pets like it on the floor. If a customer complains that hay on the floor of the cage is soiled, trampled and wasted, reply: “Yes, that’s true, but your animals will be happier.”

Use signage to point out hay can be used for more than just food, and 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.

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