What animals eat hay? Hay is a common food source for farm animals and some popular family pets. It’s affordable, readily available in pet stores, and a great source of fiber. One of the most popular types of hay is alfalfa. But, hay can be made from a huge number of plants
Very few animals will live off hay alone. But, some herbivorous pets and farm animals will eat diets made up of hay and additional, fibrous, nutritious greens and plants. And, the animals that eat hay can really vary in shape and size! From a tiny fluffy guinea pig, to a large, spotted cow!
- What animals eat hay? Some quick facts!
- 1. Rabbits
- 2. Guinea Pigs
- 3. Horses
- 4. Cows
- 5. Sheep
- 6. Alpacas
- 7. Goats
- 8. Ducks
- 9. Pigs
- 10. Rhinos
What Animals Eat Hay? Quick Facts About Hay!
Hay can be made from a number of plants, but some of the most popular options include alfalfa, clover, and timothy hay. To make hay, farmers will cut their plants, dry them, and store them in bales. These plants are cut by machines, but at one point in time, this task was done by hand! If left out in the rain, hay can spoil before it’s properly dried for baling and storing.
It’s worth noting here that hay is not the same as straw – though they’re very similar! Both hay and straw are made from the stems and leaves of various plants. But, hay is cut and dried when the plant has the most nutritional value. Straw is harvested after seeds have sprouted and been used elsewhere. So, straw contains very little nutrition. It’s considered a by-product and is more common as bedding for our animals, rather than as food!
Hay is a very common source of food for farm animals, but some of our family pets will also feed on hay. It’s often offered when free grazing isn’t an option – for instance, during the winter or even in times of drought when grass has dried up. Family pets might have to eat hay if their owners live in apartments, and there is no grass for them to graze on. But, not all hay is equal. Feeding rotten or mouldy hay can make animals sick. Fresh hay is always best.
Rabbits are popular pets with families and individuals alike! They come in a huge range of shapes and sizes. Their fur can be long or short, ears erect or lopped. They range in size from as small as a few pounds to well over 20 lbs!
Rabbits are herbivores in the wild and in a domestic setting. This means they thrive on plant based diets. Rabbits need fresh hay daily, particularly if they don’t have the opportunity to graze on fresh grass.
Hay provides important nutrients for rabbits, including fiber, protein and calcium – though levels of each of these will vary depending on the type of hay you choose. But, fibrous foods like hay are also important for rabbits’ dental health. Chewing on hay will grind down rabbits’ ever-growing teeth, to reduce the risk of ulcers and other similar issues!
2. Guinea Pigs
Like rabbits, guinea pigs should have a diet that primarily consists of fresh hay or grass. Guinea pigs are social herbivores that are happiest kept in pairs or small groups. They’re popular pets for families with young children, but require gentle handling and have some quite specific dietary needs.
Guinea pig teeth will grow continuously throughout their lives. So, they need fibrous foods like fresh hay to grind down their teeth. If they don’t get enough fresh hay and grass, their teeth may grow so much that they’re unable to close their mouths, or that they develop serious dental problems.
Horses are much less common as pets than rabbits and guinea pigs. But, they’re still kept as pets and on farms! And, horses also eat plenty of hay! Wild and domestic horses will spend a lot of their time grazing.
Hay is great for horses because of its high fiber levels. In fact, studies have shown that high fiber diets are better for horse gut health than high starch alternatives. So, many horse owners will feed diets of fresh hay and pellets. They’ll also provide plenty of time for grazing on grasses and other safe plants!
Cattle are huge consumers of hay on farms. Cows are grazing animals, like horses. They’ll spend a lot of time each day eating fresh grass, and fresh hay when this isn’t available.
Cows and cattle have evolved to live on high-fiber diets. Fiber levels in cattle diets can be as high as 70%. So, food like fresh hay is ideal for them. Cattle will spend plenty of time chewing hay and grass. They will even regurgitate and re-chew food to ensure the fiber can be properly digested.
Sheep are another farm animal that will spend most of their day grazing. And, when grass isn’t available, hay is a major food source for sheep. Though, the favoured type of hay for sheep tends to vary depending on the region.
Alpacas are one of the more unusual farm animals that eat hay on our list. But, alpacas are becoming an increasingly common sight on farms, primarily for their wool.
Goats will forage a wide range of green plants when left to roam freely. But, in captivity or on farms, many farmers will provide fresh hay when grass is not available.
Fresh hay will provide goats with a wide range of nutrients – particularly fiber. But, many farmers will also supplement their diets with other greens and veggies. There’s a surprisingly long list of foods goats will enjoy eating!
Ducks might not be the first animal you think of when you think of animals eating hay. But many ducks will enjoy eating hay.
Hay is not such a large part of a duck’s diet, especially when compared to some of the grazing animals on this list. But, ducks can get plenty of good nutrients from hay. They usually do best on hay that has been cut smaller for them, to avoid any choking or digestive issues.
Pigs are well known for eating almost anything! So, it should come as no surprise to see them on our list of what animals eat hay.
This might be the most exotic, unusual animal on our list! But, rhinos will enjoy eating fresh hay just like all of the others here! In fact, if you get the opportunity to see rhinos in a zoo or nature reserve, you’ll see that keepers will usually provide plenty of fresh hay for rhinos to graze on.
Like many of the other animals on this list, rhinos spend a lot of time grazing. And, when grass isn’t available, fresh hay is the perfect solution.
What Animals Eat Hay?
Hay is a surprisingly common food source for many herbivorous animals. It’s nutritious, easy to come by, and affordable. Can you think of any other animals that love to eat this fibrous food, that we could add to this list?
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References and Resources
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- da Silva, J. (et al), ‘Nutritional Value, Performance, Feeding Behavior and Serum Biochemical Profile of Sheep Fed with Alfalfa Hay Replacing Bermuda Grass (Cynodon Dactylon (L.) Pers.) Hay’, Chilean Journal of Agricultural Research (2017)
- Palmonari, A. (et al), ‘Influence of Maturity on Alfalfa Hay Nutritional Fractions and Indigestible Fiber Content’, Journal of Dairy Science (2014)
- Rooney, N. (et al), ‘The Current State of Welfare, Housing and Husbandry of the English Pet Rabbit Population’, BMC Research Notes (2014)
- Wills, A. ‘Impact of Husbandry on the Welfare of Pet Guinea Pigs in the UK’, The Veterinary Record (2020)
- Raspa, F. (et al), ‘A Fibre- vs Cereal Grain-Based Diet: Which is Better for Horse Welfare? Effects on Intestinal Permeability, Muscle Characteristics and Oxidative Status in Horses Reared for Meat Production’, Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition (2021)
- Raspa, F. (et al), ‘A High-Starch vs High-Fibre Diet: Effects on the Gut Environment of the Different Intestinal Compartments of the Horse Digestive Track’, BMC Veterinary Research (2022)
- Hall, J. & Silver, S. ‘Nutrition and Feeding of the Cow-Calf Herd: Digestive System of the Cow’, Virginia Cooperative Extension (2001)
- Quispe, C. (et al), ‘Feeding Selection of Sheep and Alpaca on Puna Tassock Rangelands Grazed Previously by Cattle’, Small Ruminant Research (2021)
- Goodenough, A. (et al), ‘Factors Affecting the Behavior of Captive White Rhinoceroses (Ceratotherium Simum) and the Accuracy of Ad Hoc Keeper Data’, Zoo Biology (2022)