Why is Hay So Important for a Rabbit’s Diet?

Rabbits aren’t just cute and fluffy pets to adore – they have complex nutritional needs we must provide for! Hay is the most critical component of proper rabbit nutrition. Just as a rodent must have access to wood to chew on to grind down their ever-growing teeth, rabbits physically require hay for preventing costly dental issues. Hay also promotes gut health by keeping their sensitive digestive system running smoothly. For both dental and digestive reasons, no rabbit owner can neglect this dietary staple! Without unlimited access to fresh hay, rabbits rapidly succumb to malnutrition and poor health. Read on to learn why hay is a non-negotiable necessity for your bunny’s wellbeing and how to integrate it into their daily care.

Hay keeps a rabbit's gut healthy

Hay is essential for keeping a rabbit's digestive system functioning properly. Rabbits are obligate herbivores, meaning they must eat plants to acquire all their nutrients. Their gastrointestinal tracts are specially adapted for digesting grasses and hay. Rabbits have a very large cecum, which contains beneficial bacteria that help them digest plant fiber. The indigestible fiber in hay keeps food moving through a rabbit's intestinal tract at a healthy rate. This constant movement prevents foods and hair from accumulating in the gut, which could lead to blockages. Eating hay promotes gut motility and normal stool production.

Without sufficient hay in the diet, rabbits are at high risk for developing gastrointestinal stasis, a dangerous condition in which the gut slows down or stops working. GI stasis can occur due to obesity, lack of exercise, stress, dental problems, or other factors. When the gut stops moving normally, food sits in the stomach and cecum undigested. Bacteria begin to proliferate and produce gas, causing the stomach and cecum to become enlarged. The enlarged organs may twist or flip in position, blocking food from being digested.

GI stasis requires emergency veterinary treatment. Providing unlimited fresh hay daily will keep a rabbit's intestinal tract functioning properly and prevent the potentially fatal condition of GI stasis. Hay should comprise at least 75% of an adult rabbit's diet.

Prevent GI Stasis

GI stasis is a leading cause of death in pet rabbits. This condition occurs when the gastrointestinal tract slows down or stops working altogether. Food sits in the stomach and gut undigested, causing these organs to become enlarged. Bacteria proliferate and produce gas, which places dangerous pressure on other organs. GI stasis must be treated immediately by a rabbit-savvy veterinarian to prevent death.

Feeding unlimited fresh hay is the best way to prevent GI stasis in rabbits. Hay is rich in indigestible fiber, which scrubs the gut lining and keeps food moving through the intestinal tract. This fiber also feeds the healthy bacteria living in the cecum, an enlarged pouch between the small and large intestines containing beneficial microorganisms that aid digestion.

When hay intake is inadequate, the gut slows down. Hair and carbohydrate-rich foods like pellets, vegetables, and fruits accumulate. The cecum enlarges, and the bacteria produce too much gas. The stomach also expands, and the excess gas causes the organs to painfully twist or flip positions. This traps food in the tract.

With gut motility severely impaired, food ferments releasing toxins. These toxins enter the bloodstream making the rabbit extremely ill. Rabbits in GI stasis quickly deteriorate and die if not brought to a vet immediately.

Feeding unlimited grass hay prevents the chain of events leading to GI stasis. The hay keeps the gut moving with its indigestible fiber. It also provides the bulk rabbits need in their diet to feel satisfied. Make sure hay is available 24/7. For most adult rabbits, timothy or orchard grass hay is ideal. Avoid alfalfa hay for adult rabbits, as the higher protein and calcium content can contribute to obesity and bladder stones.

Hay keeps rabbit teeth healthy

Rabbits have continuously growing teeth. Their open-rooted teeth erupt about 1/8 inch per week. Hay helps file down rabbit teeth at a rate that matches their growth. This prevents the teeth from becoming overgrown, a painful condition called malocclusion.

A rabbit's teeth are arranged in the jaw so the top and bottom rows tightly press against each other. This alignment keeps the teeth ground down to a proper length as the rabbit chews in a side-to-side motion. The abrasive fibers in hay rub against the teeth, wearing them down.

