Rabbits, as almost everyone knows, are herbivores and beyond this are natural foragers in nature. Anyone who has rabbits in their area will often see them hanging out in the garden, on the lawn, or at a treeline munching away on all sorts of greenery, including long grass.
It is pretty funny to watch those long strands disappear into their mouth like it is on a conveyor belt.
But this dietary need goes beyond what is available for wild rabbits; domestic pet rabbits need hay just as much as their wild cousins. Why do rabbits need hay so much?
Rabbits need hay primarily for good digestive and dental health, but also for its nutrients. Eating hay helps keep a rabbit’s intestines working properly, and can also help keep their teeth healthy and trimmed.
Rabbits always need hay. In fact, it is possible for a rabbit to live almost entirely on hay alone.
Many first-time rabbit owners make the mistake of assuming that rabbit pellets and other foods are an adequate replacement for hay, but they are wrong. You can learn more about the importance of hay for rabbits below.
Hay is Nutritious for Rabbits
Hay is a primary food for rabbits, and for good reason. It is packed full of nutrients that rabbits need to stay healthy.
In fact, hay should make up the majority of a rabbit’s diet – around 80% according to many experts. The other 20% of their diet can be made up of fresh vegetables, other greenery, and a small amount of pellets.
A lot of people don’t realize just how nutritious hay actually is for rabbits. It is packed full of fiber, which is essential for good digestive health and also contains a good amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium.
All of these nutrients are essential for keeping your rabbit healthy and happy.
In the wild, rabbits would consume a lot of hay every day as they foraged for food. Domestic rabbits still need just as much hay, if not more.
This is because they are often confined to small spaces where they don’t have access to the same variety of fresh greens and other foods that wild rabbits do.
Hay Helps Keep a Rabbit’s Digestive System Healthy
One of the main reasons why rabbits need hay is for their digestive health. The high fiber content in hay helps keep a rabbit’s intestines working properly by stimulating peristaltic motion, which is the movement of food through the digestive system.
Just like humans need plenty of fiber in their own diet, rabbits need lots of hay for good gut function.
Hay is also a staple for rabbits because it won’t disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria and other gut flora in their digestive tract.
Lots of food that people give rabbits, especially fruits, sweets, and even pellets, contain too much sugar and can actually upset their gut flora.
This can lead to all sorts of health problems, including diarrhea, gas, bloating, and even obesity.
Hay Helps Keep a Rabbit’s Teeth Clean and Trim
Another important reason why rabbits need hay is for dental health. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout their life, so they need to chew on something hard (like hay) on a regular basis to keep them at a manageable length.
If you don’t give your rabbit enough hay, their teeth can actually start to grow into their jaw or outward at odd angles, which is incredibly painful and can make it difficult for them to eat.
Hay also helps keep a rabbit’s teeth clean and healthy. The abrasive nature of hay helps to scrub away any plaque or tartar that might have built up on their teeth.
This is important because rabbits are prone to developing dental problems like gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and malocclusion (misaligned teeth).
The constant chewing action that rabbits do when they eat hay helps keep their teeth clean, healthy and trimmed down to the right size.
What Happens if Rabbits Don’t Get Enough Hay?
Nothing good, as you have probably deduced by now. If rabbits don’t get enough hay, they are at risk for all sorts of health problems.
The most common problem that results from a lack of hay is gastrointestinal stasis, which is a slowing or complete cessation of the digestive system.
This can be incredibly dangerous and even life-threatening for rabbits if not treated immediately.
Gastrointestinal stasis usually occurs when a rabbit’s diet is lacking in fiber. Without enough hay (or other high-fiber foods) to keep things moving along, the digestive system can grind to a halt.
This can cause all sorts of problems, including pain, bloating, gas, and an inability to properly absorb nutrients from other food.
In severe cases, gastrointestinal stasis can lead to life-threatening conditions like enteritis (inflammation of the intestines) and gastric ulcers.
If you think your rabbit may be suffering from gastrointestinal stasis, it is important to take them to the vet right away.
What Kind of Hay Should Rabbits Eat?
There are two main types of hay that rabbits can eat: grass hay and legume hay.
Grass hay, like timothy hay, is the best day-to-day choice for rabbits. It is high in fiber and low in protein and calories, which makes it perfect for keeping a rabbit’s digestive system healthy.
Grass hay also has lower sugar content than legume hay, which is important for rabbits that are prone to digestive problems.
Legume hay, like alfalfa hay, is higher in protein and calories than grass hay. It is a good choice for young rabbits, pregnant or nursing mothers, and rabbits that need to gain weight.
However, because of the higher sugar content, legume hay should only be given to rabbits in small amounts.
Legume hay also has high amounts of calcium, which can lead to health problems in rabbits if they eat too much of it. Used for specific purposes, legume hay is still a good choice, but not a daily staple.
Both types of hay are safe for rabbits, but grass hay is the best choice for most rabbits. There are also hay blends that contain a mix of both grass and legume hays or other greenery.
These can be a good option for rabbits that like to have a variety of hay to eat, but they should still mostly consist of grass hay.
How Much Hay Should Rabbits Eat?
As a general rule, rabbits should have access to hay at all times. This means that you should always have fresh hay available for your rabbit and that they should be eating more hay than they do pellets or other foods.
Some people like to measure the amount of hay their rabbit eats each day, but this is really only necessary if your rabbit is not eating enough or is overweight.
As long as there is always hay available and your rabbit seems to be eating a good amount of it, they are probably getting enough.
What Should I Do If My Rabbit Doesn’t Eat Hay?
If you are worried that your rabbit is not eating enough hay, there are a few things you can do to encourage them to eat more. Try offering a variety of hays, like timothy hay and oat.
No matter which type of hay you choose, it is important to make sure that it is fresh, dry, and free of mold or other contaminants. Hay that is old or wet can harbor harmful bacteria that can make rabbits sick.
Also, keep in mind, rabbits may give up eating hay in preference for a tastier fare. Pellets and treats are notorious for encouraging this behavior.
So, if you notice your rabbit starting to turn their nose up at hay, cut back on the pellets and treats.
You don’t have to starve your rabbit to get them to resume eating hay, but you should cut back on their favorites if their diet isn’t balanced!
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.
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