Before animals were domesticated, they lived in the wild with an abundance of plants around them at all times. For small animals, particularly herbivores such as rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas and degus, having the plant life nearby offered them a consistent source of food.
“As these animals have made the transition ‘from the wild to child,’ it’s important for us to remember that these animals evolved to consume large, consistent amounts of fibrous plant material,” explains Kellie Hayden, marketing coordinator of collateral and campaigns at Oxbow Animal Health.
That’s where hay, which is often made from grass, comes in to mimic a small herbivore’s natural food source. Hay is not just a tasty treat for these animals—it’s an integral part of a small herbivore’s diet and essential to maintaining their digestive and dental health.
Small herbivores require a high amount of dietary fiber, which is needed to keep these animal’s gastrointestinal tracts constantly moving. If these animals don’t receive their daily intake of fiber, it could lead to serious health issues, such as a painful and sometimes fatal condition called GI stasis (when the digestive system slows down or stops completely).
“This fiber is absolutely essential to keep their digestive system working properly, and is best provided by feeding plenty of high-quality hay,” says Claire Hamblion, marketing manager for Supreme Petfoods.
Hamblion shares that fiber also encourages grazing and foraging, which helps promote a positive well being in these animals. Hay is also low in calories, allowing these pets to chew on hay without the fear of significant weight gain.
When it comes to dental health, since a small herbivore’s teeth grow at a rapid pace, the roughage of the hay helps wear teeth down. When teeth become overgrown, it can lead to a condition called malocclusion, or the overgrowth and misalignment of teeth. According to Hayden, this can be dangerous and painful to pets, not to mention that it will be costly for pet owners.
“The natural chewing action of eating hay helps wear down their teeth and prevent those teeth from becoming overgrown,” says Gina Nicklas, marketing specialist—small animal for Kaytee.
Alongside an unlimited amount of water, the right hay will provide the nutrition small herbivores need to live a healthy and happy life. Evidence suggests that small herbivores not only require hay daily—they require a lot of it.
“Hay should be fed ad lib and make up 80 percent of a small herbivore’s diet, with a volume at least equal to their body size fed on a daily basis,” says Nicklas.
While hay is critically important to a small herbivore’s palette, it’s also beneficial for small omnivores. These small animals, such as rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils, should be fed a higher protein, lower fiber diet, and while they don’t require hay, it can be beneficial if included in a blend specific to that species of pet.
“While not nutritionally essential for omnivores like it is for herbivores, hay can also be beneficial for hamsters, gerbils and rats because it can provide enrichment as a nesting material,” adds Hayden.
In addition to crafting products with hay for a small animal’s diet, manufacturers have created innovative products that incorporate hay. Serving as a treat, a chew or a toy, hay-based products offer multiple benefits.
“Hay is a material that’s safe to chew and consume, so pet parents can feel comfortable presenting these hay-based enrichment options to their rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla,” says Hayden.
The Healthiest Hay
As pet parents learn more about what’s important for their small animals, many want to learn more about what’s considered to be high-quality hay, where the hay is sourced from and how transparent the specific brand is about their standards and practices. Understanding what healthy hay looks like will enable sales associates and customers alike to make their own educated guesses about the quality of the hay.
The first step is to determine what type of hay is best fit for a specific small animal. Grass hay varieties, including meadow hay, orchard grass and timothy hay, are considered to be some of the healthiest options for most small herbivores. Alfalfa, a legume hay, can be added to pet food as an additional source of fiber, amino acids and vitamins—but should not be served as a primary hay source. Since alfalfa is high in calcium content, it’s recommended that this type of hay be balanced out by another pet food formulation and its best for pregnant, nursing or young animals.
Whatever type of hay a small animal is intaking, it should be at its peak quality. One way to determine the hay’s quality is by looking at its color; typically if it’s a pale green or pale gold color, the hay is at its best. A dull brown hay may indicate that the crop was rained on during the drying process and may contain mold.
“High-quality hay appeals to the senses: it looks green in color, fresh in smell and firm in texture,” explains Nicklas. “It has an ideal moisture content meaning it is not too brittle that it breaks into fines when touched and it is not so moist that it loses its dental benefits or risks mold growth.”
Color is not an 100 percent accurate indicator of quality, according to Hayden. It’s also important to note that some hay is naturally more coarse than others, such as oat hay, so it’s important to learn about what’s normal for the specific type of hay a customer needs. The balance of leaves and stems is also important, as both are beneficial for small herbivores.
“Hay should have plenty of leaf matter,” says Hamblion, “as too many mature seed heads suggest it was harvested past its best.”
To ensure that the product is at its best quality, Kaytee grows its hay in an ecological location for growing with optimal hours of sun and ideal temperatures. The company conducts quality checks to ensure hay is green with a thick and long structure and has little dust or foreign materials on it. Through visual and analytical tests, the company can determine if the hay looks good and has the proper amount of fiber, protein, moisture and fat content.
“Kaytee farmers store the hay in protected environments to control moisture levels, ensure consistent quality, and maintain peak freshness,” says Nicklas.
Sales associates should have a solid understanding of which hay is best for which animal and convey this knowledge when speaking to customers. Since there are a number of different types of hay out there, stores need to offer a range to address different small animal needs.
“It is important to offer a wide range of hay choices.” says Nicklas. “This helps pet parents understand how each type of hay has a unique and important nutritional quality needed in maintaining a happy and healthy pet.”
“A well-informed store associate can provide recommendations to both new and seasoned customers, and these recommendations may ultimately help drive sales and repeat purchases,” adds Hayden, who also highlights that communications through point of sale materials is another way for retailers to educate browsing customers.
When it comes to helping customers decide which hay is best fit for their small animal, it’s important to ask questions about any current feeding behaviors.
“Some small pets may prefer to eat hay from a rack, while others like a hay-stuffed tube,” says Hamblion. “Treats that contain hay can be a great way to encourage pets to become used to the taste and texture of hay and promote increased intake from other sources. It makes financial sense too—promoting better pet nutrition helps to keep pets healthier, and living longer lives.” PB