A number of folks have been contacting me offline, perplexed about why their guinea pigs have started refusing to eat their hay, even when it's a brand they've been buying for awhile, even when by all appearances the hay seems like it's a good quality.
So What's Going On?
The reason could be anything from pure finickiness (e.g., your guinea pig is bored with the menu selection) to an actual problem with the hay. Guinea pigs have far more sophisticated and sensitive palates than humans give them credit for. And, let's face it, we humans are at a huge disadvantage when it comes to hay. We can make assessments based on sight, smell, and touch, but we're missing the most crucial sensory judgment: taste. A bag of hay can be soft, green, dry, and clean, but it might not taste good, it might not taste like anything at all, or it might have a taste that your guinea pigs don't like. And you don't know how it tastes until you buy it and give it to your pigs.
Mother Nature has full control over the taste of hay and she can throw farmers a full season of blessings, a full season of curveballs and curses, or a mixed bag of both in a single season. Weather in a "normal" season presents a lot of variables, and the crazy weather we've been seeing in recent years (including pockets of drought in the Western U.S.) increase the variables exponentially.
Mother Nature might turn out a good hay harvest, but all the variables that went into a harvest might have created a flavor your critters don't like. My pigs have liked hay that the rescue pigs didn't like, and vice versa. Both groups of pigs have turned up their noses at hay that rabbits and chinchillas in area rescues loved. Go figure.
Sometimes Mother Nature created great conditions for hay but something else in the process went wrong. Hay was cut too soon or too late. Mistakes in storage, problems in distribution/transit. If the hay suffered because of clear operational mistakes, good companies will try to make things right if you complain. (If the hay suffered because of Mother Nature...well...we're all still looking for Her Gmail address.)
Reviewing the Basics
You want hay that is green, dry, non-dusty, and soft. You never want yellow hay (old hay is yellow or beige in color), nor do you want hay that is moldy, damp, or wet (or that has been wet recently). Good hay smells fresh, like it just came in from a sunny field; it should not smell moldy, wet, old, or musty.
You also want hay that is soft, not full of stems and stalks. "Stalky" or "crunchy" hay can injure the inside of a guinea pig’s mouth, an injury that almost always leads to infection and too often requires surgery to clean up. Look for hay that is labeled “second cut” or “third cut” to ensure the softest possible hay.
If you know anyone who works with or owns horses, ask them to give you some help with the "smell test" on hay. Horse people have excellent noses for sniffing out good and bad hay…and often can pick up on the same nuances in smell that their animals can. Over the years, I've had many visits to Cindy's house start with her grabbing a handful of hay from a newly arrived bale and saying one of three things:
- "Smell this hay, it's fantastic!"
- "Smell this hay, it's awful!"
- "Smell this hay, I don't think they stored it very well in the warehouse."
Hay in the first two categories was always easy for me to pick out, but Cindy refined my sense of smell with "iffy" hay. She can open a box of hay and tell you if it's starting to mold, if it got a little damp in storage, sat in the fields too long or not long enough after being cut, or was victim to some other storage mistake. It's hard to know if she's part horse or part guinea pig, but she's definitely got a nose for hay that isn't 100% human.
Look for Different Brands or Different Varieties
Honestly, the best hay is rarely found in big box stores. Too often, you see bags of yellow or brown hay on their shelves that should be pulled or should never have been put there in the first place. Most of the green timothy hay you find is "first cut" hay that is the crunchy and stalky variety that rabbits prefer but that guinea pigs won't pick if they have a choice.
In smaller, independent pet or pet supply stores, you start finding a larger variety of brands, like Oxbow, Zupreem, and Sweet Meadow Farm. With the independent stores, you often can work with the owners to special-order specific brands or bulk sizes (25 pounds or more) as part of their usual weekly deliveries (thus saving you the high UPS Ground or FedEx Ground costs). In more agricultural areas, owners can find bales of good, locally grown, second-cut timothy hay.
A lot of us order exclusively online from operations like Massachusetts-based Sweet Meadow Farm, Nevada-based American Pet Diner, Nebraska-based Oxbow Hay, or Washington-based Kleenmama’s Hayloft. We each have our favorite farm operations because we've found their quality to be consistent year after year, and know they offer second-cut (and, sometimes, third-cut) hay that we can't find in stores. Additionally, through their Web sites, you can find options that add variety to your piggie’s diet (e.g., meadow grass hay, orchard grass hay, bluegrass hay, mountain grass hay) that might not be stocked in any of the local stores.
When it comes to hay, you may have to brace yourself for some trial and error until you find a hay that your critters like. If you have friends who own critters who eat hay, it might be worth having a sharing/swapping circle in which to pass along otherwise good hay that, for whatever reason, your pets just didn't like. And, barring that, your local rescues would welcome the donation of hay (for which you could claim a tax deduction).
So, what about you? Are these isolated incidents I've heard about recently, or are they part of a larger problem with the hay harvests last fall? Are your guinea pigs turning away from their hay, or still inhaling it as usual?