Hay for Play

While hay should be the main diet for herbivorous small pets, it can also provide enrichment for them and for other burrowing rodents.




For herbivorous animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and prairie dogs, grass hay should form the bulk of the diet. Its high fiber content is needed to keep the digestive tracts of these animals working properly. Without this insoluble fiber, commonly called “roughage,” the large intestines can become sluggish, resulting in a number of health problems. Their teeth, which grow continuously, can also overgrow if there isn’t enough fiber in their diets to keep them worn down. Herbivorous pets must be allowed to eat grass hay free-choice to help keep them healthy.


Grass hay is not the same thing as alfalfa hay. Grass hay is, as its name implies, made from grass that has been cut and allowed to dry. Timothy hay is the most common type of grass hay sold commercially, but other types are available, such as oat, meadow and orchard grass hay. Alfalfa hay is made from the alfalfa plant, which is not grass but a legume, in the same family as beans and peas. Alfalfa hay contains less fiber and more protein, energy and calcium than grass hay. It contains too much protein and calcium to be given to adult rabbits and guinea pigs free-choice, and is better as just a treat for them. Growing herbivores need more protein and therefore can have more alfalfa hay in their diets.


Both grass and alfalfa hay have two parts: the leaves and the stems. The leaves are more nutritious and the stems are more fibrous, and most herbivores prefer to eat the leaves first. But this doesn’t mean that the stems are inedible. Because they are higher in fiber, they are the most beneficial in stimulating the proper functioning of the digestive tract.


Home Sweet Home

The wild ancestors of small herbivorous pets lived in grasslands, so grass is their natural environment. Hay is the closest thing to live grass most pet herbivores get to see, so grass hay can also be a source of comfort and entertainment for them. The animals enjoy running through it, moving it around, carrying it into their nests, sitting on it, hiding in it and sleeping in it. A big pile of hay is a fun gift small animal owners can give their pets.


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, but the animals prefer it to be scattered in their cages. When customers buy hay, employees can ask how they serve it to the animals and explain why the pets like it on the floor. If a customer complains that hay on the floor of the cage gets soiled and trampled, so they must spend more money to replace it, staff members can say, “Yes, that’s true, but your pets will be happier if they can play in their hay.”


Although hay is not very digestible for rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils, it can provide enrichment and playful inspiration for them too. These small rodents are all 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, and they can use it to make nests. Besides giving small pets a new activity, hay can also provide new sensory experiences, offering new textures, sounds, smells and tastes for them to investigate while playing. This is especially true of the packages of hay that include a variety of different herbs, since the herbs are likely to be edible for rodents, even if the hay itself is not.


Play It Up

Some hay products are packaged in ways that help market its appeal as enrichment for small pets. Look for hay stuffed into various size boxes and perhaps stock a few of these next to the toys for small rodents. A sign saying “Ask us about hay for play!” can help teach customers about this opportunity for their pets.


When shoppers 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 if the customer has ever bought a bag of hay for their rats, and point out that 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. Once they see how much their pets enjoy playing in the hay, it will be a regular item on their shopping lists. PB


Debbie Ducommun has a B.A. in animal behavior and has worked in the animal field since 1982. She is the author of three books about rat care, health, and training, and was a consultant on the movie Ratatouille.


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