Hay is hay, right? Actually, there are lots of different varieties of hay, each of which has its own unique nutritional content. But which hay is best for chinchillas?
Which is the best chinchilla hay? Timothy hay is the best bulk hay. Most owners supplement timothy hay with small amounts of other hays like meadow hay and orchard hay. This provides a rounded nutritional profile. Chinchillas should also eat hay pellets or hay cubes, while snacks like rose hips and chamomile provide snack food options.
There are many hay options available, but making the right choice will keep your pet healthy. The guide below explores each of the different kinds available from pet stores, online or in bulk direct orders; we’ll also look at the nutritional content of each of the hays, so you can make an informed decision about which hay is best for your chinchilla.
Which Hay Is Best for Chinchillas?
Hay is the cornerstone of the chinchilla’s diet. 90% of what a chinchilla eats should be dried, store-bought hay. The rest should be pellets (two tablespoons, twice per day). Your pet should eat a basic hay, which forms the bulk of its diet; this basic hay can be mixed with another kind to round out its nutritional profile (e.g. timothy hay supplemented with alfalfa). There are also treat hays, like hay mixed with herbs.
But there are many kinds of hay available from pet stores. And while they look roughly the same, their nutritional content isn’t. That’s why you have to think carefully about which hay you should feed a chinchilla. Here’s a table detailing what each of the hay options is like, and what makes them stand out.
|What Can Chinchillas Eat?||Description||Suitability for Chinchillas|
|Timothy hay||A grass hay made from dried timothy grass (Phleum pratense). Easily the most popular chinchilla hay.||Fully suitable for chinchillas (recommended hay).|
|Meadow hay||A grass hay made from a variety of grasses.||Basically the same as timothy hay.|
|Orchard grass hay||A grass hay made from cat grass (Dactylis glomerata).||Yes.|
|Alfalfa hay||A legume hay made from dried alfalfa/lucerne (Medicago sativa)||Yes, in small quantities. Large quantities can cause bladder stones (excess calcium).|
|Oat hay||A grain hay. Rough and coarse, but sweet. Made from the grass that oats are harvested from, but they’re harvested before the oats fully form.||Yes, in small quantities. Oat grain heads contain too much protein and too many carbs.|
|Bermuda hay||A grass hay made from scutch grass (Cynodon dactylon).||Yes, although may not be quite as nutritious as timothy hay.|
The main difference is between grass hays and grain hays. Grain hays are, as the name suggests, made of grasses that produce grain (like oat hay). These typically contain too much protein and carbohydrate and not enough fiber. Grass hays (timothy, orchard, meadow, bermuda etc.) are better.
The guide below goes into more detail. For each section, the nutritional profile of each hay is listed. This will give you an idea as to why a particular hay is good or bad for a chinchilla. Bear in mind that the nutritional values are approximate, and that the precise value may vary depending on a) brand or b) hay quality.
Do Chinchillas Need Timothy Hay?
Timothy hay is a hay made from timothy grass. It’s a common horse hay, and is fed to all sorts of pets, too.
This is a perennial grass native to Europe, but which has since been imported to the United States. Timothy hay is the most popular chinchilla hay by far, and you could reasonably say it’s the best chinchilla hay as it contains almost everything your pet needs. Most owners use it as the core hay they feed to their pets.
Feeding a chinchilla fresh hay (timothy hay or otherwise) is easy. You put a hay rack in your pet’s cage and fill it with hay. Ensure that there is hay available at all times. Your chinchillas will feed themselves and won’t eat enough to become overweight. You can also supplement timothy hay with other kinds of hay (e.g. orchard grass or small amounts of alfalfa) to give your chinchillas a rounded diet.
Good quality timothy hay should have:
Timothy Hay Nutritional Profile
- 1800-2070 calories per kg
- 8% protein
- 0.38-0.5% calcium
- 120-200mg/kg iron
Can Chinchillas Have Meadow Hay?
All that being said, timothy hay is not a necessity for chinchillas, even if some people think it is. That’s because chinchillas can survive and thrive on other kinds of hay, too. You may also find that you’re allergic to certain kinds of grass but not others, in which case you can select another hay from this list.
Meadow hay is a common choice for owners who don’t or can’t use timothy hay. This kind of hay is a mixture of grasses, hence the name. It can also contain parts of other plants, like thistles and dandelions. This isn’t a problem for chinchillas, and in fact, it can make the hay more interesting for them to eat.
