November, 2021

November 22, 2021

How Do I Make My Pet’s Habitat Fun and Enriching?

How Do I Make My Pet’s Habitat Fun and Enriching?

A house just doesn’t feel like a home without the right meaningful personal touches.  One fun and beneficial way to add character to your pet’s living space is to design and accessorize with enrichment in mind.  In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how you can elevate your pet’s habitat or living space (and support their mental and physical health) by adding opportunities for daily enrichment.   
 
Steps for making your pet’s habitat fun and enriching include: 

  1. Prepare your pet’s space with safety in mind 
  2. Support all of your pet’s instinctual behaviors 
  3. Choose a fun theme for your pet’s space  
  4. Make the most of your space (and make it your pet’s own) 
  5. Don’t forget to provide mental stimulation! 

1. Prepare Your Pet’s Space with Safety in Mind

The first and most important step in setting up a fun and enriching habitat for your small pet is to select and prepare a space that is safe and spacious.  Every pet’s space will be unique and the appropriate size and location will vary by species.  Tips to consider when enriching your pet’s habitat include:  

Dedicate as much space as possible for enrichment 

All forms of enrichment involve physical activity, so it’s important to provide as much space as possible for your pet to explore throughout the day.  If your pet roams freely, this is a great time to double-check that you’ve created a safe, free room environment.   
 
If your pet spends dedicated time in their habitat during the day, here are some tips for creating ample space for your enrichment haven: 

  • Add an exercise pen (x-pen) for extra space  
    • Adding an x-pen to your pet’s habitat is a great way to increase the amount of room they have for exercise and enrichment.  A habitat alone does not provide enough space for many species (including rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas) to move, explore, and exercise in a healthy way.  To help expand your pet’s space, some habitats (like our Large and Extra Large Enriched Life habitats) come with an attachable x-pen which doubles the habitat space.   
  • Choose a safe, spacious area outside the habitat for daily enrichment 
    • Even with the extra space provided by an x-pen, all small pets should experience dedicated time outside the habitat every day.  In addition to the basic mental and physical benefits this provides, time outside the habitat provides an essential opportunity for your to interact and bond with your pet.   

Safety first

Once you’ve selected an enrichment space you select for your pet, take extra steps to ensure your pet’s safety.  Make sure the area is clean and a safe distance away from any objects that could pose a threat to your pet’s health (including plants, cords, and any objects that could fall from nearby shelves.)   

If you’re new to interacting with your pet outside the habitat, we recommend checking out our article on how to safely hold small pets.  If you have specific questions about how to make sure your pet’s exercise/enrichment space is safe, don’t hesitate to ask your trusted veterinarian.

2. Support All of Your Pet’s Instinctual Behaviors 

All small pets are wired to instinctively engage in a number of enriching behaviors daily, including playing, chewing, hiding, and exploring.  When planning your pet’s enrichment space, it’s essential to thoughtfully map out the space with accessories and activities that support each of these activities.   

If you already provide daily enrichment for your pets, here are some tips for taking enrichment to the next level in relation to each instinctual behavior:  

Chewing  

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: regular chewing is essential to your pet’s dental health.  It’s true!  For animals like rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas, champion-level chewing is necessary to keep their ever-growing teeth worn and healthy.   

One easy way to build your pet’s enrichment space while supporting their dental health in the process is to offer multiple chews and rearrange and replace them regularly.  This activity helps keep your animals interested and engaged with their chews over time. 

Provide a variety of materials.  Oxbow’s Enriched Life natural chews are made with a wide variety of materials to provide different textures and chewing experiences for pets.  Some examples of these safe chewing materials include:  

  • Timothy hay 
  • Untreated cardboard 
  • Untreated wood  
  • Willow  
  • Catbrier  
  • Bulrush  
  • Apple sticks 
  • Mulberry  
  • Seagrass 
  • Corn leaf  
  • Raffia paper  

With more than 60 Enriched Life Natural Chews to choose from, it’s easy to keep your pets constantly interested in keeping up on their dental maintenance. 

Want to learn more about small pet dental health?  Check out our handy Dental Health Checklist! 

Playing 

Raise your hand if you miss recess!  Us too.  The good news for our pets is that playtime can be anytime.  Small pets are playful by nature and love interacting in fun and enriching ways with their surroundings.  Supporting your pet’s play instincts provides endless opportunities for fun and creativity and is a great way to build your bond.   

