Every rabbit person has probably heard that the most important factor in keeping your bunny healthy is that they need to eat lots of hay. But why is hay so vital for rabbits? And what kind of hay? What is the difference between all of the different varieties of hay available, like Timothy, Alfalfa and Orchard Grass for example? And what is the difference between first cut, second cut, etc.?
Our friends at Small Pet Select have a great collection of free books available on rabbit care, and the following information is adapted from their “Understanding Hay” publication.
Why is hay so important for rabbits?
Hay’s most important function is to provide fiber. You may hear a lot of people talking about fiber, and wonder what the big deal is. Well, look at what happens when a bunny eats hay…
Most animals can’t digest fiber well, and it travels through them without much happening. Rabbits, however, have a unique way of breaking down fibrous plant material and getting to all the nutrition stored inside.
Food goes into the mouth, down the throat, through the stomach, through the intestines, then the colon and out the other end, just like it does for most mammals. But…the enzymes present during that process can’t break down fiber well at all. So much of the fiber is diverted to the cecum. The cecum is where the extra steps in digestion start. In the cecum, there are special bacteria that ferment and break down digestible fiber, getting all the nutrients locked inside. Some of the nutrients can be digested right there in the cecum, but most need another pass down the small intestines for absorption.
The cecum moves the material back into the colon, and out come cecotropes (also spelled caecotrophs). These are larger, softer, and usually a slightly different color than regular bunny poops (they are usually together in a cluster, like a little bunch of grapes), and are a very important part of your rabbit’s nutrition. Your rabbit eats these cecotropes, giving the GI tract another chance to absorb all nutrients that are now all broken down and ready for use. Herbivores get so much more out of their food this way! And since they already spend about 75% of their waking hours eating, it is essential…they simply couldn’t eat enough to get all the nutrients they need if it weren’t for this cool cecum/bacteria thing they’ve got going on.
All of this has to happen at a particular rate, in order to keep things working properly. If there is a lack of fiber slowing down the movement rate through the system, the bacteria in the cecum can get out of balance. Fur your rabbit has swallowed during grooming can begin to form a blockage. Gas can build up and cause pain and bloat. All kinds of bad things happen when fiber isn’t moving through your little friend at the right speed.
Hay has some other work to do. It keeps teeth worn down, which doesn’t mean you don’t need to have those teeth trimmed sometimes! It does mean your animal will have better dental health.
We can’t overlook the benefits of being “busy”. Small animals spend an amazing amount of their time foraging. When we bring them into our homes, we have to remember to let them be who they are – and that means looking for food, picking out the best bits, and “nom nom nom!”
How much hay does my rabbit need?
That is easy. Your rabbits should have unlimited amounts of the freshest hay possible, fed at least once a day, preferably twice. The more hay smell and fresh feel the hay has to it, the better chance your small animal will eat enough. If you are ever in doubt that you are putting enough hay out, then put more hay out. If your small animal ever runs out of hay between helpings, they need more hay at each meal.
Another easy test: 80% or more of your small friend’s diet should be hay.
What Is The Difference Between Varieties of Hay?
The most typical types of hay are:
Orchard Grass: Great fiber, low protein, a nice way to mix up the hay offerings and make texture a little more interesting. Typical analysis: Crude Fiber 34%, Crude Protein 10%, and Calcium 0.33%
Timothy: This is the staple of the rabbit diet. When you think of hay, this is probably what you picture. Timothy is the mainstay hay for the healthy adult rabbit. Typical analysis: Crude Fiber 32-24%, Crude Protein 8-11%, and Calcium 0.4 – 0.6%
Alfalfa: they most widely found legume hay, this is much higher in calcium, and has a higher protein level than grass hays. Alfalfa is lower in fiber than grass hays as well. It is the hay of choice for young animals (less than one year) or elderly animals who are having trouble maintaining weight. Alfalfa is usually too fattening for adult animals in their prime. Typical analysis: Crude Fiber 28- 34%, Crude Protein 13-19% and Calcium 0.46%.
Oat: This hay comes from the same plants as cereal grain. If this hay is harvested prior to the oat tops ripening, it is green and nutritious. If it is harvested after the oat tops have ripened, the stalks turn from green to brown and can still be harvested as straw for bedding. Typical analysis: Crude Fiber 31%, Crude Protein 10%, and Calcium 0.4%
What Do The Hay “Cut” Numbers Mean?
First cut hay is the first hay out of the field for that year. When cut before the hay blooms, this can be a good hay. At this point, the stem will still be relatively thin and flexible, and nutrition values right in line for small animals. This hay usually has a higher fiber content, and a lower protein and fat content. Yes, sure, plants contain fats!
Second cut hay is what most people tend to feed. Typically, there will be more leaves on the stems, the stems will be thinner, the protein and fat levels are a bit higher, and crude fiber is a bit lower.
Third cut hay is the super soft leafy stuff. It looks very pretty, and we are naturally attracted to it. It does, however, have higher levels of proteins and fats, and lower fiber. It is what we call “rich” – nutrient dense. The richness combined with the low fiber can be problematic, and this cut is typically either a “treat” hay, is mixed sparingly with other hay to encourage eating, or is used with elderly or thin animals. If you feed this hay, watch the poops! Make sure your animal’s litter box still looks as it should, that cecotropes are being produced and re-ingested, and that there are no sore tummies.
Now I know about the different types and cuts of hay. What does my bunny need?
We really aren’t trying to hop around this question, but the answer is that there is no single answer. Every rabbit is a unique individual. There are so many factors to consider: age, if weight is in proper range, health issues, the state of the teeth, what else is being fed.
The biggest issue: getting hay into your bunny.
Download Free Rabbit Reference Books
Want more information about rabbits? Small Pet Select has a library of bunny reference publications available for you to download free. Some of the topics are:
- How to deal with overweight rabbits
- Clicker Training
- Rabbit Aggression
- Understanding Rabbit Communication
- And more!
Just go to the Small Pet Select website, scroll down to the bottom, and click on the “Free Ebook Downloads” link.