Hay

Hay

Hay is an essential part of any rabbit’s diet.

Hay Is Essential for Rabbits

Hay is the most important part of a rabbit’s diet and should be available to them at all times.  It is best placed in or near their litter box, since bunnies like to munch hay while “using their litter box”.   Because hay is so important to our bunny companions, and rabbits should be only fed certain types of hay, it is necessary for their human companions to be well educated on hay from a bunny perspective.

Why Hay

Three primary reasons why hay is so important to the health of our bunnies:

  1. Hay is essential for digestion. Hay is high in fiber and partly indigestible, so it helps to move food (and hair from grooming themselves) through a bunny’s sensitive digestive system.   Without this, a rabbit can develop stasis in their digestive tract, causing them to stop eating and requiring immediate intervention by a rabbit-savvy veterinarian.
  2. Hay helps with dental health. A bunny’s teeth grow constantly.  The grinding motion used to chew long strands of fibrous hay helps to prevent development of sharp edges or points on their teeth.
  3. Hay prevents obesity. Hay is low in calories and rabbits need to graze constantly to keep their digestive systems moving.  Hay is definitely the way to meet this need.

Types of Hay

Not all types of hay are good for all bunnies at all times.   Here is a more detailed description regarding hay for rabbits.

  1. Timothy Hay is best for most bunnies (if allergic, see orchard grass). Timothy hay comes in 1st-cut, 2nd-cut or 3rd-cut.   First or second cut are best for most bunnies.
    1. First cut is the first harvest of the year. It is often coarse and may contain more stems and seed heads.  First cut is highest in fiber and lowest in protein.   If you are allergic to hay, look for second cut Timothy hay or orchard grass.
    2. Second cut is the second harvest of the year. It is softer than first cut, includes more leaves and fewer stems or seed heads.  It is often higher in protein and lower in fiber than first cut.
    3. Third cut (if there is one) is harvested late in a season. Third cut is very soft, primarily leaves and small stems.  It does not typically provide the roughage that a rabbit needs, but it is helpful for bunnies who are recovering from illness or tooth issues.  You could try to mix this with first/second cut Timothy hay or orchard grass to tempt a picky rabbit.
  2. Orchard Grass – if any human in your home is allergic to Timothy hay, then orchard grass is the way to go. Similar in nutrients and fiber to Timothy hay and with just a bit more protein, orchard grass will work splendidly for your bunny.
  3. Oat Hay – typically coarser than first cut Timothy hay with a lower nutritional value. Rather than serve on its own, mix oat hay with Timothy hay or orchard grass as a treat for your bunny.
  4. Alfalfa Hay – this hay is high in calcium and protein. It is only appropriate for very young rabbits (below 1 year in age), those that are pregnant/nursing or very elderly rabbits (as recommended by your vet).   If fed to a typical adult rabbit, it can cause obesity and urinary/kidney problems.

Author’s Note:  I have read that most bunnies prefer second cut Timothy hay to first cut, but my rabbits don’t seem to have a preference.   The bales I purchase are often a mix of Timothy hay with orchard grass.   My bunnies love it.   The best hay is green and clean, whether first or second cut and/or orchard grass.

Buying Hay

Wherever you purchase your hay, it should be greenish in color (not yellow/brown).  It should be clean, dry, and free of dust and mold.   Even oat hay should be mostly green, but starting to turn honey-colored.

Purchase Online or at Pet Store:  If you have only one or two rabbits at home, the easiest way to get hay is often at your local pet store or by ordering online from Chewy or Small Pet Select.  Brands include Oxbow, Sweet Meadow, KayTee, etc.  Hay quality is usually reliable since these brands adhere to their own standards before packaging hay for sale.  If stored properly in a dark, dry space then hay can last up to a year.  Thus, it is usually practical to buy enough to qualify for free shipping.