Owners report that it’s more flavorful and sweet than timothy hay, which some chinchillas prefer. It may also be softer, although this can depend on the cutting. Meadow hay makes a good mixing hay, i.e. a supplemental food you mix in with timothy hay.
Meadow Hay Nutritional Profile
- 1920 calories per kg
- 8.8% protein
- 0.54% calcium
- 120-200mg/kg iron
Can Chinchillas Eat Orchard Grass Hay?
Orchard grass hay is perhaps the next most common kind after timothy. It’s available from most pet stores, and online too.
Orchard grass is higher in fiber than other kinds of hay. It’s higher in calories and protein than timothy hay, which can be a good thing (e.g. if your chinchilla is underweight). But at the same time, it contains roughly the same levels of calcium and phosphorus as timothy hay, which means it won’t cause deficiencies or bladder stones.
Its higher calorie content is due to the kind of fiber you find in it. Some fiber is digestible, while some kinds aren’t; the fiber in orchard grass is more easily digested than that in timothy hay, meaning it offers more fiber and more calories overall.
Orchard Grass Hay Nutritional Profile
- 1900 calories per kg
- 10-12% protein
- 0.26-0.34% calcium
- 120-200mg/kg iron
Is Alfalfa Hay Good for Chinchillas?
Alfalfa is another well-known hay, but not one that’s used as widely. That’s because it doesn’t provide the right nutritional balance when fed as a bulk hay.
Alfalfa can be good for chinchillas in small quantities. It’s sweet and rich in nutrients, and is typically bright green and smells fresh. It has more protein and fat than other kinds of hay, which is why it’s used widely in animal feeds.
The issue is that it’s so high in calcium. This might seem like a good thing: chinchillas do need calcium to maintain their health. But alfalfa contains so much that it can cause bladder stones. While these are known to be painful to pass, they can cause a rapid decline in overall health too.
Also known as cystolithiasis, bladder stones can be removed. But surgery for chinchillas is expensive, and many owners lose their chinchillas due to the complications arising from surgery (e.g. infection). A chinchilla can also pass away when the stones pass through the rest of the urinary tract, or if it doesn’t wake up from anesthesia.
You can see why alfalfa causes these issues when you look at its nutritional content. For these reasons, and because small amounts of alfalfa are present in many hay pellets anyway, we recommend other kinds of hay instead.
Alfalfa Nutritional Profile
- 2160-2490 calories per lb (due to higher protein content)
- 17-20% protein
- 1-2% calcium
- 120-200mg/kg iron
Can Chinchillas Eat Oat Hay?
Oat hay, also called oaten hay, is another kind of grass hay. Its exact composition depends on when it was harvested. You can buy oat hay that was harvested before the grain heads formed, in which case it’s roughly equivalent to timothy hay. But if the grain heads have started to form, the hay overall may contain too much fat and too many carbohydrates. It contains particularly high levels of protein and vitamin A.
This hay works well as a treat because it’s high in sugar, so tastes sweeter. It’s thick and coarse, meaning it takes longer for a chinchilla to chew through. You can visibly see that it’s thicker than other kinds of hay.
That being said, oat hay is high in phosphorus and low in calcium overall. If your chinchilla ate nothing but oat hay, it could end up calcium deficient, although this can easily be avoided by providing cuttle bones. Oat hay can also contain nitrates if produced during drought conditions, and nitrates are bad for chinchillas. We recommend other kinds of hay instead.
Oat Hay Nutritional Profile
- 1950 calories per kg
- 9% protein
- 0.2% calcium
- 120-200mg/kg iron
Can Chinchillas Eat Bermuda Hay?
Bermuda grass is another grass native to Europe, this time the Mediterranean. It’s a highly invasive species that is now present all around the world. Ironically, it was never native to Bermuda, but is now found there as it has been introduced.
Either way, this is another grass hay, which means it’s suitable for chinchillas. Some people think it isn’t nutritionally equivalent to timothy hay, while others don’t. Very few people use it as the main source of their chinchilla’s hay both for this reason, and because it’s less common.
Bermuda Hay Nutritional Profile
- 10% protein
- 29% fiber
- 0.4% calcium
- 100mg/kg iron
Other Kinds of Hay
Hay is just grass, and as there are many kinds of grass, so too are there many types of hay. The ones above are the most suitable for chinchillas, but there may be many more available where you live. The list below covers many of them and details how and why they are suitable/unsuitable.
- Hay mixed with herbs. Also known as ‘botanical hay, this is fine, although some owners consider it a treat rather than a basic hay.