Here are some fun tips for decking your pet’s space out to stimulate play throughout the day:  

  • Space it out  
    • The more your pet moves around, the better.  By spacing out your pet’s chews and play items, you will naturally encourage them to be active.   
  • Offer a variety of shapes and structures 
    • When it comes time to select items that support your pet’s play instincts, offering a variety of shapes, materials, and structures provides mental stimulation and increases the likelihood that your pet will engage in play throughout the day.  
    • Offering a variety of items is also a great way to determine which toys and accessories your pet enjoys the best.  Every pet’s favorites will be different! 

Hiding

You know not to take it personally when your small pet hides away for a little rest and relaxation.  As a prey species, the hiding instinct is important for both your pet’s mental and physical health. 

Unlike more visibly active forms of enrichment, it’s sometimes easy to overlook hiding as an important activity for small pets.  Quite to the contrary, hiding is an essential instinct for all small pets.  The good news is that supporting this behavior is easy. 

Offer at least one dedicated hideout for your pets.  Depending on the size of your pet’s space, offering multiple options through the space is even better.  Great hideout options for small pets include:  

Exploring 

Like all great explorers before them, your pet will benefit from a little encouragement in their conquests.  That’s where you come in.   

There are endless options for encouraging your pet’s exploration instincts, but some of our favorite tips include:  

  • Hide tasty treasures throughout the space  
    • Small pets are expert foragers and will instinctively seek out rewards they can smell in their living space.  Hide species-appropriate veggies, fruits, and healthy treats throughout their space to encourage them to explore high and low throughout the day. 
    • Learn more about how to support your pet’s natural foraging instincts here.        
  • Fill that hideaway with hay  
    • Rest and relaxation time doesn’t have to be passive.  In fact, filling your little loved one’s hideout with hay can encourage them to explore, even as they escape the hustle and bustle of the environment around them.  Place a couple of veggie or treat pieces deep in the pile of hay to kick those exploration instincts into high gear.   
  • Offer items that roll 
    • Many small pets love the physical activity of chasing, tossing, and pushing toys and accessories throughout their space.  Items that are designed to roll are great for encouraging exploration each day.  Some great items that move include: 

Learn more about exploring basics in our All About Exploring article. 

3. Choose a Theme for Your Pet's Space

If you’re an active member of small pet communities on social media, you already know that Pinterest and Instagram can be a source of endless inspiration for awe-inspiring themes pet habitats and play spaces.  And while the sky’s the limit for decking out your pet’s enriching domain, the good news is you don’t need to be an A-list Instagram influencer to personalize your pet’s enrichment habitat.   

Here are some fun, safe ways to make your pet’s space their own:  

  • Add some personalized décor 
    • Every pet is unique and each is special.  Looking for a fun way to add an enrichment-inspired personal touch in your pet’s habitat or living space?  Check out this great How To Video on Making a Personalized Pet Banner!    
  • Motivational quotes aren’t just for mom and dad!   
    • Okay, we understand that these are mostly for our enjoyment, but we’re suckers for seeing a good, stylized quote on the wall in a pet’s favorite play corner.  To fit the enrichment theme, choose a health or fitness-themed quote to display in your pet’s enrichment space.  
  • Choose a theme for your pet’s enrichment area  
    • Providing enrichment for your little loved one is fun by nature and integrating a theme into your pet’s enriching habitat can make it even more enjoyable.  The opportunities for themes are endless, but here are a few ideas to consider:  
      • Pet Gym: “Do you even enrich, bro?”  Add some gym-inspired accents to give your pet the extra inspiration they might need to crush a killer workout each day.  Mirrors for self-admiration are optional.   
      • Playroom: Playing is instinctual and so many of our Enriched Life accessories are specifically designed to support this fun and important behavior.  So, why wouldn’t you dedicate a theme to play?   
      • Obstacle Course: Is your pet especially adventurous?  Creating an obstacle course that incorporates all the key areas of enrichment offers endless hours of fun and creative planning.  Just don’t forget to offer healthy treats as rewards along the path!

4. Make the Most of the Space (And Make It Your Pet’s Own)

It’s just a fact of life that most of us have don’t have unlimited space for our families and pets.  Even if you have a free roam environment for your little ones, you likely find yourself wishing you had more real estate for accessories and enrichment.  The good news is that limited living quarters should not be a deterrent for creating a full enrichment experience for your little loved ones.   

Here are some easy ways to make the most of your space: 
 
Offer Enrichment in Your Pet’s Favorite Hiding Spots

As we’ve discussed, hiding away for rest and relaxation throughout the day is an instinctual behavior for all prey species.  One way to make the most of your enriched habitat space is to make a habit of placing your pet’s favorite chew toys in their hideouts.   

