Pellet-Free Diets for Small Herbivores: Good, Bad, or Unknown?

Written by Oxbow

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August 5, 2020🞄

There has been an ongoing debate over the years regarding pellet-free diets for small exotic mammals. Those endorsing pellet-free diets have had different claims to support their opinion, including the argument that animals can consume a nutritionally complete diet by just eating hay and fresh produce (along with the possible addition of homemade items) or that pelleted diets actually don’t contain balanced nutrients. To some, a diet containing a large rotation of greens and veggies may appear fresher, more colorful, and, therefore, better for your little one compared to a balanced uniform diet including an appropriate amount of fortified pellets. But what you can’t see (and what your pet can’t communicate to you), is that the absence of a high-quality pellet leaves nutritional gaps in your pet’s diet.

The Necessity of Nutrients

Many of us are familiar with the macronutrients every animal needs in their diet: protein, fat, carbohydrates, etc. All of these may sound straightforward and simple, but each one of these essential nutrient categories can be broken down into many more specific nutrients. Twenty different amino acids can make up protein; fats are made up of more than 20 different fatty acids, and there are numerous types of sugars and fibers that fall into the carbohydrate category. Every animal has unique requirements for these specific nutrients.

Now, consider the micronutrients – the dozens and dozens of individual vitamins and minerals – and it becomes clear that ensuring all of an animal’s nutrient requirements are met is not simple nor easy and certainly cannot be taken for granted. Any adequate homemade diet would require extensive research into nutrient composition of diet items and should be analyzed by a laboratory to ensure nutrient levels are adequate. If you want to provide a rotating diet, all options need evaluation. A pellet-free diet will be more prone to nutrient variability and likely deficiencies, as formulating and balancing a diet requires constant monitoring, evaluation, and adjustments. Furthermore, nutrients interact to affect utilization in the body so the balance of nutrients, not just their amounts, is paramount. Adding a homemade vitamin and mineral supplement to the diet can further complicate things, as overdosing can quickly become a concern, particularly with vitamins and minerals that are needed in relatively small quantities. When properly stored, uniform pellets ensure micronutrients, especially vitamins, are stable and always balanced right up to the last pellet.

But not all pellets are created equally. Muesli mixes containing several different colors, sizes, shapes, and textures may seem appealing due to the variety and appearance, but the key nutrients needed from pellets (vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients) are typically found in the more “boring” looking parts of the muesli mix. The other more colorful pieces typically contain fewer micronutrients and more starches and sugars. The fact that those sugary and starchy pieces tend to be the ones that small mammals go for first means your pet isn’t getting the essential micronutrients pellets were designed to provide. Uniform pellets help prevent selective eating and all contain the same ingredients and nutrients, meaning your pet will get those essential nutrients in every bite without the sugar and starch they don’t need.

The Ideal Herbivore Diet

Whether you think a small herbivore diet should include pellets or not, we all agree the staple of the diet should be a diversity of grass hays and fresh water offered at all times. Beyond that, we recommend ~20% of a small herbivore’s diet be a complete, uniform pellet. This small amount (1/8 to 3/4 cup, depending on the size of your pet) is specifically formulated to contain a correct balance of all the essential micronutrients your fur baby needs each day. Feeding the correct amount of pellets according to your animal’s life stage and weight ensures their nutrient requirements are properly met, and takes the guesswork out of putting together a homemade diet that your little one can thrive on. Oxbow’s pellets and the ingredients that make them are constantly monitored for nutritional composition, quality, and stability so they are consistent every time. When including pellets in the diet you are still strongly encouraged to provide a variety of pet-friendly fresh greens and veggies at appropriate amounts. This variety is key for both nutritional and mental enrichment and to keep mealtime interesting. Nutritionally appropriate treats are also a great way to add variety to the diet!

Wild Versus Child

Some proponents of pellet-free diets make the argument that wild animals didn’t need pellets to survive so neither should their pets. The key distinction here is that wild herbivores have access to hundreds of different plants and dietary items which they can consume in quantities sufficient to meet their nutrient needs. Your pet has access only to what you provide, which is likely determined by what is at the grocery store. While vast, this variety of supermarket or garden greens and veggies cannot compete with wild vegetation in the areas to which these species are native. Pellets provide a concentrated and balanced dose of essential nutrients to meet animal’s needs while rotating greens and veggies help provide dietary variety your pet craves.

Risks of Going “Pellet Free”

There are multiple potential risks and unknowns when feeding a pellet-free diet but likely the most concerning is vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies or toxicities. Signs of these dietary inadequacies do not manifest overnight and symptoms are not immediately observable. Furthermore, as a prey species, these little ones will do everything in their power to not show you clinical signs that might be attributed to improper nutrition. By the time signs do become apparent, it can be difficult to correct the diet either due to picky eating or anorexia associated with illness. Therefore, if you do choose to implement a pellet-free diet it is extremely important to monitor your pet for illness and perform regular weight checks and wellness exams at home. Regularly scheduled check-ins with an exotic animal veterinarian are also highly recommended.

Uniform, complete pellets are a surefire way to provide all the micronutrients your little companion needs. The small quantities of pellets needed relieve the pressure pet parents face when trying to offer a homemade, nutritionally complete diet. If you do choose to offer a pellet-free diet, it is extremely important you do your research and, ideally, work with an animal nutritionist or veterinarian to ensure the diet is balanced so your furry loved one stays happy and healthy.