- Barley grass hay. Barley grass hay is an uncommon kind of grain hay that isn’t suitable for chinchillas. As it’s another kind of grain hay, its nutritional profile isn’t suitable for your pet: it contains too much protein and not enough fiber.
- Can chinchillas eat horse hay? There is no specific kind of hay called ‘horse hay’. However, you may find hay advertised for sale specifically for horses. If so, what matters is the kind of hay—if it’s suitable and hay quality, you can use it.
There’s little point experimenting with lots of different kinds of hay unless your chinchilla is very picky. Some chinchillas prefer sweet hays, while others don’t; sometimes, a chinchilla rejects a certain hay for what seems like no reason. If that happens, rotate your chinchilla between the suitable hays above and see which kinds it likes.
Hay Quality & Chinchilla Food
For a pet owner, hay is hay. But hay has been used for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years on farms. As such, there’s a surprising amount you can learn about the stuff. Novice owners can get away without knowing these things, but learning more about the points below can help you care for your chinchilla better.
Brown Hay vs Green Hay for Chinchillas
The color of a hay indicates, roughly, how nutritious it is. You can have hay analyzed in a lab to examine its nutritional content. But as a rule of thumb, the color can tell you what you need to know.
Green hay is the most desirable as its greenness indicates that it wasn’t subjected to adverse conditions during cutting or storage. When hay is baled, if left in the rain, it can lose key nutrients like vitamins A and E, plus protein and carbohydrates.
You can also find yellow hay. Yellow hay is hay that was harvested when it was overmature, or was exposed to rain which leached its nutritional content. Yellow hay can contain molds. Alternatively, the yellowness of the hay may have been caused by exposure to direct sunlight, which decreases carotene content and palatability.
Another indicator that the hay isn’t prime quality is if it’s brown. Nutritious hay is rarely brown. its brownness indicates that it was baled when wet and held on to lots of moisture, which can make it warm (the fungus and bacteria produce heat). This further breaks down any useful nutrients, so the quality of brown hay is poor.
Chinchillas will happily eat brown or yellow hay. The issue is more for you, as the owner, as you know you aren’t feeding your pet the highest quality food. Good brands’ hay is typically green in color, but be aware that if your pet shop hasn’t changed its stock in a while, it may have aged on the shelf.
First Cut vs. Second Cut vs. Third Cut Hay
The only problem with store bought hay is that it can be variable depending on the time of year. This is the difference between the first cutting, the second cutting, and the third cutting (and so on).
The first cutting is, as the name suggests, the first growth from the field for the year. Some people believe that the first cutting isn’t good feed, but it can be, so long as it’s harvested when the grass is immature (hasn’t bloomed yet). It’s only as the grass matures that it develops more lignin, which is the hard, coarse, indigestible fiber that makes the hay unpalatable. First cuts can also contain more weeds.
The second cutting is the next batch harvested from the field. This is normally around 40-45 days after the first harvest, although timothy hay takes longer (55-60) days to regrow. While the first cutting is definitely edible, the second cutting is of a higher quality, as the percentage of leaves to stems will be greater and any stems that there are will be finer and softer. Nutritionally, the second cutting will also have more protein and fat. This is both a good and a bad thing, as the hay has less fiber, which chinchillas need. Overall, the second cutting is best.
The second cutting is often the final cutting of the year. But if the growing season is long enough, a third cutting may be taken. The third cutting will be even softer than the second, with even more leaves than stems. This cutting is not suitable for chinchillas as it doesn’t contain enough fiber.
While hay can be stored for years, you may occasionally notice the quality of the hay differ between packs. This is likely due to a higher proportion of first, second or third cut hay than normal. If the hay is very coarse, your chinchillas may not even eat it. If that’s the case, you can mix it with another softer and richer kind of hay like alfalfa.
Variable Quality, Droughts, Etc.
Hay isn’t produced on a factory line from precisely measured ingredients, so unlike processed foods, you won’t necessarily get the same results every time. Brands source their hay from different suppliers, for example; sometimes they change supplier and the quality goes up or down. This is something you need to look out for: you can often tell it’s happened when your chin goes off its hay for what seems like no reason.
Something else to bear in mind is that adverse growing conditions can change the nutritional profile of hay. Drought, for example, results in less overall hay produced but also higher protein content and lower levels of fiber. Soil fertility, fungus and mold, higher levels of weeds (which can be beneficial!) and many other factors also affect hay quality and nutritional value.