Promote Vertical Play 

Most pets enjoy exploring vertical spaces within their habitats.  One great way to encourage your little loved one to stretch his or her legs is to incorporate enrichment accessories that are designed to be hung or attached to the walls of a habitat or exercise pen.  Some of our favorite items that are custom made to inspire pets to “get vertical” include: 

Here are some species-specific considerations to keep in mind with supporting your pet’s vertical play instincts:    

  • Chinchillas are athletic explorers that love getting vertical.  Take advantage of their multi-level habitat by ensuring there are opportunities for enrichment at every level.   
  • Rats are expert climbers.  Make sure to add a high-quality climbing rope to your rat’s habitat and make a multi-level hammock a staple for rest and relaxation.   
  • Rabbits are curious and are great at stretching out to explore.  Incorporate enrichment items that attach to the wall of a habitat or x-pen fencing to encourage your bunny to stretch those legs!

5. Don’t Forget About Mental Stimulation!

We don’t need to tell you how smart your pet is.  If you’re like most pet parents, you probably already gush to everyone you know about what a smart cookie your pet is.  In addition to being fully supportive of bragging on your pets (they are amazing), we’re here to validate what you already knew: small animals are highly intelligent and greatly benefit from mental stimulation each day.   

Offering basic chew toys and play accessories is a great way to help your pet flex their mental muscles, but there are some additional ways to further stimulate your pet mentally. 

Promote Foraging in Healthy Ways  

It comes as a surprise to some pet parents that rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, hamsters, and many other small pet species actually love to work for their food.  Promoting foraging is easy and fun for you and your pet alike.  Check out our Top 10 Foraging Accessories for Small Pets! 

Incorporate Puzzles and Games  

Brain teasers aren’t just for humans!  Small pets are highly intelligent creatures and benefit from mental stimulation in the form of puzzles and games.  The good news is that there are numerous great items that are specifically designed to engage your little Einstein’s gray matter.  Some of our favorites include:   

Play Interactive Games with Your Pet  

All forms of enrichment are more enjoyable when interactively enjoyed with your pet.  There are a number of ways to engage in fun, interactive play with your pets.  Some of our favorites can be found in our Games with Pets handout.

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November 12, 2021

How to Care for Young Small Mammals

How to Care for Young Small Mammals

by Dianne Cook, LVT

Regardless of species, there are few things quite as adorable as young animals. With big eyes, button noses, and boundless curiosity, young animals have a way of quickly burrowing their way into their pet parents’ hearts. While welcoming a young small mammal (or 2 or 3) into your home is sure to fill your days with adorable antics, those quickly maturing bodies require some specialized care. Luckily, with the proper diet, environment, species-appropriate veterinary care, and lots and lots of love, you can help your little one grow up healthy and strong.  

What Constitutes As “Young”? 

Just like humans, every individual animal matures at their own rate. While some may fill out at a relatively young age, others take longer to reach their full adult size. These differences can be especially apparent between two breeds of the same species (e.g. Flemish giant vs Holland lop) but may also be noted between littermates.  
 
The following list provides the average ages during which small mammals are considered “young.” It’s always best to work with an experienced exotics veterinarian to ensure your little one’s care is tailored to their unique growth rate and individualized needs. 

  • Rabbits: birth – 12 months  
    • Some giant breeds are considered adults at 9 months 
  • Guinea Pigs: birth – 6 months 
  • Chinchillas: birth – 12 months 
    • Many grow and mature until they’re closer to 2 years of age 
  • Rats: birth – 6 months 
  • Hamsters: birth – 3 months  
    • On average - there are some differences between breeds 
  • Gerbils: birth – 3 or 4 months 
  • Mice: birth – 3 months 

A Baby by any Other Name 

When most people see a baby rabbit, they immediately think “bunny.” Guinea pig babies are often called “piglets,” and baby hamsters are sometimes referred to as “hamlets.” While these colloquial terms are not necessarily incorrect, it may come as a surprise to learn that baby small mammals technically fall into one of two teams: team pups or team kits. 

Team Pups  Team Kits 
Guinea Pigs Rabbits
Rats Chinchillas
Hamsters  
Gerbils  
Mice  

A Word on Neonates 

Whether resulting from a planned or unplanned pregnancy, the discovery of a nest full of teeny-tiny babies can result in shock, awe, and a bit of trepidation. Though you’ll want to keep a watchful eye on the babies to make sure they are growing and developing as expected, under most circumstances, it is best to leave mom and her offspring alone as much as possible.  

Species like guinea pigs and chinchillas are born with their eyes open and look like miniature, fully furred versions of their parents. These little ones are generally safe to be handled about a week after they are born. Rabbits, rats, hamsters, gerbils, and mice give birth to less-developed babies that are born with closed eyes and no fur. As a result, it’s best to avoid handling these species until they have a full hair coat, are old enough to leave the nest, and are eating some solid foods well on their own.  

