In today’s article, we are going to explore the world of hay for rabbits. We’ll be looking at why hay is the most important food for your rabbits, in terms of keeping them healthy, before focussing down on how to choose good quality hay.
We’ll explain and review hay types, looking at why some hays are better to feed to juvenile bunnies, while others will suit adults better. Finally, we’ll offer some tips for feeding picky rabbits their hay.
Why Do Rabbits Need Hay?
There are three main reasons why your bunny needs hay.
Let’s look at each in turn.
1. To keep their gut and digestion working properly
A rabbit’s digestion of food relies on a system that moves food through their gut very quickly. It is the long roughage (indigestible fiber) found in hay and grass that is essential (along with water) in keeping the food moving. Nutrients are absorbed from the food as it passes through the gut.
These large fibrous particles are not broken down, and they encourage waves of muscle contractions in the gut called peristalsis. These are what moves the food along the digestive tract. In the colon, most of the water is removed and the fiber passed as hundreds of dry fecal pellets each day.
The hay also contains digestible fiber, which is treated differently. It is held for a period in the caecum (a sac at the end of the small intestine) where it is fermented by bacteria. These microbes also produce vitamins and fatty acids which are added to the fermented fiber and passed as soft droppings (cecotropes).
These cecotropes are eaten by the rabbit as they are passed, which allows for further digestion of nutrients and absorption of the B vitamins and fatty acids, which would otherwise be missing from the rabbit’s diet. It’s a perfect system, but it does rely completely on the long roughage which keeps everything moving.
2. To keep their teeth healthy and worn down
A rabbit’s teeth are open rooted, meaning that they grow constantly throughout the rabbit’s life. They have 4 incisors at the front of their mouths, plus two peg teeth (mini incisors) behind their upper incisors.
At the back of their mouths in their cheeks, bunnies have 11 molars at each side – 6 in the upper jaw and 5 in the lower jaw. All these teeth are worn down by the act of grinding and chewing. It is the indigestible fiber in hay that helps this process and keeps the teeth worn and healthy.
If a rabbit is fed a diet that is low in this fiber, the teeth wear unevenly and sharp edges (spurs) can form which can cause pain and lead to loss of appetite. This can progress to stasis of the bowel as the digestion grinds to a halt.
3. To provide the perfect nutrient mix for health
Rabbits are clearly well adapted over many thousands of years to eat grasses and herbs. It’s no surprise then, that hay contains nutrients at just the right levels for a rabbit to thrive. These include 12% protein, less than 2% fat and 14-20% fibre for maintenance (16%, 2-4% and 14-16% respectively for growth).
Nutrients in hay vary depending on:
- the type of seed,
- the quality of the soil,
- the age of the plant when cut,
- storage of the hay once dried.
Fresh grazing is a suitable substitute but contains 70 to 90% water, so it must be eaten in a much greater amount to provide the same nutrition.
How Much Hay Do Rabbits Need To Eat Each Day?
Hay should make up about 80% of a rabbit’s diet, but that doesn’t really help us with quantity. Of course, quantity is always tricky for rabbits because they vary in size so much. The Save a Fluff Rabbit Rescue suggests a ball of hay of similar size to the rabbit’s body.
A good place to start is to fill a large hay rack with an estimate of an appropriate amount of hay for the size and number of rabbits you have. Then check in 12 hours later and see how much has been eaten, with a follow-up check at 24 hours.
Assuming your rabbits have eaten a good amount of hay in this period, keep replenishing the hay so that there is a little more than the amount eaten. If only a small amount has been eaten, look at the tips for increasing the amount eaten later in this article.
Do I need to throw out any hay that is left after 24 hours?
Not at all! You only need to throw the hay away if it is wet or soiled. Simply top up the hay that is left. It is, however, a good idea to use a hay rack as this keeps the hay off the cage floor, which in turn prevents spoilage.
How often should I change my rabbits’ hay?
You will need to top up at your rabbits’ hay at least daily and change it completely when doing a full cage cleanout. The exception is when the hay has become wet or soiled, in which case change it straight away.
