By Tom Ingleton, Veterinary Student
First published in Rabbiting On Winter 2020
Hay is an important part of a pet rabbit’s diet, harvested at just the right time for maximum nutrition, then dried to lock in this goodness. Hay has been proven to aid digestion in rabbits, providing fibre and helping nutrient absorption. Hay is also one of the best foods for a rabbit’s teeth, as it requires a lot of chewing which gently and gradually wears them down.
A problem for many rabbit owners is the subsequent mess that comes with this tasty treat, caused by the rabbit soiling the hay and throwing it around the enclosure or house. A hay rack might appear to be the solution, keeping the hay off the floor and all in one place. However, before you go out and get one, we’re going to help you decide what’s best for you and your rabbits.
Firstly, we’re going to focus on the benefits of using a hayrack, of which there are a few, primarily centred around cleanliness and the potential for improved hygiene, alongside convenience for us as owners.
The argument in favour of using hay racks is usually based around hygiene, to prevent rabbits soiling their food. Elevating the hay off the ground keeps it out of the way of urine and faeces. Although for a well litter-trained rabbit, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for the owner.
Another benefit of using a hay rack, for some, is that it encourages general cleanliness in and around the enclosure, by preventing the rabbits spreading the hay around and creating a mess. Unfortunately, there might not be a solution to this! Rabbits love not only eating hay, but they also play with it, so it is completely normal for them to spread out hay throughout their enclosure, inevitably creating a bit of a mess! This is likely to occur whether the hay is provided in a hay rack or on the floor.
Convenience has already been partially covered, with the potential for improved hygiene and cleanliness. It is also more time efficient to have one location to put food and it’s also easier to see how much hay your rabbits are getting through when it’s provided in one place.
Having covered the benefits of using a hay rack, we’re now going to look at the other side of the argument and see the associated disadvantages. These include safety, health risks, and the fact that they encourage the rabbit away from their natural feeding position and behaviours.
• Potential safety risk:
A hay rack is a potential hazard which could lead to an unwanted trip to the vets. This is due to the holes often being large enough for your rabbit to get their legs, head or neck trapped. The racks are often made of metal, which makes them strong and sturdy, but not very forgiving on a rabbit’s limbs or neck.
Eating from the hay rack regularly may result in painful sores around the mouth, nose and face, if they’re rubbing against the often-abrasive frame of the hay rack. These wounds can very quickly become infected, leading to pain and the risk of the rabbit going into gastrointestinal stasis.
Perhaps surprisingly, a hay rack is far from an ideal environment to store hay in – it is exposed to the air and moisture which can quickly cause mould to form. Filling a hay rack instead of spreading it out in the enclosure can mean that mould goes unnoticed at the bottom of the rack.
Mouldy hay produces spores which, when inhaled by the rabbit, can cause dangerous respiratory problems. If the rabbit eats the hay that has gone mouldy it is even worse, causing potentially life-threatening illness.
Hay should be stored in air-tight, dry, metal containers and never provided in too much of an excess that any mould might go unnoticed. Mouldy hay smells bad and is discoloured. If you’re not sure about your hay, throw it away – it’s not worth the risk.
• Natural feeding:
Rabbits are often known as herbivores (they’re completely vegetarian) but they can be more specifically described as graminivores, which means that a large proportion of their diet is made up of grasses, and a huge proportion of their time is spent grazing. This has led to rabbits having a specially adapted digestive system, which is in its natural position when they have their head down and all four feet are on the floor.
This position, and the resulting natural feeding behaviour, is not encouraged when food is supplied in a hay rack, which forces the rabbit to reach up to access food. By providing food on the floor, preferably scattered throughout the enclosure, rabbits are encouraged to eat naturally. By feeding in this way, the rabbits are at not nearly as much risk of inhaling dust, particles or spores from the hay.
• Behavioural benefits:
Foraging throughout the enclosure is the most natural way for rabbits to eat and this is much harder to achieve when a major food source is placed in just one area, a hay rack. Foraging should be encouraged for all food. In the wild, even when grazing, rabbits spend time searching for the best blades of grass and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to do the same with hay.
Providing rabbits with the opportunity to forage results in several behavioural benefits, by combating boredom and stereotypic behaviours such as bar-biting. Wild rabbits spend around 80% of their time foraging and eating, but if we’re only providing them with food in a dish and in a hay rack, this natural feeding pattern won’t be seen in our companion rabbits.
It could be argued that hay racks have the benefit of making the food harder to access, therefore giving the rabbit an added challenge. However, I think this would quickly become repetitive and involves little searching for the food. In terms of a mental stimulus, having to find food through ‘scatter-feeding’ in tubes and around the enclosure would be much more challenging and enriching.
Overall, we recommend that you don’t use hay racks, and that eating scattered hay off the floor is best for rabbits. This encourages their natural feeding behaviour and aids digestion, whilst minimising any potential health risks. Hay can be spread throughout the enclosure to encourage natural foraging and grazing behaviours, whilst ensuring that the rabbit is eating in its natural feeding position. If a litter tray is used, hay can also be placed in the tray to allow the rabbit to eat whilst they use the litter tray. This should be changed at least daily.
A hay rack at floor level solves the problem of increased inspiration of dust because it’s at floor level. However, it does create a 2D wall rather than a 3D space for the rabbits to interact with the hay and prevents normal behaviours such as digging in the hay. It also still makes it look like there is plenty of hay, even when the rabbit has gone through and eaten all the bits that it wants, which means that owners are disincentivised to provide more hay daily.
If hay racks on the floor are used, then the rabbit should also be provided with additional sources of hay on the floor at all times. Often, that means that there isn’t much point to having the hay rack in the first place.
Also, remember that as the weather gets colder, it is important to give your rabbit lots of cosy bedding. Straw is warmer than hay, and although it provides no nutritional benefit if eaten, both should be increased to provide extra insulation. Mixing hay in with the bedding guarantees your sleepy rabbits are never far from a midnight snack!