It is also important to note that many small mammal mothers can appear as though they are not taking good care of their babies even though they are. This is especially true for small herbivores. For instance, rabbits tend to nurse their babies 2 – 3 times a day (typically during dawn and dusk) and will otherwise leave the nest box unattended. If the babies are active and appear to have full bellies, mom is doing her job. 

Unfortunately, as with any animal, there are times that a mother may pass away during (or just after) delivery, or she may abandon or reject her babies altogether. If you are certain mom is no longer capable of or willing to care for her babies, it is essential to contact an exotics veterinarian immediately to discuss proper care and supplementation of the litter.    

Protein, Calcium, and Calories, Oh My! 

During their first few weeks-to-months of life, small mammals grow astonishingly fast. While their little bodies go through this time of rapid maturation, higher levels of certain nutrients are required to ensure the proper formation of organs, nerves, bones, muscles, and connective tissues. As newborns, their mothers’ milk (or a milk replacement formula) provides all the necessary nutritional requirements.  

Once weaned, however, pet parents need to provide their young friends with a diet rich in protein (especially amino acids), calcium, and extra energy (i.e. calories) to aid in the growth of a strong, healthy body. To learn more about the importance of feeding a species-specific diet formulated specifically for young pets, please read the following article: The Importance of Young Formulas for Small Animals. 

Caring for Young Herbivores 

Diet  

During their formative years, young herbivores (rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas) should be fed a high-quality, fortified, alfalfa-based pelleted diet. Throughout this stage of life, it is important your little one is fed an unlimited quantity of pellets to ensure they are getting plenty of protein and calcium as well as their daily allotment of micronutrients.  

In addition to pellets, youngsters should also have constant access to an unlimited supply of grass-hay varieties mixed with loose alfalfa. Alfalfa is rich in protein and calcium, making it a staple of a healthy young herbivore diet, but adding a selection of grass hays provides nutritional enrichment, stimulates your young friend’s natural foraging behavior, and helps broaden their palate by exposing them to the different aromas, tastes, and textures of hay.  

Finally, a daily serving of fresh, species-appropriate greens and veggies make up a well-rounded herbivore diet. Not only do fresh greens provide additional vitamins and minerals to your little one’s diet, but they also serve as an easy (and delicious) way to increase hydration and support your kiddo’s instinctual foraging behavior. Make sure to introduce new greens gradually, one variety at a time, to allow your little one’s maturing digestive system time to adjust. It is always best to work with a trusted veterinarian to ensure the variety of greens (and their overall diet) is modified to meet the needs of your little one’s species, growth-rate, and personal tolerances/preference. 

Environment 

As naturally active, curious animals, young small herbivores require a large, secure area in which to play, explore, and re-energize. While some little ones can be trusted to roam freely throughout a pet-proofed space, others do best spending a portion of their day in the protected comfort of a species-appropriate enclosure. Regardless of their habitat, it is essential for herbivores of all ages to have access to a safe, supervised area of the home in which they can burn off excess energy and stimulate their mind. Not only will this time provide an excellent opportunity for you to start building a strong human-animal bond, it will also help your fur baby develop strong bones, healthy muscle mass, and a sharp mind. Keeping a variety of enrichment items in this space will help keep interest piqued and prevent curious little mouths from chewing on things they shouldn’t. 

Caring for Young Omnivores 

Diet 

Small omnivores (rats, hamsters, gerbils, and mice) are physiologically designed to consume a wide variety of foods. Though protein, calcium, and additional calories (energy) are equally important for young omnivores as they are for young herbivores, the way these nutrients are consumed should be uniquely tailored to your little one’s species. The most substantial portion of a healthy omnivorous diet should include a species-specific, fortified, uniform pellet/rodent block. A uniform pellet or block will help lay a solid foundation for a well-balanced diet while helping to avoid obesity and other common health-related concerns seen these species.  

Though a high-quality pellet or block serves as the backbone of a healthy young omnivore diet, offering a variety of supplemental foods (like fresh produce, grains, and proteins) will round out your young friend’s menu, provide additional macro- and micronutrients, and serve as a healthy outlet for your kiddo’s intrinsic desire to forage. Small omnivores are naturally opportunistic and tend to be more than willing to sample a wide variety of supplemental foods, but options should be introduced gradually and in appropriately sized portions to avoid any digestive woes or selective feeding concerns. As always, working with an exotics-savvy veterinarian is advisable.

