Role of Hay in Rabbit Diet

Hay is, very simply, dried plant material. There are two general classes of hay: grass and legume. Grass hay is made by drying any one of a number of grasses and is easily identified by its long thin leaves surrounding a central stalk. Legume or lucern hay is commonly made from alfalfa or clover. It looks more our leafed clover) than grass.

Hay is a good source of fiber, some minerals and some energy (calories). For house rabbits, hay is generally used as a low calorie source of fiber. Rabbits are grazers and browsers; in the wild they eat small meals throughout the day. Feeding hay allows a bunny to graze as she would in the wild without gaining weight as grazing on high calorie foods like pellets. The digestive tract of rabbits evolved to process large amounts of high fiber foods very quickly. Feeding too little high fiber food causes digestive (gastro-intestinal) tract problems. Many of these problems can be avoided or minimized by providing free choice grass hay.

The crucial thing to remember about storing hay is making sure it is kept dry. Wet hay stored in an airtight container can ferment or become moldy. Moldy hay tastes bad and certain molds can produce toxins that can be fatal. Eighteen to twenty-two gallon containers are the perfect size to store about 1/3 of a 40-60 pound bale 1. When storing hay in an airtight container the hay must be absolutely dry. If you are bringing hay into the house on a rainy or very humid day, leave it opened so that the excess moisture can evaporate before you store it. Hay can also be stored outdoors in a shed or garage. In these cases, wooden pallets can be used to keep bales off concrete floors and allow some air circulation. A plastic sheet, loosely covering the bale will keep dust and sunlight away. Exposure to sunlight will destroy some vitamins in the hay, so it is best to store hay out of the list.

Rabbits should have hay available at all times. Most rabbits will selectively graze through a pile of hay, picking out the tastier bits. Offering smaller amounts of hay regularly (2 or 3 times a day) rather than large amounts of hay occasionally (daily or less) encourages a bunny to eat more of the hay that is offered.

Feeding hay is inherently messy, but there are some ways to minimize the amount of hay that escapes. Offering hay in a solid rack that hooks onto the outside of a cage is one good way. Litterboxes are great places to offer hay. The box keeps the hay contained and also reinforces good litterbox habits. Bunnies spend a lot of time in their litterbox, and enjoy munching hay while there. They avoid the soiled hay and will eat the good stuff. Hay should be added or replaced frequently.

Grass hay is the preferred hay for bunnies, mostly because the protein2 and calcium levels are low. The fiber level of grass hay depends on how old the plant was when it was harvested. Younger plants have less fiber than older plants. There are a number of different kinds of grass hays that are readily available for rabbits, including Timothy, Brome, Oat, and Orchard Grass. Any of these hays can be fed to bunnies.

Legume hay is high in protein, calcium and energy (calories). In most instances it should be fed in limited amounts. Rabbits who are not receiving pellets can be fed alfalfa hay mixed with grass hay daily, increasing the protein and energy level of the diet.

Feeding a hay cut from a field of mixed grasses, or feeding a mixture of different hays, can never hurt. Different grasses have different levels of minerals so feeding a mixture of hays may reduce the risk of mineral deficiency. This is less important for rabbits who are receiving pellets as part of their diet, as pellets provide a balanced source of minerals. Also, rabbits seem to enjoy foraging through a variety of hays.

Choosing Good Quality hay for Rabbits

Good hay is:

  • green
  • sweet smelling
  • low in dust
  • appetizing to look at, even to humans

When choosing hay remember that the more mature a plant is when it is cut the more fiber the hay will have. Hays made from young plants are soft and appetizing to rabbits, but are too low in fiber3 to be fed as the only or the primary hay in a rabbit’s diet. Grasses cut at mid-maturity make a hay that is well balanced for our rabbits. Timothy cut at this stage will have seed heads 1-3 inches long. Talk to your supplier about the particular hay you are buying. If you are buying from a local farmer, it is likely they have not had analysis done on the hay. However, they can tell you a lot of information about the hay. If you are buying from a distributor or broker, then ask for a nutritional analysis of the hay.

Rabbits can be extremely picky eaters, and often do not enjoy their human’s attempts to expand their diet. Limiting pellets will encourage nibbling and tasting hay. Also, make hay fun, put it in baskets, in tubes, in boxes or in brown paper bags; as bunny plays in the hay, she will nibble bits of it. Offer small handfuls and change daily. Bunnies know when hay has been out and will often ignore it if it has been around for too long. A handful of hay in the litterbox often encourages nibbling. Many rabbits turn their noses up at the hay sold in small packages in the pet stores. Switching to a better hay, either from a local grower or one of the online companies, usually solves the problem.

Do not give up, bunnies are stubborn and make take months to decide hay is Good Food. If your bunny likes a particular type or cut of hay, it is a good idea to gradually introduce other cuts or types. There have been instances where brokers have run out of a certain cut of hay, and annoyed bunnies have thrown tantrums and gone on hunger strikes to protest this. Having a bunny who likes multiple hays prevents market forces from interfering with her health.

In conclusion

Hay is the most important thing you can feed your rabbit. Feeding a variety of hays promotes balanced nutrition and minimizes hunger strikes from picky bunnies. Bunnies should be offered a high fiber (>25% crude fiber) grass hay free choice. Lower fiber grass hays and legume hays can be used as supplements for variety, particularly for rabbits who are on a no pellet diet.