All About Alfalfa

Written by Oxbow

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January 17, 2022🞄

For those of us sharing our homes with hay-hungry herbivores like rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas, we’re likely somewhat familiar with alfalfa hay.  But, we know it can sometimes be confusing to know when alfalfa is appropriate for pets and in what quantities.

Have you ever found yourself asking questions about alfalfa?  For example, how is alfalfa different from popular grass hay varieties like Western Timothy?  Can I offer alfalfa in place of grass hay, and vice versa?  If not, how much alfalfa should I provide my little loved one each day?  This article is designed to address these and other important questions designed to help you hone your alfalfa expertise!

What is Alfalfa, Anyway?

Alfalfa is a perennial plant that has been grown, harvested, and consumed by herbivores for thousands of years (dating back to ancient Greece and Rome).  Unlike Western Timothy, Orchard, and other grass hay varieties, alfalfa is a member of the legume family.  Other members of the legume family include beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, soybeans, sweet pea, and clover.

What Are the Differences Between Alfalfa and Grass Hay?

Alfalfa and popular grass hay varieties share many similarities, including:

  • Alfalfa and grass hay are grown and harvested in similar ways.
  • Both look similar (though not exactly the same – more on that later) in their dry state.
  • Both are high in fiber and provide important nutritional value to a variety of herbivore species

For all their similarities, however, there are some notable differences between alfalfa and grass hay varieties like Western Timothy that are important for pet parents to understand when they’re putting together bunny or piggie’s mealtime shopping list.

Alfalfa and grass hays at a glance:

AlfalfaGrass Hay
Sweet smell & soft, leafy textureVariety of smells & textures
High in fiberHigh in fiber
Higher in protein & calciumLower in protein & calcium
Ideal for young, nursing, and pregnant petsShould be primary hay for adult animals

Visual Differences Between Alfalfa and Grass Hays

While alfalfa and grass hays look similar from a distance, there are some noticeable visual differences between the two when inspected closely.  Unlike the long, narrow, blade-shaped leaves of most common grass hay varieties, leaves of the alfalfa plant are referred to as “trifoliate” and resemble clover.

The flowers of the alfalfa plant are commonly purple and may appear in shades of white and yellow as well.  Depending on the maturity of alfalfa at harvest, you may notice the little purple flowers in the bag of alfalfa you purchase for your pets.

Nutritional Differences Between Alfalfa and Grass Hays

Alfalfa is more nutritionally dense than grass hays like Western Timothy and Orchard Grass.  Specifically, Alfalfa contains more protein and calcium than its grass hay counterparts.  Because alfalfa is richer in nutrients like protein and calcium, it’s ideally suited for pets with increased nutrient and energy requirements, including young, growing, pregnant, and nursing pets.  Alfalfa can make a valuable addition to the diet of senior pets struggling to keep weight on for these same reasons.

The Role of Alfalfa in Your Pet’s Food

Now that you’re familiar with the nutritional differences between alfalfa and grass hay, you might be wondering how this relates to the ingredient makeup of your rabbit or guinea pig’s fortified food.  Oxbow’s young rabbit and young guinea pig diets contain alfalfa, while our adult rabbit and adult guinea pig diets are grass hay-based and do not contain alfalfa.  The additional calcium, protein, and energy provided by alfalfa are beneficial to the daily nutritional needs of young, growing, pregnant/nursing, and some senior pets.

Taste and Texture Differences Between Alfalfa and Grass Hays

Alfalfa features a rich flavor, sweet smell, and soft, leafy texture.  No wonder most rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas can’t get enough of it!  If your mature pet loves alfalfa but is less enthusiastic about grass hay, try offering a sweeter grass hay variety like Botanical Hay or Orchard Grass.  These sweet grass hays are highly enticing without the added nutrient density your pet may not need.

How Much Alfalfa Should My Pet Eat Each Day?

So, how much alfalfa does Fluffy need in his diet daily?  As you might imagine, it can really depend!  Every pet is different, but here are some general guidelines on how much alfalfa to offer your herbivore:

Growing, Pregnant, or Nursing Pets

If your little loved one falls into one of these categories, feel free to offer an unlimited amount of alfalfa each day.  But, don’t forget to offer grass hays while you’re at it!  Eating a variety of tastes and textures will help prevent your pet from becoming a picky eater and will make it easier to scale back on the amount of alfalfa they eat as they grow older.

Do you have a pregnant pet?  Learn more about what to expect when your pet is expecting. 

Can My Adult Pet Eat Alfalfa?

If your animal is all grown up, he should no longer have unlimited access to alfalfa (no matter how much he might beg and plead)!  But, just because your beloved bun no longer has access to an “all you can eat” alfalfa buffet, that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy alfalfa in moderation.  Just be sure to offer a smaller, treat-appropriate amount (just a pinch), and don’t forget that grass hay should be available at all times.

What Will Happen if My Adult Pet Eats Too Much Alfalfa?

It’s important to remember that all pets are unique and pet health is affected by many factors.  Some of these factors include:

  • Age
  • Activity level
  • Genetics
  • Overall diet

Keeping these factors in mind, when mature pets are allowed to eat large or unlimited amounts of alfalfa, they run the risk of encountering a number of negative health issues.  These issues can include:

Bladder Sludge 
The higher amounts of calcium in alfalfa can be a potential contributor to bladder sludge over time.

Overweight & Obese Pets 
Protein is essential to pet health in the proper amounts.  The higher amounts of protein (and, therefore, energy) in alfalfa, however, can potentially contribute to small pets becoming overweight or obese over time.

Kidney Health  
Consuming large amounts of protein and calcium-rich alfalfa over a long period of time carries the potential risk of putting extra strain on your pet’s kidneys.

Unhealthy Picky Eating Habits   
If your mature pet has access to unlimited amounts of alfalfa, he’s less likely to show interest in more age-appropriate varieties of grass hay.  That’s why it’s important to remember to offer alfalfa to mature pets in small amounts, only as a treat.

Learn more about picky eating habits in small pets.

I Think I’ve Been Feeding Too Much Alfalfa!  Is it Too Late to Change?

If it’s occurring to you that you’ve been feeding your pet a little too much alfalfa, don’t despair!  It’s never too late to help our small pets develop healthy eating habits that meet their age-specific needs.  Instead of cutting your bunny off “cold turkey” from alfalfa, we recommend scaling back gradually over time.  This will make the transition to a grass hay-centric diet easier and likely more successful in the long run.

Alfalfa is a rich, nutritious forage most herbivores go “gaga” over.  With its soft, leafy texture, sweet taste and aroma, and nutritional density, alfalfa is perfect for rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas at key, nutritionally demanding stages of life.  For mature pets, alfalfa makes an ideal treat that’s sure to keep your pets hopping back for more!