Environment 

Though small in stature, young omnivores have big personalities and seemingly boundless energy. As a result, it is essential to provide them with the largest, species-appropriate enclosure possible. An appropriate small omnivore habitat will feature multiple levels for climbing and exploring, an appropriate outlet for expending pent-up energy (e.g. species-appropriate exercise wheel, all-natural chews, tunnels, climbing ropes, etc), and plenty of soft bedding in which to nest and stash their food. Even though a spacious enclosure will give your young friend room to explore, they should always have daily, closely supervised time outside of their habitat to run around and interact with their favorite humans.  

Learn More

Rabbit Life Cycle Stages: Feeding and Care Tips
Guinea Pig Life Cycle Stages: Feeding and Care Tips
 
What Should I Feed to My Pet Rat?
Selective Feeding in Rats, Mice, Hamsters, and Gerbils 

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November 10, 2021

How to Safely Hold Small Mammals

How to Safely Hold Small Mammals

While the thought of restraining a beloved pet can make any caring pet parent a little uncomfortable, knowing how to properly hold and secure your animal is an essential part of pet parenthood. Proper holds prevent your pet, yourself, and others from injury, and can also help greatly in limiting stress while giving medications or Critical Care to sick pets. 

General guidelines for safely holding small mammals include:  

  • Be secure, but don’t squeeze. 
  • Keep pets close to the body when learning. 
  • For families, adult supervision is key. 
  • Avoid heights unless necessary. 

Holding Your Pet Securely

Securely holding an animal so they cannot wiggle out of your hands is of utmost importance to their safety, but making sure you’re not holding too tight is just as important. If you’re new to holding your pet’s species, start by simply holding your pet an inch off of the ground. From here, you can adjust your grip to be just right so that they are neither at risk of being squeezed nor at risk of freeing themselves and causing an injury. It will take time and practice, but you’ll get a feel for it. Keep practicing!  

Start out by having the animal’s face away from you, especially if you are not familiar with the animal. It’s relatively rare for small mammals to bite out of anxiety or fear, but it’s best to not open yourself up to the possibility, especially if you’re in the beginning stages of developing a trusting, loving bond with a new pet. As you become more comfortable with the animal and learn what their particular behaviors are when they’re picked up, you can have the animal face you. 

Supervise Interactions Between Pets and Children

We do not recommend that children (especially young children) handle any animal on their own without clear guidance. When a young person is ready to learn how to handle an animal, adults should educate and explain the importance of holding an animal properly, then supervise while children learn to hold animals only an inch off the ground as described in the second paragraph.  

Avoid Unnecessary High Lifting

Don't lift the animal high from the ground unless necessary. Accidents can and do happen, and falls from high places may cause serious, painful injuries for even the most acrobatic species.  

Rabbits, Guinea Pigs, and Chinchillas 

How to Hold a Chinchilla

While not identical, the holds for rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas share similarities. If you have an animal that is frightened, prone to bolting, or is very squirmy, locking one of their front legs between your fingers can be especially helpful in securing them. This, paired with holding them close to your body, will limit how much the animal struggles and can help keep them calm.  

 

This pet parent has fingers placed above and below one of the pet’s front legs. The top finger and palm support the chest, while the thumb sits underneath the animal’s other front leg. They are supporting the animals’ body weight with their other hand. If your pet is prone to kicking or tries to leap out of your hands during this hold, holding their backside only while not supporting their back legs can prevent this.

How to Hold a Rabbit

Note how this rabbit looks uncertain—they might be in a new environment, or meeting someone new. The pet parent is holding the animal close to their body, with one hand underneath both of the front legs. The right hand is available to support the animal’s backside when the pet parent stands up with the rabbit. Also note how the pet parent is kneeling down to the ground for this interaction as a way to stay on the animal’s level, rather than standing up with the animal high off of the ground.

How to Hold a Guinea Pig

This pet parent is holding the animal facing them, but the animal is still secured with one hand behind their back. The other hand is used to support the animal’s backside.

When it’s snuggle time, you can place your pet on your lap to allow them to feel more freedom. From this spot, you can also mediate interactions between your pet and others who might be present. This pet parent is using their lap to support the animal’s weight while keeping one hand securely on the animal. Their other hand can be used to further secure the animal if necessary or can be used to mediate the interaction between pet and child.  

Lap Time

 

When your rabbit, guinea pig, or chinchilla is more familiar with you, secure lap time can be a good option to strengthen your bond. These pet parents have their pet on their lap and have at least one hand on their pet to quickly secure the animal if necessary.

