by Cayla Iske, PhD
Fruit is a great source of flavor, color, and texture variety for your small pet. This, along with beneficial nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, and potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, make fruit a great addition to your little one’s diet. Fruit also provides a wonderful opportunity to increase bonding opportunities with your pet and can be an especially delicious way to positively reward good behavior. But, along with these benefits come some key nutritional downsides to be aware of. When fruits are fed incorrectly, the result can be negative impacts on your little one’s health.
In this article, we will cover the following important topics regarding fruit and your small pet:
- Health concerns associated with too much fruit
- What fruits can be safely fed to several small pet species
- Outline basic limits on how much fruit can be safely be included in the diet of small mammals.
Recapping Carbohydrates in Your Pet’s Diet
We have talked in past articles about carbohydrates in the context of fiber and simple carbs, with fiber being the indigestible portion and simple carbs being very quickly digested. The fiber component of carbohydrates pushes food material along the digestive tract and hindgut to help prevent stasis while simple carbohydrates provide quick energy to the animal. However, in animals designed to consume relatively large amounts of fiber, too many simple carbs (sugar) can wreak havoc on the digestive system. Sugar is typically quickly digested in the small intestines but if there is too much in the diet some can escape to the hindgut where it is rapidly fermented. This can cause soft stools and even negative changes in the microbiome (those billions and billions of microscopic living organisms responsible for a myriad of physiological functions).
Monosaccharides vs. Disaccharides: a Closer Look at Sugars
Just as fiber is a complex nutrient, simple carbohydrates aren’t actually so “simple” either. There are many kinds of sugars starting with the simplest: glucose, fructose, and galactose. These are termed monosaccharides (“mono” meaning one, “saccharide” meaning sugar). From here these monosaccharides can link together to form other, more complex sugars. Disaccharides (“two sugars”) are formed by 2 monosaccharides. For example, sucrose is a disaccharide formed by one glucose and one fructose. Saccharides can link to form complex polysaccharides including starch and cellulose.
What Types of Sugars Do Fruits Typically Contain?
Sugars from fruit are typically naturally occurring monosaccharides. Fructose is commonly found in many plants including many fruits. As mentioned before, fructose is very rapidly absorbed and can lead to sudden blood sugar spikes and too much at once can ferment in the hindgut. So, while fructose is considered a natural sugar, its intake is still something that should be monitored daily so that large amounts are not consumed. Too much sugar too often, or even too much in one sitting, can contribute to serious and costly health issues, such as obesity, diabetes, negative changes in the microbiome (dysbiosis), and even gastrointestinal stasis.
What does this mean for your pet? Ultimately, it means that fruits should only be fed in moderation due to their generally high sugar content. However, when fed in moderation, fruits can be a highly valued special treat by your small pet!
Small Mammal Approved Fruits & Their Sugar Content
Navigating sugar in fruits can quickly become confusing and frustrating, but it’s important to know that not all fruits have the same sugar content. The graph below is a simple and accurate tool to show average sugar contents of several small mammal-approved fruits. It’s important to keep in mind that foods considered safe to eat for some species are not safe to eat for other species. While rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rats, and mice can eat the fruits discussed in this blog post, we do not recommend feeding these fruits to species not included on this list, such as chinchillas and degus, without first consulting a vet.
Chinchillas and Degus: Approach Fruits with Caution (or Avoid Completely)
In their native, mountainous habitat, chinchillas and degus largely consume hearty, fibrous vegetation that can survive the climate. Even the small amounts of native berries, flowers, and fruits they may find in this harsh environment tend to be more fibrous than the fruits we are familiar with. This, coupled with relatively recent domestication and generally more sensitive digestive tract compared to rabbits and other small mammals, means degus and chinchillas may be particularly sensitive to fruits that are commercially available to us. If you choose to offer your degu or chinchilla fruits you should be sure to research the nutritional profile, feed sparingly, and heavily monitor your pet. While treats are not necessary for nutrition, they do support and often strengthen the human-animal bond. If degu or chinchilla pet parents are looking for an appropriate treat to offer their little one, we highly recommend hay-based treats such as our Organic Barley Biscuits. To read more about chinchillas and their unique physiology, read our Common Chinchilla Health Issues blog post.
Fruits and Small Pets: Limits and Guidelines
Now that we know more about sugars and concentrations in various fruits, how much fruit can be safely offered to your pet? A general rule with any small herbivore is fruit is a treat not a required component of their diet and less fruit is better. Herbivore (rabbit, guinea pig, chinchilla) diets should heavily focus on hay and greens/veggies while omnivore (hamster, gerbil, rat, mouse) diets should be balanced for supplemental proteins, grains, and fats. But it is helpful to have an idea of how much is too much, so we have provided some basic limits below if you choose to offer fruit:
- Rabbits: The maximum amount of fruit that rabbits should consume is 1 teaspoon for every 2 pounds of body weight 3-4 times a week.
- Guinea Pigs: The maximum amount of fruit that guinea pigs should consume is 1 teaspoon for every 2 pounds of body weight 3-4 times a week.
- Chinchillas: Many chinchilla owners will choose not to feed any fruits. If you do, we recommend only using fruits as an infrequent training or enrichment tool offering 2-3 small pieces 1-2 times a week.
- Hamsters and Gerbils: The maximum amount of fruit that hamsters and gerbils should consume is less than 1 teaspoon every other day.
- Rats: The maximum amount of fruit that rats should consume is less than 1 teaspoon 2-3 times a week.
- Mice: The maximum amount of fruit that mice should consume is less than 1 teaspoon 2-3 times a week.
Remember that these are guidelines—it is always good practice to regularly consult with your vet to ensure that your little one’s diet is ideal for their individual health needs. Depending on your pet’s health or preferences of you or your vet, different amounts of fruit than what is discussed here may be offered or recommended.
No matter what species-appropriate fruits you decide to feed your pet, always thoroughly wash any fruits you offer. Using organic produce whenever possible can also help you and your pet avoid potentially harmful chemicals, such as pesticides.
We hope this article has provided valuable insight into the role of fruit in your pet’s diet!