Purchase Hay By the Bale:  If you have two or more rabbits at home, it may be more economical to purchase hay locally by the bale.  Points to remember if purchasing a bale of hay for your bunnies:

  1. Make sure you have a suitable place to store your hay (see “How To Store Hay) section below. A bale can be as much as 4 feet long by 2 feet wide by 16 inches high.    When I purchase a bale, I put the back seat down in my car and line the area with an old sheet.   That keeps hay strands from getting all over the back of my car when I transport the bale.
  2. Please confirm you are purchasing horse-quality Timothy hay and/or orchard grass as opposed to cow-quality. Horses, like rabbits, have much more sensitive digestive systems than cows.
  3. The bale should be greenish in color (not yellow/brown). It should be clean, dry, and have a fresh smell.  It should have been dried before baling and stored in a dry shed or barn in an area free of raccoon access (a parasite in raccoon poop can affect rabbits).  Do not buy a bale that is stored out in open sunshine or exposed to dampness.
  4. Bale quality will vary throughout the year and from vendor to vendor depending on a variety of factors. If the hay is not dry, fresh smelling, free of mold and mostly green in color, then please do not purchase for your rabbit.
  5. We have noticed that some chain stores carry rather low-quality bales of hay. If not greenish in color and fresh smelling, if not horse-quality timothy hay or orchard grass, please do not buy it.

Here is a list of hay vendors in CT/MA.   This list was last updated in 2017, so the information and pricing are out of date, but this is a good place to start.    HayVendors111017.xlsx (hopline.org)

Note addressing RHDV2 concerns and Hay:  RHDV2 is a deadly virus for rabbits.  The latest map on RHDV2.org (as of February 2024) indicates no cases of RHDV2 in wild rabbits east of the Mississippi River, so hay grown in CT/MA should be safe for our rabbits.   However, there are reported cases of RHDV2 among domestically owned rabbits in our area.  RHDV2 is of great concern and is a topic for which HRC will continue to provide updates – please see the following link:  RHDV rabbit virusHouse Rabbit Connection, Inc. (hopline.org)

Small Pet Select says they do not have any reported cases of RHDV2 in areas where their hay is grown.

Oxbow says, “Our commitment to monitoring and safeguarding our hay remains steadfast.  Our monitoring system, implemented in the Pacific Northwest United States where our hay is primarily grown, covers all counties involved in the harvesting process.  Any hay originating from a county with reported RHDV cases undergoes a strict quarantine period of at least three months, aligning with recommended safety protocols.”

How to store hay

Hay is best stored in a place that is dry, well-ventilated and away from direct sunlight.  Good location options might be in a garage or shed.  Basements, while dark, are often not a good place to store hay because they can be damp and lacking in ventilation.

Plastic bins are not a good place to store hay because they don’t allow air flow and can also give off dangerous BPA, phthalates or other toxins.   Instead, I recommend large cardboard moving boxes which can act as bins for your hay. You can purchase these larger boxes at Home Depot or Lowes.  I have used the same cardboard boxes as hay containers for years.  Another rabbit friend of mine has built hay boxes of plywood and pine with short legs to raise it up off the floor, each large enough to hold a bale of hay.

When I arrive home with a bale of hay, I snip the string ties and peek inside to be sure the entire bale is dry.   If it is dry, I either leave it as a bale or break it up into my large cardboard boxes to store in the garage and away from sunlight.   If the inside of the bale seems to be even the least bit damp, I break it apart into chunks and let it breathe before breaking it up further into in a cardboard box.  There was one time that I was so concerned about dampness that I spread the entire bale out on my garage floor with the garage doors open so it could air dry for a few hours.   Then I moved the hay into my cardboard boxes.  Thankfully, most of the time, the bale is dry enough and that extreme effort is not necessary.

To prevent leaving a messy trail while moving the hay from its storage place to the bunny area, I use a small cardboard box.   Another reader uses a cotton bag (the size of a laundry bag).   Place bunches of hay into your box or bag to carry mess-free to the bunny area and their litter boxes.

Have fun with your hay!   Keep it fresh-smelling and available at all times.   Mix varieties if you are so inclined.   It is one of the best things you can do for the health an

Hay Information: Thank you Terry!   Updated 3/28/2024