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Do rabbits need hay or not? This is a hot-button topic in the rabbit world. The short answer is no. They do not need hay to have a well-balanced diet.
There are a lot of people out there that think rabbits should eat more hay than pelleted feed. But I am willing and ready to argue that pushing hay and leafy greens on rabbits is far more detrimental to their health. Why? Because it’s not the hay or greens themselves that cause the issue.
It’s that the nutritional value of both hay and fresh vegetables is not enough for the rabbit to survive on.
Before we dip our baby toe into this pool of controversial water… I NEVER want you to think that you“have to” take my word for it. Because the truth is you don’t
I share my real-life rabbitry experiences when it comes to the care side of the rabbit info. What works and what doesn’t. If you want to do it the way I do, awesome! Welcome aboard groupey! But if you disagree that’s ok too.
There are many benefits to feeding hay, but there are also many risks that can come along with it. Let’s get into the details of why you don’t need to feed hay to your rabbits and what you can do instead.
A Rabbits Nutritional Needs
First, let’s get to know a little bit about rabbit nutrition. What exactly do they need? Good quality alfalfa pellets contain everything a rabbit needs nutritionally on a daily basis. On a feed tag that is either stamped on the side of the bag or sewn into the bag of rabbit pellets, you should see percentages at least in the ranges below.
- Protein 15%-18%
- Fat 2%-4%
- Fiber 20% or more.
Most rabbit rations contain an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals needed on a daily basis.
You will on occasion see rabbit raisers adding water-soluble vitamins and minerals to the rabbit’s fresh water. If you are at a fair or show and you see that the water is colored then likely they have added something to their water.
This is not necessary on a daily basis unless the rabbits have been exposed to stress such as shows, or travel. Adding vitamins and minerals to the water should be done on an as-needed basis.
If you choose a feed that has all the basic requirements, feeding hey is not necessary for the health of your rabbits.
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My Rebuddle To Why People Think Rabbits Need Hay
There are two main reasons people think rabbits must have hay to survive and it’s honestly a hill they are willing to die on.
Reason number one is fiber and gut health meaning it keeps the rabbit’s digestive tract moving. Well, here’s the thing it’s the FIBER that keeps the rabbit’s gut moving not the hay itself.
Their body doesn’t know where the fiber came from so long as they get it.
The second argument is to keep their teeth short and ground down…. Um, have you seen how much rabbits chew on their living quarters? Rabbits are going to find what they need to not have overgrown teeth.
Pellets are far stronger and stiffer of a consistency than hay is and rabbits will chew just as long on hay as they will on pellets.
Why I Don’t Feed Hay
It’s not that I am against hay for the sake of being against it. My main concern with feeding hay is connected to the mold that can grow on hay so easily and you may not even know it.
Something as simple as a humid day can cause moisture to get in the bale and there really is not much you can do about that.
“I love a sassy comment I got on Pinterest about this post where someone said something to the effect of you should store it better if the mold shows up. Clearly, you have no experience with farm life. Barns are not 100% airtight and neither is your home for that matter. Your home can have high humidity on a hot summer day in July”
Mycotoxins produced from mold are deadly poisons that cause major health issues that are often fatal in rabbits.
Many people are shocked when I tell them I don’t feed hay to my rabbits. My decision to do so has mostly come from observations of other breeders and hearing of issues that they have experienced, such as issues with bloat and even loss of most of their animals. The common theme in most if not all cases I heard about was that the breeders were feeding hay.
I can honestly say that I have never lost a rabbit to bloat and hay is not a part of their feeding routine. Like ever.
Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system, if something goes wrong it will most often be fatal. In my opinion feeding, hay is optional. If you are feeding a good pellet your pet rabbit will get the healthy diet they need.
Illness Mycotoxins Can Cause
Gastrointestinal issues: Such as colic, hemorrhages of the large intestine, shock, reduce intestinal flow, refusal to eat, weight loss, increased water consumption, and a VERY common problem in rabbits is bloating.
Central nervous system issues: Twitching, wobbling, seizures, paralysis, tremors, depression, headaches.
Eye: discharge, corneal ulcers.
Lung: pneumonia, lung lesions, respiratory distress, bleeding.
I don’t want to scare you with some of these symptoms but I want you to know what could happen.