Which Cut Of Hay Is Best For Rabbits?
The cut of the hay refers to when it was cropped in the growing season. So, the first cut is when the hay is cropped having grown from seed. The first cut can vary a great deal in quality.
Where the hay is cut while still a little premature, it can be highly digestible and nutritious – a good mix of stems and leaves. If left to maturity the stems can thicken and become more fibrous. This tends to reduce both palatability and nutritional content.
Either way, the second cut is usually made on premature regrowth with an excellent mix of stems and leaves. If there is a third cut this often becomes too leafy, reducing the amount of fiber it contains. It can be rich in nutrients, but the lower fiber content makes it less suitable.
All these cuts can be fed to rabbits – but the best cut is any that has a really good mix of stem and leaf. However, less palatable hays can be mixed with very leafy hays to produce a good overall feed.
What Type Of Hay Is Best For Rabbits?
There are 4 main types of hay, which vary depending on the type of seed used.
- Timothy hay (best for adult rabbits)
- Meadow hay (best for adult rabbits)
- Oat hay (best for adult rabbits)
- Orchard grass hay (best for picky eaters)
- Alfalfa hay (best for baby/junior rabbits)
Timothy hay for rabbits
Timothy hay (Timothy grass) is a foraging grass that grows well in cool climates. It’s perennial, so grows repeatedly year on year. The best crops of Timothy hay are those that are cut prior to full bloom, as protein levels fall off as the plant matures.
This is great hay for adult maintenance. Look for a good mix of stems and leaves, which can be a first or second cut. Nutritional value varies greatly depending on the cut. Generally, get first cut for lower protein and fat, for example when an adult rabbit needs to lose weight. It will also be high in fiber.
The second cut has moderate protein and fat, good fiber, so is a useful all-rounder. Fresh, well-dried hay should still be green – it contains higher levels of carotene (vitamin A) and vitamin E. The third cut is generally higher protein and lower in fiber and is, therefore, most suitable for rabbits under seven months, or to mix with a low protein first cut hay to balance it out.
12lb box of 2nd cut Timothy hay, which is supplied by Small Pet Select in a breathable box to keep the hay fresh (card keeps sunlight out but allows air to circulate). The hay is good quality, fragrant and soft. Also offer both 1st cut (high fibre) and 3rd cut (high nutrients) in this range.
Meadow grass hay for rabbits
Meadow grass is a longer, softer stemmed grass than Timothy hay. It usually contains more leaf and often contains other meadow herbs such as plantain, dandelion, and clover. It’s more variable in terms of content than Timothy hay and therefore the nutritional content is variable, so you need to check what you are getting with each purchase.
A good meadow grass hay can provide variety for your rabbits and can be used alongside Timothy hay or you may want to alternate between them. This hay is usually readily available and can be cheaper than Timothy hay too. Look for nice green hay.
Oxbow market this organic quality mixed meadow hay, made from several naturally occurring grasses. Some variation between batches, but generally a clean, green hay which is fragrant and soft.
Oat grass hay for rabbits
Green oat hay is often used for rabbits by people looking for a hypoallergenic alternative to grass. As well as helping owners who suffer from hay fever, it can be an excellent choice for rabbits who are prone to weight gain.
However, its high in fiber with coarse stems, and low in fat, and is for most rabbits is probably best used mixed with a good Timothy hay. Don’t buy oat grass hay that isn’t green. Once the oat plant turns yellow/brown it loses a lot of its nutritional content and is best used for bedding.
Oat grass (and other grain hays like wheat or spelt hay) can be helpful if you are trying to wean your rabbit off a muesli type feed that contains grains and corn. These are unsuitable as rabbit food and should be replaced with hay and hay-based pellets.
A 10lb box of oat grass hay from Small Pet Select with all the benefits of thoughtful packaging, that can keep the hay fresh with natural airflow. Generally, a great quality, fresh green hay with a long stem cut and some oat seed heads. Well received by most rabbits.
