Animals in the captive environment do not have access to the plants they would naturally help themselves to in the wild. With the tendency to produce seeds rather than meadow hay and the increasing level of pollution, both chemical and animal, which affects many of our native wild plants, this ‘hedgerow medicine chest’ is less readily available.
Many of our native wild plants are not only excellent food for rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas but can be fed as supplements to the regular diet to correct illness or imbalance. Using herbs for herbivores, fresh or dried, allows them to eat only what they choose to as they would in the wild.
Most of the herbs and wild plants commonly fed to rabbits and guinea pigs are astringent (drying), although dandelion is a well known diuretic and laxative if fed in anything but small amounts. Some wild plants, such as borage, coltsfoot and comfrey should only be fed sparingly or when required as a first aid measure as they contain alkaloids which are damaging in excess.
Clover and alfalfa are legumous plants rich in protein and calcium so should be fed with that in mind. Alsike Clover is considered dangerous to grazing horses as it can cause photo-sensitivity and ‘big liver’ disease. Sweet Clover or Melilot can be toxic to ruminants like cattle when it is damaged or spoiled.
The best way of providing herbs and wild plants as an addition to your rabbit or guinea pig’s diet is to grow them yourself in your garden, tubs or window boxes. After all most of them grow, well “like weeds”!
Great care must be taken in drying herbs properly if they are not fed fresh. Inadequate drying can cause toxic chemicals or mould to form which can be dangerous. Stalky parts of a plant take longer to dry than the leaves.
By understanding why animals in the wild would naturally select certain herbs or wild plants when they need them it makes it easier for the pet owner of a captive animal to give them the herbs or wild plants that they need to stay healthy.