How to Hold Rats & Hamsters 

While rats and hamsters are more agile than the herbivorous species covered here, they still need adequate support and restraint while being held, especially if they are in new, possible stressful situations. 

If you have recently gotten your pet or are unfamiliar with an individual animal’s habits, do not handle them with an open, outstretched palm. This can easily allow them to fall from high places, while also opening you up to unexpected nibbles or bites. 

 

New pet parents should start by handling their rat, hamster, or gerbil with both hands. One hand should support the belly and backside of your pet, while the other hand secures the pet in place.

Once your pet has become more accustomed to their surroundings, they can enjoy lap time. First start with a calm, quiet setting, and keep at least one hand on your pet as a reminder to them that they are safe and secure. Your pet will eventually become more confident—at this point, you can allow them to climb and explore while supervised. 

This rat is given more freedom to move around without restraint, but the pet parent is still holding them with both hands. 

Don’t Get Discouraged 

Learning how to hold small mammals takes time. Your pet may not enjoy being picked up and held right now, but with continuous practice, picking up and handling your pet will be a low-stress process for you both.  

Learn More

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November 08, 2021

Is it Normal for Hay to Look and Feel Different From Bag to Bag?

Is it Normal for Hay to Look and Feel Different From Bag to Bag?

Guinea Pig Eating Hay

One of the questions we receive from astute pet parents is whether it’s normal for hay to vary in color, texture, and even smell from bag to bag.  It’s a great question, and the short answer is “yes.”  However, there are many factors to consider when it comes to hay variability.  Knowing us to be the “hay nerds” that we are, we’re going to dive a little deeper into the following subjects in this article:

  • How is hay grown and harvested and how does that affect hay variability?
  • What are the natural factors that affect hay variability?
  • What type of hay variability is normal and what’s not?
    • Color
    • Aroma
    • Texture
  • What does Oxbow do to limit variability from one bag of hay to the next?

How Is Hay Grown and Harvested and How Does That Affect Hay Variability?

Have you ever considered where your pet’s hay comes from?  Unless you were raised on a farm, you may not be familiar with how hay is grown and harvested and the various nature-related factors that determine the way the bag or box of hay you buy for your pets looks, feels, smells, and tastes.

Hay is grown and harvested on farms throughout the world to feed herbivorous animals of all shapes and sizes.  From the largest cows and horses to the smallest chinchilla or guinea pig, herbivores rely on the fiber in hay to meet their specific digestive needs. 

Hay is a single ingredient product and is minimally handled between the field where it is grown and the time you feed it to your pet.  When hay reaches maturity, it is harvested using a series of basic mechanical processes. These include:

  • Mowing
  • Tedding (Optional)
  • Windrowing
  • Baling

Mowing

Hay is mowed (i.e. cut) when it is determined that the nutrients are at optimum levels to support the health of the animal it is intended for.  For Oxbow, this means working hand in hand with our family of farmers to ensure the hay meets the specific nutritional requirements, as well as taste and texture preferences, of rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.  To accomplish this, Oxbow hay is cut at an early stage in the growth cycle.

Tedding (Optional)

Depending on drying conditions, hay may undergo a process called tedding after it has been cut.  A hay tedder utilizes metal forks to aerate or “flu­ff up” the cut hay.  This promotes efficient curing and drying, which typically leads to improved color and aroma. 

Windrowing

Once hay has been tedded and the topside is nearly dry, it is flipped with a machine called a windrower.  This process allows the underside of the hay to dry.  Windrowing typically occurs just before baling. 

Baling

The final step in the hay harvest process is baling. The baling process mechanically compacts loose hay into large bales that are held together with colored twine.  Baling is the final and most important step that prepares the hay for storage. 

What Are the Natural Factors That Affect Hay Variability?

As a natural product, no two bags of hay will ever be exactly alike.  This is because there are ever-variable, nature-related factors that ultimately determine the look, feel, smell, and taste of the hay you purchase for your little loved one.  These factors include:

  • Geography
  • Temperature
  • Air Movement
  • Humidity
  • Precipitation

Geography

Having a geography with the right climate is key to the production of premium hay.  The ideal climate ensures greater consistency with factors such as temperature, humidity, and precipitation.  A majority of Oxbow’s hay is grown in the western United States where conditions are ideal for producing premium quality hay on a consistent basis.  

Temperature

Grass hays like Timothy and Orchard are classified as “cool season” grasses.  This means these varieties grow better in climates (like the western U.S.) that have lower temperatures on average.  Cool nights aid in the growth of these cool season grasses and warm, dry summer days help to dry the hay out quickly to be baled.

Air Movement

Air movement in the form of breezes or winds helps with the natural drying process of hay. 

