For a long time, most people considered pellets to be the staple diet of rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, and thought of hay as just a treat—but that idea has been changing. Increasing numbers of small-herbivore owners are learning about the many health benefits of feeding their pets a diet of mainly grass hay, and retailers are key in this continuing evolution.
A pellet-only diet lacks the proper amount of fiber to keep the digestive systems of these animals working properly. The risks include overgrown molars, causing injury to the inside of the mouth; sluggish digestion, resulting in bloat and gastric stasis; hairballs, which cause blockages; and cecal impaction leading to enteritis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection of the intestines. Giving herbivores free access to grass hay helps to prevent these serious health problems.
When people think of hay, alfalfa is often the first thing to come to mind, but grass hay is different from alfalfa in several ways. Alfalfa is a legume, a relative of peas and beans, not a grass, and it is much higher in protein than grass hay. Alfalfa is also higher in calcium, and because taking in too much protein and calcium can cause health problems in rabbits and guinea pigs, 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 it can also be given as a treat to adults.
Maybe one of the biggest obstacles to convincing customers to make grass hay the main diet for their pets is their perception that plain hay is boring. No matter how much rabbits and guinea pigs love eating hay, it is difficult for many people to see how a pile of dried grass can be interesting or tasty for pets. Fortunately, manufacturers have been making many innovative changes in the way they package and sell hay, providing sensational alternatives for retailers and small pet owners.
One way manufacturers have been trying to make hay more appealing to pet owners is by offering more than one type of grass hay. Western timothy hay has long been a staple in the small pet department, but it isn’t the only option. Other types of grass hays include orchard grass, oat and brome. Orchard grass hay is said to have a fruitier aroma than timothy, and it is liked better by some pets. Oat hay tends to be drier, and therefore crunchier than timothy hay, offering herbivores a different texture and flavor. Brome hay has wider leaves than timothy hay, as a well as a slightly different flavor and fragrance that may be preferred by some pets. Some packages of hay can even contain a mix of different grass types, or can even include common broadleaf plants, like the ones that would be mixed in with grass in a natural meadow.
While western timothy hay is likely to stay the leader in grass hay sales, retailers can offer other types to customers who are looking to provide their pets with variety. Pet owners can mix different types of hays together or offer a different type of hay on different days to give their pets a different taste experience.
Another way manufacturers are making hay more attractive is by mixing in additions, such as dried flowers or herbs. While flowers and herbs are novel additions to packaged hays, they are actually natural foods for small herbivores that would be included in their diet every day in the wild. An herb is often defined as a plant with medicinal or savory properties, and most herbs are broad-leaf plants, rather than grasses. Some of the herbs offered in hay mixtures include chamomile, lavender, lemon balm, clover and mint. Edible flowers offered in hay mixtures include marigolds and hibiscus. Not only do flowers and herbs add different flavors and fragrances, they can also provide additional nutrients.
Other foods added to packages of grass hay include dried fruits and vegetables, such as carrots and mango. Although small amounts of tasty carrots or mango no doubt make the hay more attractive to both pets and pet owners, pet owners should be informed that too much sugar is not good for herbivores. If the owners are also giving their pets treats on top of the hay mixture, their pets may be getting too much sugar. Retailers should caution customers buying these products that the treats are already built-in to the hay, and additional sugary treats should be given sparingly.
With the exciting new hay products now available, it should be even easier for retailers to educate customers who own small herbivores about the benefits of a grass hay diet for their pets.
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.