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Hay versus Straw! Which is best?

Written By: Jane Davidson RVN

As a vet nurse who occasionally lectures student vet nurses, you realise you learn amazing things from your students. Every summer I recall one particular exchange that led to much debate in the classroom.

Every summer we see and feel the side effects of the jobs of making hay, making straw bales and using silage, with some of these nicer than others! Hay and straw are required as part of some pets’ diets and bedding so a student group and I were having a discussion about the nutrition in hay and straw.

I suggested that many people don’t understand the difference between hay and straw and was roundly shouted down by the horse and rabbit owning students in the class!

Yes, horses and rabbits use both hay and straw but do you know why and can you tell the difference?

I think many people see them as interchangeable products if they haven’t had a pet that has them in their diet. We had no way to prove this in the classroom but it did open a healthy debate and the knowledge chasm between those who had owned rabbits or horses and those who haven’t was obvious. It got me thinking that such a small thing might be worth writing about.

So what is the difference?

Hay is dried grass. No more, no less but grass has a good nutritional content and is an important dietary component in several pets’ diets.

Straw is the dried stalks of crops such as wheat or barley and has a limited nutritional value but is used in small amounts as roughage for some pets. It is more commonly used as bedding material.

What does this mean for you?

For those with cats and dogs this probably all sounds more complex than they need, we are lucky that for cats and dogs there are a huge variety of ready-made diets that contain everything they need.

For some other pets it’s a little more complex and hay and straw are a large and important part of their diet. Rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas as well as horses all need good quality hay in their diet.

Appropriate hay intake, especially in rabbits, is linked to better dental and overall health. Pet rabbits in particular still require a diet and lifestyle that is closely linked to that of a wild rabbit. This means the foraging for, and eating of, a mainly grass based diet should take up most of their day. While we supplement with a small amount of good quality pellet food, hay needs to be the main source of nutrition and enrichment. Rabbits are known as ‘selective feeders’ and won’t eat all types of hay equally so while we know that feeding a muesli type diet can lead to an unbalanced diet, it’s the same with offering different types of hay.

Different types of hay

Yes, hay isn’t just hay. As there are many different types of grass there are many different types of hay. Each has a different nutritional element, so you may find that younger hay eating pets are advised to eat more alfalfa hay, as it has a higher energy content.

Of the hays available for adults, you can choose from Timothy, Oat, Orchard, Meadow or other hays that also contain herbs. Your rabbit may prefer some over others so, as above, do check what they are eating each day. They might all look similar, but to your rabbit’s taste-buds - and digestion - they are very different!

So what about straw then?

You will often see straw with rabbits and guinea pigs in their runs and bedding areas. For our pets (horses included) straw is mainly used as a bedding material. I’m sure some may have a little nibble (who doesn’t love a bedtime snack?) but straw’s place in their diet is limited to offering a little roughage.

So I should just keep my grass clippings from summer?

Drying and storing hay and even straw so they are safe and healthy to eat all year round is actually quite a complex business. I would advise to leave your grass to grow a little longer and let your rabbits use the garden during the warmer months, eating the grass fresh from the lawn, not cut and potentially toxic from uncontrolled fermentation.

When drying and storing, some places are too damp so mould grows, some places can get the hay and straw contaminated with things not safe for animals, some places are so dry and dusty the hay becomes an irritant. You can avoid all this by buying what you need, rather than trying to make your own. Check the Rabbit Welfare Association online shopper products they approve of.

When buying hay and straw try to go for branded products that are well packaged and if in doubt check how it smells when you open the package. Damp or mouldy hay and straw will smell and dusty, or contaminated products will probably make your eyes water or skin itch with the dust.

They are what you let them eat

We know that good nutrition is important for us and our pets and even those with a diet of mainly hay can still have weight problems and over eat. It’s well worth heading to your vets to ask about the best ways to feed your pets if you want to know more, especially if they require a more complex diet than just opening a tin or offering some biscuits.


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