In days gone by, most hay was herbal hay. Hay meadows containing herbs and wild plants were the norm rather than the exception. Now most hay is pure grass. Vitally important for good dental health and digestion in rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas because of the silica and fibre content, but lacking in some of the beneficial ingredients that herbs naturally provide.
Herbal hay for rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas & degus
Hay is perhaps the most important part of a herbivore’s diet. Rabbits, guinea pigs (cavies) and chinchillas are obligate herbivores and rely on fibre-rich forage not only for optimum digestion and to avoid digestive upsets but also to keep their teeth from overgrowing.
Dental problems, obesity and digestive disorders are the main reason why rabbits require veterinary treatment. The Small Animal Veterinary Association recommends a high fibre diet, rich in natural forage, to keep your rabbit, guinea pig (cavy) or chinchilla in the best of health.
UK hay quality
The hay available in the UK varies a great deal in quality. Cheaper hay tends to be threshed rye grass hay, a by-product of grass grown to harvest the seeds. Meadow hay is a herbal hay and has more feed value but, again, the quality can vary according to the soil it is grown in and the plants it includes.
It is important that the moisture content of hay is controlled to avoid mould and fungal spores. It should also be ‘cured’ after cutting by storing for a while in the right conditions before feeding. Chinchillas are particularly susceptible to dietary disorders when fed uncured hay too soon after it has been harvested.
Types of hay
Racehorse and competition yards feed their horses only the very best hay, and for good reason, their horses need to be fit. Racehorse hay is higher in protein and vitamins and tends to be greener in colour. The softest racehorse hay is favoured by rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas but even that has sufficient indigestible fibre in the stems to be an excellent feed.
Timothy hay is the best known of all the top quality hays and very popular amongst cavy, rabbit and chinchilla keepers. The importance of Timothy hay has been well established for many years in the US by companies such as Oxbow Hay and American Pet Diner. Oxbow Hay have done a lot of research on rabbit and cavy diet and their products have gained popularity in the UK in recent years. Many pet owners have discovered that, despite the cost, good quality hay keeps their pets happier and healthier.
Herbs and wild plants traditionally formed an integral part of the hay crop. Hay production currently has swung away from this tradition and towards ‘monoculture’. Sometimes this is good, such as when Timothy hay is grown for its specific feed value, sometimes the hay is just a by-product of seed production, as with threshed rye grass.
Herbal hay, or botanical hay as it is sometimes referred to in the US, has the added benefit of providing a range of trace elements and other phyto- or plant based nutrients not present in monoculture hay. Rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas would naturally forage for the herbs or wild plants they needed.