Hay

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Importance

Hay is the most important part of a rabbit's diet. It is the prime source of fiber to keep the GI tract of a rabbit working properly and also helps grind down teeth to prevent overgrowth. See Teeth for more information as to what sort of problems a lack of fiber in their diet can cause. Hay can also serve as entertainment as it takes a while to chew. Some bunnies like digging and rearranging their hay. Rabbits will not gain weight on an unlimited proper hay diet.

Do note that a rabbit eating only hay is not sufficient for a healthy nutritious long-term diet. Not only can too much indigestible fiber lead to an impacted cecum, but rabbits also receive very little nutrition from hay because it passes so rapidly through the gut.[1] Vitamin content is either in very low amounts or nonexistent in hay.[2] In addition to hay, rabbits require more easily-digested foods from which to obtain the nutrition necessary to maintain their bodies. If a rabbit were fed only hay, it would very slowly become malnourished and eventually die over a period of several months. However, it is completely safe if you need to put your rabbit on a hay-only diet for a couple of weeks or even months due to problems like an overproduction of cecotrophs.[3]

The following links contain more information about the importance of hay in a rabbit's diet.

Types

There are many types of hay available on the market, however, rabbits should only be consuming either alfalfa (a legume hay) when young or grass hays when older. Additionally, if you decide to buy by the bale, make sure the hay is horse quality, not cow quality, because horses have comparable sensitivity to rabbits while cows are more tolerant.

Here are some links for more general information and pictures on various types of hay in addition to the rest of the information already provided in this article.

Some hays will also come with a choice of first, second, or third cuttings. The links below provide more information on what this means.

Alfalfa

Alfalfa hay closeup.

Alfalfa is a legume hay, not a grass hay. It is also known as lucerne. It is high-fiber like grass hay but also contains more protein, energy and calcium.[4] As a result, alfalfa should only be fed to growing young bunnies under the age of 7 months. For the older bunny, constant alfalfa hay consumption can lead to gummy droppings, weight gain, sludge, and cecal pellets not being eaten.[5] Additionally, the calcium in alfalfa hay can predispose rabbits to urolithiasis when fed in large amounts.[6]

Alfalfa is typically distinguished by their usually brittle stalks with flat green to brown leaves. Hay can vary from dark lime-green to yellow, green, or brown depending on the season. [5]

The following is crude analysis for various types of alfalfa hay from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7]

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Alfalfa Cubes 91 18 29 1.30
Alfalfa Fresh 24 19 27 1.35
Alfalfa Hay Early Bloom 90 19 28 1.41
Alfalfa Hay Midbloom 89 17 30 1.40
Alfalfa Hay Full Bloom 88 16 34 1.20
Alfalfa Hay Mature 88 13 38 1.18

Timothy

Timothy hay closeup.

Timothy hay is the most popular hay fed to rabbits. It looks like a dried fairly wide blade of grass, and its color is a soft green to grey or brown-green. Timothy hay also has "solid cattails" which distinguishes it from Orchard grass which has "broken cattails."[5]

Many people who are allergic to hay have the worst symptoms with timothy hay. Consider switching to a less dusty hay if you are allergic to hay. Many rabbit owners have seen great improvement when switching to orchard grass hay.

The following is crude analysis for various types of timothy hay from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7]

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Timothy Fresh Pre-bloom 26 11 31 0.40
Timothy Hay Early Bloom 88 11 32 0.58
Timothy Hay Full Bloom 88 8 34 0.43

Oat Hay

Oat Hay closeup.
The San Diego House Rabbit Society states,[5]
If bun's diet is high in oat hay, the pellets she produces will be larger, lighter in color, and will look like sawdust if crushed. Many bunnies would benefit from eating more oat hay, an excellent preventative for GI Stasis.

The following is crude analysis for oat hay from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7]

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Oat Hay 90 10 31 0.40

As one can see, oat hay is a perfectly acceptable alternative to the more popular timothy, orchard grass, and meadow hay and is also considered a grass hay. The "oat" in the name may be misleading, and some may think it is more fattening and should be a treat, but the hay is cut before the actual oat kernel is fully mature. As a result, the seed heads consist of mostly oat husks that are rich in fiber.[8]

Oat hay can also differ greatly in color from a pale green to a golden yellow, depending on how close to maturity the hay is harvested. The closer to maturity, the more golden the hay will be. A good-quality cereal hay is harvested when the grain is immature (soft dough stage) and the leaves and stems are still green, and therefore higher in digestible nutrients. If the cereal hay is harvested after the grain is removed, it is no longer considered hay but straw.[9]

Bermuda Grass

Bermuda grass hay closeup.

This hay is made from the same grass common in many lawns.

