Forage for rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas

Good Timothy and Meadow hay should form the bulk of any rabbit, guinea pigs or chinchilla diet. Even free range house bunnies with day time garden access will need hay to eat late evening and early morning.

If hay has been properly dried it is best stored in sealed plastic so that moisture cannot get in. If it has been inadequately dried then moisture in a plastic bag will cause it to sweat in the heat which will result in mould. If you have a cool dry shed free from mice then storing UK produced baled hay off the ground, on a pallet for example, is favourite. If you are pushed on space then the double compressed US hay bales now on the market mail order are ideal.

Background and American hay

American Timothy hay is considered to be one of the best hays. It was only when the American company Oxbow Hay started pushing into the UK market that other companies got wise to the benefits and starting selling increasingly better quality hay. The Oxbow range of hay includes Oxbow Western Timothy Hay, Oxbow Brome Hay, Oxbow Orchard Grass Hay, Oxbow Botanical hay and Oxbow Oat Hay.

Hay and dried grass

Hay is the most important part of a rabbit, guinea pig or chinchillas diet unless they are being fed ad lib grass all day. The indigestible, lignified, fibre helps ensure that food moves through the digestive tract at the right rate. The action of chewing on the hay helps keep their constantly growing teeth in shape.

The word Hay is slightly misleading. The quality, availability and price of hay can vary enormously. Unlike pellets or mix you won’t find an analysis label on anything other than the top grade imported American hay which is at a premium price. As with the grass itself, the nutritional value of hay in terms of protein and energy decreases as the amount of non digestible (lignified) fibre in the stalks increases.

Grass growing in the field in July may be 15% protein but by August less than half that. Hay always has a lower nutritive value than the pasture from which it is made. Young pasture is also richer in minerals and trace elements. Minerals and trace elements play a vital role in the body.

Green or Gold?

The greener the hay, the more chlorophyll it contains and the more minerals. Good hay also contains the vitamins A, D and E although these deteriorate during storage. The browner hays have more vitamin D from being in the sun but less nutritional value. You can tell good hay from the smell and feel. It is clean and dust free with a sweet fresh smell to it.

Fresh grass is on average 20-30% dry matter and 70-80% moisture. Hay is on average 90% dry matter and 10% moisture. Pure dried grass (dried in specially designed drying rooms) can be as low as 3% moisture although it is far closer to grass in the preservation of the dry matter nutrients such as protein, chlorophyll, trace elements and vitamin C.

Leafier hays are higher in protein and sugars than stalky hay and an excellent food. Stalkier hays are good for obese animals or as a complement to mix or pellets if that is what you choose to feed. With guinea pigs kept in a community pen there is a risk of eye injuries when burrowing into stalky hay. My personal preference is soft hay for guinea pigs and stalkier hay for rabbits and chinchillas but they all enjoy eating both types.

Soft or stalky?

Burrowing is important for guinea pigs. In the wild they would great tunnels through the long grass which allowed them to forage for new, shorter grass growing underneath. The test of a good guinea pig hay is to put in a large bag, like the one we use for the Cavy Caves TM and create a tunnel in the hay using your fist. If the tunnel holds up when you remove your arm from the sack, you know it is good burrowing hay for guinea pigs.

Alfalfa and clover hay

Alfalfa and clover hay are high in calcium and protein making them suitable only for young, growing, pregnant and elderly rabbits and guinea pigs. Chinchillas can take higher amounts of these in their diet but they should be a supplement to grass hay rather than a substitute. Both alfalfa and clover hay should be looked upon as a dietary supplement where higher levels of protein and calcium are called for rather than as a regular forage source.

Herbs and wild plants as forage

Provided their properties are taken into account, most of the herbs and wild plants we feed to rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas can be dried in the summer (if you have a surplus) and fed in the winter months when fresh plant material is not available. It is important to separate the plant into material which is roughly the same thickness so that it will dry evenly. Failure to do that will ‘overcook’ the tender leaves if the stalk is properly dried or risk moisture from improperly dried stalks contaminating the leaves with mould in storage.

The easiest way to dry your own is to hang the whole plant on the washing line tied with a piece of string. When the leaves are dry, break them off into a paper sack and allow to dry completely indoors way from draught and damp before storing. The stalks can then be left until they are also completely dry.