These are just a few of the many issues that can be caused by giving bad feed to your rabbits.
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How To Tell Good Quality Hay
Alfalfa- should be a nice dark green color.
Grass Hay- should be light-to-medium green.
Texture- should be soft and easy to bend. Not stiff and brittle.
A bale should be light and easy to lift. I bale that is heavy would indicate that has excessive moisture, which is the perfect start for mold. It could also indicate that there has been mud or rocks mixed in with the bale.
To get a bale this good you would need to look for hay intended for horses or buy it form a pet supply store and to be honest the price is really high and not worth the extra price.
Does Hay Go Bad?
The short answer is yes. But here is what bad hay looks like and some color descriptions of what has happened if the color looks bad.
- Will be turning light to medium brown.
- If the hay is dark brown or black it has been kept in the rain or heavy fog and has lost most of its nutrition.
- Light yellow faded color indicates that the hay has been left in the sun and bleached by the sun. The light color could also mean it is aged.
Why Store-Bought Hay Isn’t A Great Option
You might be thinking “Leah, I buy hay from the pet store or in the pet section at my supper market. It doesn’t look bad at all”. The problem with the store-bought hay is the average protein level in hay is often less than ten percent. It’s rarely more than 12% protein.
So it all goes back to giving them more “fresh foods” that are still not feeding them what they need to survive. What do people who have an eating disorder do? They go strate for vegetables. How well does that work for them? Most of them start losing weight and muscle mass very quickly.
My Rabbit Won’t Eat Hay
If your rabbit is eating everything else well but not hay that is completely fine. Make sure the pellets you are feeding falls in the recommended guidelines above and you shouldn’t have any issues.
Can Rabbits Eat Straw?
They can eat straw but there is literally no nutritional value to it. It is used for bedding and livestock to poop on. So if your rabbit is not eating hay I do not recommend feeding straw as an alternative.
What I Do Instead Of Hay
The main reason people will feed hay is to aid in digestion and avoid bloat. I have and always will be an herb user with the rabbits. If you notice your rabbit having a firm belly then feed about 5 inches of rosemary herb twice a day until the issue subsides. It shouldn’t last more than a day or two.
Rosemary is a great herb to feed your rabbits if you notice a digestion problem. You can read more about how to use rosemary In your rabbitry here.
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Rosemary has been the best herb I have used when/if the rabbits have digestive issues but to be honest when fed right you should hardly run into any issues. I have only had to use it once or twice in 10+ years. But its also a great herb to feed to your rabbits if they are not eating due to stress or a shift in weather (Which can happen.)
Why Eating Lots Of Fresh Vegetables Is Not Good Either
If you are feeding your rabbit lots of fresh greens and vegetables, they do not meet the protein needs of your rabbit. Most vegetables are 3% protein or less.
- Spring greens 3%
- Mustard greens 1.6%
- Romaine Lettuce 1%
- Beet Greens 3%
- Carrot Tops 1%
- Dandelion Greens 2.7%
I could go on all day. But do you get the idea? If you are giving your adult rabbits (or growing rabbits) all these green vegetables and fresh grass that doesn’t meant their nutritional needs they will starve to death.
What To Do If I Want To Feed Hay
You can absolutely feed hay but here are the requirements it needs to meet if you want to feed hay.
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT let the hay get damp or keep feeding it if you suspect anything is wrong with it. most stables get hay deliveries frequently and this helps keep it fresh and free of mold. You can not buy several months’ worth of hay and expect it to last.
It needs to be a good horse hay quality. Alfalfa hay is the most nutritious and the first cutting is going to be the best.
If you are buying any of the different types of grass hay from the store make sure to look at the label and make sure it is not any less than 16% protein. Or you are diluting the amount of nutrition they are getting by feeding that. In this case, you should only be feeding it as an occasional treat.
Don’t stress when you are trying to make sure your rabbit’s daily diet has everything they need. Keey the facts visible for you to see when you need to reference it and pay attention to your rabbit.
If a rabbit is sick they will stop eating or eat much less than usual. This is your clue to start looking into what could be wrong. If your rabbit is having gut or digestive issues make sure to read my post about lavender and how it helped a doe stop having diarrhea.
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