The following is crude analysis for various types of bermuda grass hay from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7]

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Bermudagrass Coastal Hay 89 10 30 0.47
Bermudagrass Hay 89 10 29 0.46

Orchard Grass

The following is crude analysis for various types of orchard grass hay from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7]

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Orchardgrass Fresh Early Bloom 24 14 30 0.33
Orchardgrass Hay 88 10 34 0.32

Other Hay

The following is crude analysis for various types of hay not in the above categories from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7] These are all also safe to feed your rabbit if you wish, but please be careful of the higher calcium and protein contents in the legume hays. Like alfalfa, legume hays are not appropriate to feed to adults regularly as part of their diet but is okay as a treat.

Grass Hays

Wheat hay closeup.
Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Bahiagrass Hay 90 6 32 0.47
Barley Hay 90 9 28 0.30
Bromegrass Hay 89 10 35 0.40
Canarygrass Hay 91 9 32 0.38
Elephant (Napier) grass hay, chopped 92 9 24 0.35
Fescue KY 31 Hay Early Bloom 88 18 25 0.48
Fescue KY 31 Hay Mature 88 11 30 0.45
Grass Hay 88 10 33 0.60
Kenaf Hay 92 10 31 N/A
Meadow Hay 90 7 33 0.61
Prairie Hay 91 7 34 0.40
Rye Grass Hay 90 10 33 0.45
Sanfoin Hay 88 14 24 N/A
Sudangrass Hay 88 9 36 0.50
Triticale Hay 90 10 34 0.30
Wheat Hay 90 9 29 0.21
Wheatgrass Crested Hay 92 10 33 0.33

Legume Hays

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Birdsfoot Trefoil Hay 89 16 31 1.73
Clover Ladino Hay 90 21 22 1.35
Clover Red Hay 88 15 30 1.50
Clover Sweet Hay 91 16 30 1.27
Kudzu Hay 90 16 33 3.00
Lespedeza Hay 92 14 30 1.10
Pea Vine Hay 89 11 32 1.25
Soybean Hay 89 16 33 1.28
Vetch Hay 89 18 30 1.25

Miscellaneous Hays

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Kochia Hay 90 14 27 1.00

Straw

Straw is the dried stalks of cereal plants like wheat and a by-product of harvest. If any seeds or grains remain on the stalks, it is by accident. Hay refers to grasses or legume plants cut down fresh and baled for animal feed.[10] Grain hay such as oat, barley, and wheat hay may sometimes have a coloration similar to straw's when harvested closer to maturity, but the hay is cut before the seedheads are fully developed, so the nutrition is still in the stalks and not all in the seedheads. Grain hay should also have most of the seeds and grains on the stems. Hay bales are usually greener than straw bales, and the plant material finer. Straw bales are also usually half to a third of the weight of a hay bale due to the mostly hollow stalks.[11]

Although rabbits eat it, straw is not recommended because it is low in nutrients and will lead to deficiencies if it is a major part of the diet.[12] However, straw can be safely used as a bedding, especially for outdoor hutches during the winter.

The following is crude analysis for various types of straw from the 2012 Feed Composition Tables compiled by R.L. Preston, Ph.D.[7]

Name Dry Matter
(%)
Crude Protein
(%)
Crude Fiber
(%)
Calcium
(%)
Barley Straw 90 4 42 0.32
Bluegrass Straw 93 6 40 0.20
Fescue (Red) Straw 94 4 41 0.00
Oat Straw 91 4 41 0.24
Pea Vine Straw 89 7 49 0.75
Rice Straw 91 4 38 0.23
Rye Straw 89 4 44 0.24
Soybean Straw 88 5 44 1.59
Wheat Straw 91 3 43 0.17

Below are some links that go into greater detail about the differences between hay and straw.

Quality

Below are some links with more information about choosing good quality hay.

Where to buy

Pet store

Pet stores will carry a variety of hay (i.e. Timothy, orchard grass, alfalfa, etc.). Typically, the amount that can be bought will range from about 24 oz up to 5 pounds. Although it is convenient to buy hay at a local pet store, this is often an expensive option. A 64oz bag will usually last a couple of weeks at ~$8. Additionally, most pet store brands offer lower quality hay that is very hard and stalky. The recommended popular hay brand is Oxbow, although this may be quite expensive since they carry a premium price compared to other commercial brands.

Some brands may offer fruit mixed in the hay -- DO NOT BUY THESE. Only buy bags of hay with only hay in them and no other treats. Dried herbs are acceptable, however. You can feed fresh healthy treats on the side, independent of the hay and easily rationed.

Through the local rabbit rescue

If you live in a location with a House Rabbit Society chapter or rescue, check and see if they sell boxes, flakes, or bales of hay at a cheap price! Of course, buying a bale yourself will be cheaper, but if you do not have the space to store it, support your local HRS chapter or rescue! They will most likely sell fresh hay at a better rate than the small bags at pet stores. Your bunny will most likely love and wallow in the fresh hay.

