Picture a food pyramid for rabbits. What do you see at the base? If you chose bunny pellets, you wouldn’t be alone. Walking down the small animal aisle in pet stores usually reinforces the idea that bunny food takes the form of a brown pellet mix (and many times with corn kernels and other unhealthy additives thrown in).
But the base of a bunny food pyramid actually isn’t filled by pellets. The most important ingredient to a healthy bunny’s diet is hay. Fresh hay should be provided to rabbits at all times so they can graze when they please. (See the real rabbit food pyramid in a PDF created by the San Diego House Rabbit Society.)
Fiber for Digestion
Rabbits have digestive tracts that are specially adapted to break down fibrous vegetation. Hay provides the fiber necessary to keep their digestive systems healthy and motile. A disruption to a rabbit’s digestive cycle can cause gastrointestinal (GI) stasis, a condition in which the contents of the digestive tract become compact, and the rabbit has difficulty passing the mass through. Providing unlimited, fresh hay helps deter this serious, potentially deadly condition.
Roughage for Dental Health
Not only is hay necessary for good digestive health, it also wears down rabbits’ teeth, which continuously grow. Regular hay consumption helps prevent rabbits from developing sharp hooks on their teeth known as molar spurs. Molar spurs can be very painful, causing rabbits to stop eating. Once this happens, GI stasis can occur.
What Kind of Hay
For baby bunnies, alfalfa provides the high caloric content necessary for their development. Once rabbits reach seven months of age, gradually switch them over to timothy, orchard grass, and/or oat hay. For people with allergies, look for the second cutting of hay. When harvesting hay, the first cutting is a coarser hay that includes a lot of stems and seed heads (and inevitably, a lot of pollen). The second cutting consists of a softer hay that includes more leaves and fewer stems and seed heads, thereby reducing people’s allergic reactions significantly.
You can usually find bags of hay at most pet stores. However, the absolute most economical place to purchase hay is direct from a local farm. Check Craigslist’s farm/garden section or your local classifieds to find a hay farmer. You can purchase hay in bulk (by the bale) for a fraction of the cost of a pet store bag of hay. One bale (stored in a cool, dry location) can feed a single rabbit for months.
If there are no farms in your area, don’t despair. Nowadays, there are many reputable online retailers of hay. You can even order it as a “Subscribe and Save” on Amazon. Buy timothy hay on Amazon >
- Sterett-Fogarty, Linda, “Hay in Your Bunny’s Diet – Quality and Quantities for Healthy Digestion,” http://www.rabbit.org/journal/4-7/hay.html
- Te Selle, Elizabeth in conjunction with McBee, Cindy, DVM, “Natural Nutrition Part I: The Importance of Fiber,” http://www.rabbit.org/journal/3-3/fiber.html