Humidity

In general, lower humidity is what is ideal for producing premium hay.  Some humidity is necessary, however, especially when the hay is ready to be baled.  The right amount of dew on the hay at the time of baling helps ensure it is soft and appealing to small pets like rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas. 

Precipitation

Adequate precipitation is essential to the development of hay throughout the growing season, making precipitation hay’s friend at this time.  As soon as hay is cut and waiting to be dried and baled, however, precipitation becomes hay’s greatest enemy.  For this reason, much of Oxbow’s hay is grown in arid climates that don’t historically receive a lot of rainfall.  In these areas, the hay is grown under irrigation for controlled watering at the right time.

What Type of Hay Variability Is Normal? What Should I Be Concerned About?

As we’ve learned, some variability is perfectly natural when it comes to hay.  Next, let’s take a look at what type of variability should be expected and what should be cause for concern when it comes to attributes such as color, texture, and aroma:   

Color

Hay that is a rich green in color is the first choice of most pet parents, and it’s easy to understand why.  Hay that is a nice green color is not only more visually appealing on the shelf.  More importantly, green, healthy-looking hay is likely to have been cut and baled under the right conditions we typically strive for with premium hay.  However, it's important to understand that some variation with color is perfectly normal and is the result of the variables we discussed above in relation to how and where hay is grown.       

What's Normal:

  • You’re likely to encounter a spectrum of different shades of green when you’re regularly buying hay for your rabbit or guinea pig. 
  • Even small variations with any of the factors above (temperature, air movement, humidity, and precipitation) can result in some degree of variation when it comes to color.
  • A small amount of "brown leaf" hay is natural.  The lower portions of the hay plant turn brown naturally as hay matures during the growing season.  

What to Avoid:

  • Avoid hay that is completely brown or sun-bleached.  These can be indicators of hay that has been on the shelf or in inventory for too long and you may have a hard time convincing your pet to happily munch on this type of forage.  

Learn more about the many factors that can affect the color of hay.

Texture

Generally speaking, texture is an indicator of maturity. The more mature hay is, the coarser the texture will be.  To achieve hay that is consistently soft and pliable in the bag, Oxbow strives to cut our hay at an early maturity.   

What’s Normal:

  • Similar to color variability, you may encounter slight variation in texture from hay bag to hay bag.
  • Some varieties (like Orchard Grass, for instance) are softer by nature.  Others (like Oat) are naturally more stemmy and coarse. 
  • Similarly, a certain amount of “dust” is normal to find at the bottom of the hay bag.  Rather than dust, these fine particles are mostly made up of finely ground leaves that sift to the bottom over time. 

What to Avoid:

  • Hay that feels overly crunchy or brittle in the bag.   

Aroma

Like color and texture, aroma is another key quality indicator when it comes to hay.  Fresh, high-quality hay has a distinct pleasant aroma.  An unpleasant or non-existent aroma can be an indication of hay that should be avoided.   

What’s Normal:

  • Hay with a fresh, natural aroma 

What to Avoid: 

  • Hay with a musty aroma or any aroma that smells “off” to you.  This could be an indicator of mold and could pose harm to your pets.
  • Hay with a dull or non-existent aroma.  This can be an indication of hay that’s been stored for too long.   

What Does Oxbow Do to Limit Variability From One Bag of Hay to the Next?

Now that you’ve learned about how hay is grown and harvested and the many factors that can affect variability, you’re probably asking yourself what Oxbow does to limit variability and ensure every bag of Oxbow hay lives up to our 30+ year reputation. 

To put it simply, producing “Hay the Oxbow Way” is no small feat.  Our decades-long relationships with our family of farmers allows us to work hand in hand to grow hay that meets the specific nutritional needs and taste and texture preferences of even the pickiest of pets. 

In the Field

In the field, our hay experts go the “extra acre” to evaluate key quality attributes essential to the production of premium hay.  These attributes include color, texture, maturity, and stem-to-leaf ratio.

Sampling, Testing & Analysis

At Oxbow, our product quality team samples, grades, and nutritionally tests our hay to make sure it’s up to the challenge of nourishing your pet.  This includes 3rd party nutritional and food safety testing, and organoleptic analysis which assesses odor, flavor, appearance, and texture.

Sorting & Packaging

Oxbow hay is gently combed to loosen it from the bale.  Next, we carefully sort out smaller pieces, removing any natural foreign materials.  Finally, we extract as much natural dust from the hay as possible & expertly sort the hay by hand for that extra personal touch.