When rabbits do not eat enough hay, their teeth overgrow. Misaligned teeth prevent proper grinding action. Incisor teeth may grow into the roof of the mouth or curve and grow into the face. Molar teeth in the lower and upper jaws can overgrow into sharp points and spikes. These points injure the tongue and cheeks when the jaws close. Misaligned and overgrown teeth cause intense pain and prevent rabbits from eating properly.

Malocclusion requires veterinary care such as tooth trimming or removal. In some cases, constant tooth growth means rabbits need teeth trimmed monthly under anesthesia. Malocclusion can be prevented by feeding unlimited grass hay starting as young bunnies. The high silica content in grass hay makes it especially abrasive for grinding down teeth. Avoid alfalfa hay, as its softer fibers lack the scratchy abrasiveness needed for dental health. Free-choice fresh timothy or orchard grass hay will keep rabbit teeth worn down to a proper length as they grow.

Prevent Malocclusions

Malocclusion is a condition in which a rabbit's teeth become misaligned and overgrown. It occurs when the top and bottom teeth don't rub against each other effectively to grind them down as they grow. Malocclusion causes intense pain and keeps rabbits from eating properly. Hay in the diet is the best way to prevent painful malocclusions.

A rabbit's teeth grow continuously at a rate of 1/8 inch per week. The silica-rich, abrasive fiber in grass hay files down the teeth with a rabbit's natural sideways chewing motion, keeping teeth properly aligned and worn to the correct length. Without sufficient hay, teeth can overgrow, curve out of place, and develop sharp points and spikes that injure the mouth. Incisors may even grow into the roof of the mouth or face.

Misaligned teeth don't grind against each other effectively for wearing down. Overgrown teeth also prevent proper closure of the jaws needed for chewing. This makes it very painful for a rabbit to eat. Malocclusion also causes internal trauma to the mouth. Rabbits with overgrown teeth may stop eating and rapidly lose weight.

Providing unlimited timothy or orchard grass hay prevents malocclusion. The coarse, abrasive qualities of these hays grind the teeth down with normal chewing activity. Hay should comprise at least 75% of an adult rabbit's diet. Young rabbits from weaning age to 7 months need unlimited alfalfa hay to support growth and calcium needs. Adult alfalfa is too high in protein and calcium to prevent malocclusion.

Hay encourages natural rabbit behaviors

In addition to keeping rabbits physically healthy, hay satisfies a rabbit's natural behavioral needs. Rabbits evolved as grazing animals that spend their waking hours foraging for grass. They have an innate drive to chew plant materials continually. Hay satisfies these natural drives for foraging, chewing, and avoiding boredom.


Wild and domestic rabbits spend the majority of their day foraging for food. In the wild, rabbits roam up to several miles grazing on grasses and plant materials. Pet rabbits retain this strong natural drive to seek out plant materials.

Placing hay in different areas around the cage or rabbit pen satisfies the foraging instinct. Scatter handfuls in boxes or hide them inside paper bags or cardboard tubes. Stuff hay into willow balls or place piles inside tunnels for your rabbit to burrow through while eating. Frequent refills and rearrangements will keep your rabbit engaged and active, preventing boredom and satisfying natural grazing behavior.


Chewing is a near-constant activity for rabbits. Their continually growing teeth require excessive chewing to keep teeth worn down. Rabbits also chew materials to assess potential food sources and explore their environment.

Hay satisfies the need to chew. Rabbits prefer timothy, orchard grass, oat hay, or other grass hays they can really sink their teeth into. Avoid soft hays like alfalfa since they do not provide enough resistance for proper dental wear. Make sure fresh hay is available at all times in unlimited quantities.

Hay keeps rabbits busy constructively chewing for many hours. Monitor how much is eaten to be sure your rabbit finishes most of it within a day to avoid waste and keep the supply fresh. Rotate different grass hays for variety.

Less boredom

Pet rabbits suffer from boredom without constructive activities to engage in throughout the day. Bored rabbits may resort to destructive chewing on cage wires or furniture to occupy themselves.