Some examples of House Rabbit Society chapters and rescues that sell hay include the following:

  • San Diego House Rabbit Society, San Diego, CA -- $12 for 7-8lbs of hay.[13]
  • House Rabbit Society Headquarters, Richmond, CA -- $5 for a flake (garbage bag full) of hay.[14]
  • Missouri House Rabbit Society, Kansas City, MO -- $23 for 12.5lbs, $45 for 25lbs, $75 for 40lbs.[15]
  • Lowcountry House Rabbit Society,Charleston, SC -- $17 for 10lbs, $25 for 20lbs.[16]

Online in bulk

Some bunny owners like buying their hay online in bulk. These suppliers also typically ship much fresher hay than the average commercial brand. When bought in a large enough order, costs can be around $1/lb of hay depending on supplier.

The following is a list of reputable online retailers in the US:

Here are some online dealers in the UK:

A California bale of hay in a Honda Fit.

By the bale

Main article: Hay Bale

The cheapest option typically is a bale of hay. One bale, usually ranging from about 70 to 110 lbs depending on type, can feed one rabbit for approximately a year. However, this requires space to properly store the hay as it is easily perishable when wet.

You can obtain a bale of hay at local animal feed stores, select rabbit rescues, or farms. Be sure that if you purchase from a feed store or farm, the hay is horse-quality, not cow-quality. Cows have much more tolerant stomachs while horses are comparable to rabbits.

See Hay Bale for more details on how to split and store hay.

Craigslist ads and word of mouth

Sometimes, you may be able to find private owners that wish to share a purchased bale of hay to make it more manageable. You may be able to get great deals this way. Look for owners of rabbits, chinchillas, or guinea pigs as they have similar hay requirements.

How to store hay

It is very important to keep hay dry and out of direct sunlight. Dampness will cause mold in the hay, and sunlight may leech out nutrients in the hay over time. The best location to store hay is in a cool indoor location out of direct sunlight.

Some good containers to store hay are cardboard boxes and plastic containers with holes drilled into the sides for air flow. Plastic garbage bags can also be used if you leave the top open for moisture to escape. Other ideas include laundry hampers and plastic totes.

If you must store hay outside, invest in a waterproof tarp along with some bricks to keep the hay off the ground to prevent mold. Otherwise, if your hay is properly dry, a watertight deck box or large plastic tote can be appropriate.

If properly stored, hay can keep to over two years. However, the hay will lose vitamins A & E after the first year.[18]

The following links contain more information and options on how to properly store hay.

Dispensing hay

A homemade DIY hay rack made from cardboard and extra NIC panels. See here for more pictures and diagrams on how to make your own.

There are many options available to dispense hay to your rabbits. Some owners directly place a layer of hay in the litter box. Other use hay racks to minimize the amount of waste from pee and poop soiling. Commercially made hay racks can be easily found in pet stores and online. If you have extra wire grids left over from making a NIC cube condo for your rabbit, you can easily fashion a hay rack from those, too.

Be careful that your rabbit will not be able to jump in or get his head stuck in the hay dispenser.

Below are some custom made hay racks you can buy online.

The following links provide some options for non-commercial hay racks, either re-purposed household items or DIY solutions.

Some repurposed items that could be used as hay racks are the following:

Below are image galleries of hay racks that people have made.

Here are some video reviews of hay racks that rabbit owners have tried.

Not Eating Enough Hay

At the bare minimum, rabbits should be encouraged to eat at least 3 oz. of hay a day.[19]

Here are some links to read for more information on getting your rabbit to eat more hay.

Further Reading

See Also

References

  1. Lucille Moore, Rabbit Nutrition and Nutritional Healing, 1e, 2011.
  2. Krishona Martinson, PhD, and Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota, What is the vitamin content of grass hay?
  3. Rabbit Awareness Week, The Research
  4. Atascadero Hay & Feed, Hay
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 San Diego House Rabbit Society, Types of Hays and Grasses
  6. Anna Meredith & Sharon Redrobe, BSAVA Manual of Exotic Pets, 4e, 2001.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 BeefMagazine.com, R.L. Preston, Ph.D., 2012 Feed Comp
  8. Healthy Choice Pet Products, Oat Hay
  9. Mark Llewellyn, Hay Selection for Horses
  10. Root Simple, My mental glitch: hay vs. straw
  11. Amazonails, Hay vs. Straw: A Look at Key Differences
  12. The British Rabbit Council, Anna Meredith, The Importance of Diet in Rabbits
  13. San Diego House Rabbit Society, Hay Sales throughout San Diego County
  14. Yelp, House Rabbit Society
  15. Missouri House Rabbit Society, Products and Services
  16. Lowcountry House Rabbit Society, Rabbit Hay Sale
  17. House Rabbit Society, Shop for Rabbit Supplies
  18. Carey Williams, Ph.D, Ask the Expert -- Farm and Pasture Management > How long can one store hay?
  19. Marinell Harriman, House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live with an Urban Rabbit, 4th edition