A Guide to Fresh Hay for Rabbits, Guinea Pigs & Small Pets

Written by Oxbow

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January 10, 2020🞄

Updated: June 8, 2023

Whether your rabbit or guinea pig is a picky eater or the type of pet that eats all types of hay with unbridled enthusiasm, it’s always a good idea to select the freshest hay possible. Fresh, premium hay is most likely to be consumed regularly by small pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.

In this article, we’ll take a look at how to choose and store hay your pet will enjoy meal after meal.

How to Select Hay For Small Animals

Hay is an essential part of the daily diet for many small herbivores. If you have a smaller pet, it’s important to know what to look for and how to select the best hay for small animals. Below, we’ll explore tips on how to select the best hay for small animals like rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.

Tips for Choosing Hay for Small Pets:

  • Check Hay’s “Freshest By” Date
  • Give Hay the Squeeze Test
  • Take in that Farm Fresh Aroma
  • Go for the Green Stuff
  • Talk to the Experts in the Aisles
  • When in Doubt, Use the “Dust Test”

Check Hay’s “Freshest By” Date

Hay is a natural product that doesn’t expire in the traditional sense of the term. When stored in the proper conditions, hay will retain its nutritional value for many months. Hay is required to feature a “freshest by” date that you will typically find on the back side of your hay packaging. For Oxbow hay, this statement can be found in the lower right corner of the back side of the packaging.

Over time, the fresh, natural aroma of hay that pets love will fade, so it’s a good idea to use your hay within its “freshest by” range. When shopping the hay aisle, always check the best by dates to ensure your retailer is keeping fresh hay in stock.

Give Hay the Squeeze Test

The freshness “squeeze” test isn’t just for cantaloupes in the produce aisle! When you are trying to determine which bag of hay to purchase for your beloved pet, feeling the texture of the hay can be a useful indicator of how long it’s been on your retailer’s shelf.

Most varieties of fresh hay should be soft and pliable. Many small pets prefer hay that is softer in texture, so your rabbit, guinea pig, or chinchilla is likely to appreciate you selecting a soft hay.

Some considerations when evaluating hay texture:

  • Some hays are more compressed in the package than others. If your preferred brand comes in a more compressed package, squeezing the bag may not be the best indicator.
  • Some varieties like Oat Hay will be crunchier by nature. If your rabbit or guinea pig enjoys crunchier hay varieties like Oat, you don’t need to worry as much about the overall texture of the hay.

There are many great benefits to providing a variety of hay textures. To maximize your pet’s daily nutritional enrichment, offer at least two varieties mixed together at all times. New to offering a variety? We recommend the Crunch & Munch as a great DIY mix for variety beginners!

Grey Lionhead rabbit eating Oxbow Botanical hay.Take in that Farm Fresh Aroma

There’s nothing quite like the smell of a field of hay at harvest time. If you’re an experienced hay purveyor for your pets, you likely already know and love the rich, natural smell of fresh hay. Even in a sealed package, it’s easy to smell and evaluate the aroma of hay on the store shelf.

So, what should fresh hay smell like exactly? Fresh hay that has been grown and harvested under the right conditions should have a sweet, natural smell. To evaluate the smell of hay, simply give the bag a squeeze and take in that farm fresh aroma. Even premium hay loses its aroma over time; if your hay has a dull or non-existent aroma, there’s a good chance it’s been in inventory or sitting on the shelf for a while.

You should avoid hay with a musty or “off” smell. A musty smell can be an indicator of mold. Exposure to mold can result in health problems for your pet, so hay with a musty smell should be avoided at all times.

Rabbit foraging for hay

Go for the Green Stuff

One of the hallmarks of fresh, high-quality hay is the kind of nice, green color you would expect to see in nature. Green high is most likely to have been harvested under the ideal conditions for producing premium hay.

There are many factors that can affect the color of hay, including:

Maturity. Hay that is harvested at an immature stage of growth is most likely to have the nice, green color you like to see in the package. As a hay plant matures, it focuses its energy on reproduction and will send all of its nutrients into the seed head. This results in yellowing throughout the rest of the plant.

Humidity & Precipitation. Untimely moisture is the enemy of premium hay. Water droplets on the hay plant can accentuate the sun’s effect and lead to bleaching or loss of color.

Sunlight. Once hay is cut, it spends time curing naturally in the field with the help of the sun. Hay that cures for a longer period of time can begin to lose its color due to prolonged exposure to the sun. Once harvested into bales, even the greenes hay can lose some color if exposed to direct sunlight in storage.

Temperature. Generally speaking, dry and hot conditions are ideal for producing the most premium hay possible. Cool and moist or humid conditions can predispose hay to losing some of its color.

Talk to the Experts in the Aisles

If you find that the hay on your local retailer’s shelf consistently lacks a fresh, natural aroma, feel free to ask questions about their inventory and rotation practices. If the hay on the shelf doesn’t smell fresh, there’s always a chance they have fresher inventory in the back that they can pull for you.

In addition to answering your questions about hay freshness, knowledgeable store associates will be able to provide guidance and recommendations to help you select the varieties of hay your pet is most likely to enjoy!

When in Doubt, Use the “Dust Test”

If you purchase your pet’s hay from a physical, brick and mortar location, try performing the “dust test.” Products that sit on the shelf for a long time will inevitably collect dust on the packaging. If the hay you’re shopping for lacks the freshness characteristics you know your pet is most likely to enjoy, check on the dustiness of packaging.

Hay that has been on the shelf a long time can have a bleached appearance.

How to Store Hay for Rabbits and Small Pets

So, you’ve successfully brought home the freshest, most beautiful bag of hay for your beloved bunny, piggie, or chin. Congratulations! Now what? 

There are some simple, important steps you can take to ensure your hay lasts for as long as possible. Knowing how to store rabbit and guinea pig hay will help your hay keep its fresh smell, beautiful green color, and soft texture for as long as possible.

Below, we’ll explore the best ways to store hay for rabbits and other small animals.

Hay Storage Tips for Rabbits and Small Animals:

  • Keep Hay in a Cool, Dry Location
  • Store Hay out of Direct Sunlight
  • Give Hay Adequate Ventilation
  • Keep Mixed Hays in a Custom Container

Keep Hay in a Cool, Dry Location

Heat and humidity can negatively affect the freshness and overall quality of hay. For example, too much humidity can cause hay to become musty or moldy. For these reasons, it’s recommended to keep your pet’s hay in a cool and dry location at all times.

Store Hay out of Direct Sunlight

Exposure to direct sunlight will cause hay to lose its green color and soft texture. Many small pets find sun-bleached hay to be less appealing and appetizing. To avoid this, store your hay away from windows and out of direct sunlight.

Give Hay Adequate Ventilation

Without proper ventilation, hay can become musty or moldy. Storing Oxbow hay in its original packaging is perfectly acceptable. For feeding convenience and additional ventilation, you might choose to store your hay in a separate container.

Keep Mixed Hays in a Custom Container

As referenced earlier, we always recommend offering a variety of hays at all times. Many pet parents find it easy and enjoyable to use a larger container for mixing and storing multiple varieties of hay. A large plastic tote with a lid makes a great container for hay. To provide adequate ventilation, simply drill a series of small holes along the sides of the container.

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