An ample supply of fresh hay reduces boredom by engaging natural rabbit behaviors like foraging and chewing. Hay is low in calories, so rabbits cannot overindulge. Scatter or hide hay around the habitat to provide mental stimulation. Refill piles multiple times a day to encourage activity.

Hay satisfies chewing urges in a healthy way, rather than having the rabbit gnaw and possible ingest harmful non-edible items. Keeping a rabbit occupied with hay diminishes boredom and prevents destructive behaviors stemming from a lack of activity. Make sure unlimited fresh hay is always close at hand to reduce boredom and related behavior problems.

How much hay should rabbits eat?

The majority of a rabbit's diet should be high-quality grass hay. Hay should comprise 75% or more of what a rabbit eats. The actual amount varies based on the size and age of your rabbit. Here are some guidelines for how much hay to feed:

  • Baby rabbits – Feed alfalfa hay free-choice from weaning age around 4-8 weeks old until 7 months. Always keep hay available and let babies eat as much as desired.

  • Adult rabbits up to 5 lbs – Feed a minimum of 1 ounce (about 2 packed cups) per pound of body weight daily. For a 5 lb rabbit, provide at least 5 ounces of hay per day.

  • Adult rabbits 5-10 lbs – Feed a minimum of 0.75 ounce (about 1.5 packed cups) per pound of body weight daily. A 7 lb rabbit needs at least 5.25 ounces of hay per day.

  • Larger adult rabbits 10+ lbs – Feed a minimum of 0.5 ounce (about 1 packed cup) per pound of body weight daily. A 12 lb rabbit needs at least 6 ounces of hay each day.

Ideally provide hay free-choice in unlimited quantities when possible. Orally consuming hay provides the most dental and gut benefits. Encouraging hay intake makes your rabbit less likely to develop dental disease and GI stasis. Monitor consumption and adjust amounts to maintain good body condition.

What kind of hay is good for rabbits?

High-quality grass hay provides the best nutrition and health benefits:

  • Timothy hay – A top choice with a high fiber content. The long strands are abrasive for wearing down teeth. Avoid dusty hay.

  • Orchard grass hay – Similar to timothy with long fibers to grind teeth. May have more calories than timothy.

  • Oat hay – Soft and fragrant hay relished by most rabbits. Contains more calcium and calories than grass hays.

  • Bermuda hay – A commonly available grass hay in some regions. Nutritionally similar to timothy.

  • Brome hay – Less common but with a comparable fiber content to timothy hay.

  • Wheat hay – Lower in fiber and calories than grass hays. The hollow stems crumble easily.

  • Meadow hay – A mix of grasses including ryegrass and fescue. Varies in nutrition and fiber content.

Avoid alfalfa hay for adult rabbits due to the high protein, calcium, and calories. Alfalfa fed daily can contribute to obesity and bladder stone formation. Use only as a limited treat for adults. Always choose green, sweet-smelling hay and avoid any that is damp, moldy, or excessively dusty.

Where to get fresh hay for rabbits

Here are some places to buy fresh, high-quality hay for your rabbit:

  • Local feed stores – Many carry bales or bags of timothy, orchard grass, oat hay, and other rabbit-appropriate hays. Inspect and smell hay before purchasing.

  • Online hay retailers – Order farm-fresh hays shipped direct to your home. Small Pet Select and Standlee Hay Company are reputable online sources.

  • Farmer's markets – Chat with vendors to find one that sells fresh hay suitable for rabbits. Buy a few bales at a time.

  • Direct from farms – Contact local farms and ask if they will sell you a few bales of good hay for your rabbit.

  • Feed supply stores – Check selections at stores like Tractor Supply that sell feed and hay geared for farm animals. Buy organic when possible.

  • Hay subscriptions – Services like Small Pet Select allow auto-delivery of fresh hay boxes to conveniently replenish your stock.

Obtain hay from sources with rapid turnover to ensure the freshest harvests. Promptly store hay in a cool, dry place. Discard any hay that smells moldy, feels damp, or looks unappetizing. Providing top-quality, fresh hay maximizes the dental and gut health benefits for your rabbit.

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