Customer Support

Our commitment to you and your little loved ones doesn’t end with a purchase.  Oxbow is made up of fellow animal lovers who want to provide support throughout the entire long, happy life of your pets. This means caring customer support is always just a phone call or email away. 

Learn more about Hay the Oxbow Way

Want to Learn More About Hay Quality? Check Out These Great Resources:

Get to Know Oxbow's Forage Research & Sourcing Manager
Fun Ways to Feed a Variety of Hays
How Much Hay Should My Pet Eat Each Day? 

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November 01, 2021

Selective Feeding in Rats, Mice, Hamsters, and Gerbils

Selective Feeding in Rats, Mice, Hamsters, and Gerbils

by Dr. Cayla Iske, PhD

From our series on muesli and foraging mixes, you’ve learned a lot about selective feeding and its nutritional consequences in small mammals. While mixes are unfortunately prevalent in the small herbivore (rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas, etc.) world, they are even more predominant in the small omnivore (rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils) realm. This is because many pet parents believe the most appropriate diet for hamsters, gerbils, mice, and rats is a mix as they think it mimics the animal’s natural diet.  

Though small omnivores notably consume a wide variety of dietary items including plants, animals, and even insects, the same nutritional inadequacies highlighted for herbivores hold true for omnivores when they are solely fed seed or muesli mix type diets. The uniform pelleted (or possibly extruded) pieces in the mix are most often the only balanced sources of essential vitamins and minerals and most often the pieces left uneaten. This will very likely lead to nutritional deficiencies for omnivores and herbivores alike.  

Nutritional Differences for Omnivores 

The chunks of fruits, veggies, whole seeds, nuts, and other ingredients in a mix are not always inherently bad for small omnivores. These species have specific nutritional needs and while they do not require the same amounts and types of dietary fiber compared to small herbivores, they do need specific amounts of protein, fat, and other micronutrients. Mixes do not ensure proper balanced intake of these nutrients.  

The Problem with Portion Control 

Another major issue with small omnivores and mixed foods is portion control. This diversity of pieces in a mix are all potentially appropriate supplemental food items as part of the overall diet profile when offered in appropriate amounts. This is the key, appropriate amounts. As a pet parent, you must be able to control the amounts of supplemental produce, grains, proteins, and fats in your little one’s diet to avoid obesity, gastrointestinal issues, and other diseases such as diabetes.  

Too Much of a Good Thing  

Research shows that 70% of small pet parents will refill their pet’s food bowl even though there is uneaten food left in it. This means when small omnivores select for the fruits and nuts and seeds in a mix, the majority of pet parents are likely to replenish the bowl with another round of fruits and nuts and seeds before their pets have the opportunity to consume the nutritionally balanced portion of the food (i.e. uniform pellets). 

A Better Approach to Omnivore Nutrition  

When we refill our pet’s food bowl on the fly, we lose any ability to control individual components of their diet, as well as overall intake. The better option both nutritionally and to stimulate foraging behaviors is to offer a nutritionally uniform food as the base of the diet coupled with appropriate amounts and varieties of additional fresh fruits, veggies, greens, grains, seeds, and even an occasional insect (cricket, mealworm, Dubia roach, etc.). This more controlled approach to your omnivore’s nutrition will decrease the likelihood of many issues associated with premixed diets.  

You can reference the table below for options and suggested feeding amounts of these supplemental foods, though you should always consult your veterinarian when adjusting your pet’s diet.  

Variety and Enrichment 

The issues with muesli/seed-based mixes extend beyond nutrition. Though the bag of muesli mix may claim it stimulates foraging, this has yet to be proven and the “variety” of ingredients is inadequate for proper enrichment. Offering the same mix with the same components every day is not diverse nor enriching.  

Offering a variety of foods provides nutritional as well as physical and mental enrichment, so it’s important and immensely beneficial to offer your omnivore a rotating variety of supplemental foods in the table above. Offering all diet items in diverse ways is also the best way to keep your animal interested in mealtime, active, and engaged.  

Many toys and accessories on the market make offering your small omnivore enrichment easier and safer. 

The Bottom Line 

While muesli/seed-based mixes look like they are the most appropriate for your small omnivore, they can lead to nutritional inadequacies and offer pet parents no control over what their pet consumes. The thought that mixes offer your pet variety on their own is misleading and, at the end of the day, simply false. The best way to feed your hamster, gerbil, rat, or mouse is with a food that is nutritionally consistent supplemented with measured amounts of other food items such as grains, seeds, nuts, proteins, and produce. Providing enrichment and stimulating foraging is also paramount and can be easily included in your pet’s daily routine with appropriate enrichment items on the market today.  

Learn More

*The photo used above was taken by @martymousehouse

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