Many exotic animals enjoy hay to play, nest and forage in – but there are a few for which it is an essential element to their wellbeing. In our practice our hay-eaters tend to be pocket pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas.
Why do they need hay?
For rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas hay is essential to the maintenance of good health for three main reasons.
Firstly, hay is important for digestive health.
These species are herbivores, and the physiology of their digestive system is such that it requires large amounts of fiber to function normally. Insufficient fiber puts these patients at risk for health conditions such as the dreaded gastro-intestinal stasis – a serious issue where there is little to no stomach or intestinal contraction which can be life threatening! A proper diet with sufficient hay is the best preventative medicine.
Secondly, hay is essential to the maintenance of dental health.
Unlike most other mammals many pocket pets have teeth which never stop growing. These constantly growing teeth need friction to wear them down to an appropriate level, without this they may overgrow resulting in malocclusion. Hay provides the necessary friction to keep their teeth worn down to an appropriate length.
Thirdly, hay provides an opportunity for mental stimulation.
These species are herbivores, and in their natural state they would be grazing for the majority of their day. As house pets, they are lucky enough not to have to work too hard for their meals, but this good fortune can easily turn to boredom. Providing an opportunity for our pets to engage in foraging behaviour is excellent enrichment. Get creative! Hay can be tucked into boxes and paper towel rolls for an extra challenge (and fun)! Even if your pet doesn’t rely on hay as a dietary component they can still enjoy it – rats, hamsters, ferrets, gerbils, hedgehogs and birds may enjoy hay as environmental enrichment.
How much hay should I feed?
As much as they want, and then some! A rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla’s food pyramid would be based on hay. Hay should always be available as it is essential to digestive health. As a general rule your pet should eat a pile of hay the size of themselves each day. Take care to check that hay is not soiled, and remove any wet or soiled hay daily.
What kind of hay should I feed?
There are many types of hay available now, which can be quite confusing. There are two broad categories of hay – legume hay and grass hay. Legume hays, such as alfalfa, have higher amounts of protein, energy and calcium. These hays are therefore reserved for growing animals, nursing females and occasionally sick pets.
Grass hays, such as timothy, have lower protein and are recommended for adult animals. There are many grass type hays available on the market – some even contain herbs and flowers! These botanical hays can be fed as the primary dietary staple or given as a treat.
Questions about what’s best for your best friend? Your veterinarian can provide dietary suggestions tailored to your particular pet at their next consultation. Please give us a call at (905) 853-4706 to set up time for us to chat more about hay!