Orchard grass hay for rabbits
This is a soft green leafy hay often called cocksfoot grass hay in Europe. It tends to have a higher protein content and is extremely palatable, so it can help tempt picky eaters. It can have a lower fiber content than some hays but is great to use alongside other higher fiber options.
Orchard hay can be green-gold in color and still be fresh. It has good amounts of chlorophyll and vitamin A and C. When golden it contains higher levels of vitamin D. It’s a good starting point if you are trying to wean your rabbits off a high pellet-based diet.
Supplied by Grandpa’s Best as a compressed bound bale inside a plastic bag wrapper. Very tightly packed but fresh and green and easy to break off a ‘slice’ of the bale and fluff it out for feeding. Soft textured but has a good fiber content. Fresh and green. The 10lb bale is also very economical.
Alfalfa hay for rabbits
Alfalfa (Lucerne) is not a grass at all but rather a legume. As such it has a higher protein and calcium content than any other hay. For this reason, it is generally only recommended for baby rabbits who are growing, or for adults who are struggling to maintain their weight.
For these rabbits, alfalfa is an excellent quality, nutritious hay which is generally palatable. Alfalfa hay does, however, have excellent fiber content and can be offered to any rabbit in small amounts, mixed in with the main hay feed.
Excellent brand of alfalfa hay from Viking Farmer. Supplied in various sized boxes which protect from light but allow the hay to ‘breathe’. A fresh, green hay which smells divine. Long lasting pack.
FAQs About Feeding Hay for Rabbits
Can My Rabbit Have Fresh Grass Instead Of Hay?
Yes! Grazing grass – or grass mixed with field herbs – is a perfect substitute for hay when the weather is appropriate. Just remember that fresh grass is 70-80% water, so your rabbit needs a much larger quantity in comparison to hay.
Also, make sure that your grassed or lawn area is not subjected to chemicals or other pet urine – and that it doesn’t contain plants that are poisonous to your rabbit. Common lawn weeds are generally okay.
Where’s The Best Place To Buy Rabbit Hay?
You can buy your rabbits’ hay in person from a pet store or feed store – or online. Depending on where you live you may also be able to get it direct from a farm. The more you buy the cheaper it usually is, and horse or farm hay will always be cheaper than that sold for small pets.
However, not all hay is equal. So, make sure you know what you are getting (especially if you are buying a large amount) and that it is fresh, green and of good quality.
Ideally, it should be stored somewhere dry but where there is some airflow. Lying for long periods wrapped in plastic is not great for maintaining freshness. If buying from a shop, make sure they have a rapid turnover of hay products.
Can my rabbits eat horse hay?
Yes, so long as you apply the same principles as when buying any hay, then horse hay is fine for rabbits. Just make sure it’s fresh and not too dusty.
One important point though is never feed rabbits the product for horses called haylage. This is a young green grass product that is cut early and only partially dried, so it has much higher water content and less fiber. This is not suitable for rabbits.
My rabbit won’t eat hay – what can I do?
Here are a few pointers to try to get your picky rabbit to eat hay:
- Present the hay in a hayrack at a nice height for your bunny rather than on the floor.
- Place a pile of hay in the litter box and situate the hay rack over the litter box.
- Try highly palatable hays first, such as Orchard hay and third cut Timothy hay.
- Gradually increase the amount of standard hay, such as second cut Timothy hay and Meadow hay.
- Mix in garden or field herbs for extra interest.
- Present hay inside toilet roll inners and take a more gameful
- Do not offer lots of treats, muesli type feeds or too many pellets.
- Make sure the hay is fresh and green – and smells great.
If your rabbit stops eating hay suddenly, always get them checked out by a rabbit savvy veterinarian. This can be an indication of a major illness.
Your rabbit needs hay! We hope we have given you the information needed to make great hay choices and to work patiently with your rabbit if they are transitioning away from undesirable food (muesli mix or lots of pellets) and onto hay. Try to have fun with hay – your bunny will appreciate both the games and the food.