As such, take the figures above with a grain of salt as they may not be accurate. But what they can tell you is that alfalfa as a variety has far more protein and calcium in it than timothy hay, or that oat hay is far lower in calcium than timothy. You can then adjust your chinchilla’s diet as necessary, even if you aren’t 100% sure on the precise nutritional figures.
You may also have noticed that in the figures above, the iron content is listed as the same for each of the grass hays. That’s because iron content is highly variable and depends on the cutting and on the water content of the hay.
Chinchilla Hay Pellets
Pet chinchillas eat two kinds of hay: fresh hay and hay pellets. Hay pellets are dried hay that’s processed into small cylinders, which you are likely familiar with if you’ve had other rodent pets before.
The reason why chinchillas eat both fresh hay and hay pellets is that the pellets may be fortified with vitamins and minerals. They are also made from hay with more protein, calcium and fat in it, like alfalfa, and so serve as a supplement.
Some owners report that their chinchillas develop bladder stones if they eat an alfalfa-based pellet like Oxbow Essential Pellets. This will occur if the chinchilla eats too many hay pellets at the expense of its regular hay if it’s susceptible. While most chinchillas can live happy and healthy lives on alfalfa, not all can. As such, owners recommend a timothy-hay based pellet instead.
Can Chinchillas Eat Hay Cubes?
Hay cubes are large cubes of compressed raw hay. They are a safe and tidy way to give your chinchilla hay.
Cubes are especially good if you’re allergic to loose hay. Because the hay has been processed and compacted, it gives off less dust. Less dust means your allergies won’t flare up as easily. A cube also means that your chinchilla won’t pick at its hay or spread it around its cage as much, which is a waste and requires frequent tidying.
Some owners do report that their chinchillas eat less cubed hay than loose hay, but this is difficult to tell as the cubes are compacted. If your chinchilla has nothing to eat but hay cubes, and it isn’t losing weight, then this isn’t a problem.
They aren’t made from one kind of hay, but can be made from any. You must therefore check that the hay cube is of a suitable kind (orchard grass, timothy hay, etc.) before feeding it.
Can Chinchillas Eat a Hay Only Diet?
This is a point of debate among owners, and even among vets. If you talk to your vet, they may recommend a hay only diet. That means feeding your chinchilla nothing but fresh hay—no pellets, no cubes, no greens, and no other snacks. Only hay.
A chinchilla’s diet should already be 90% hay. The rest of its food should be pellets, which are made of hay too, although they can contain added ingredients and be fortified with vitamins and minerals.
There are breeders, ranchers and owners who feed their chinchillas solely on fresh hay. But there are several caveats to switching to a hay only diet:
- Some chinchillas prefer pellets to fresh hay, and get most of their nutrients this way.
- If you’re unfortunate to get a bad batch of hay (nutritionally poor) then your chinchillas will become deficient.
- If your chinchillas are used to eating pellets and snacks, they may not adjust well to going off them.
So, in short: it is possible, but it’s not recommended unless you’re an expert.
Can Chinchillas Eat a No-Hay Diet?
It’s possible, but not recommended, to keep your pet chinchilla on a fresh-hay-free diet. Some ranchers instead keep their chinchillas on a diet of nothing but pellets. Pellets are made of the same hay as you feed a chinchilla anyway; and given that they can be fortified, this can be a good choice if you own dozens and dozens of chinchillas.
What you can’t do is keep your chinchilla on a diet of greens. This is a common misconception: chinchillas shouldn’t eat vegetables. Even as snacks they aren’t a good choice because they’re full of water and sugar.
Remarkably, this is recommended by some veterinarians. What’s likely is that these vets know about guinea pigs and other similar pets, and assume that chinchillas are the same, but they most definitely are not. A chinchilla that eats nothing but vegetables/greens would become dangerously bloated, experience diarrhea, and could even pass away.
However, as a pet owner, there’s no reason to do this. In no way is timothy hay bad for a chinchilla; it’s also cheap, and easy to find in any pet store. The high fiber content of hay keeps a chinchilla’s digestive tract healthy, and its tough and coarse texture when chewed may help keep teeth trimmed (although some owners disagree). As such, there is no adequate replacement or alternative to hay.
What’s The Best Brand of Hay?
This is a tricky question to answer. Some owners prefer certain brands and stick with them their whole lives, as that’s what works for them. But sometimes, these owners might find that their chinchilla prefers another brand.
As such, the best brand is the brand that both you and your chinchilla like. Your chinchilla should enjoy eating it, but it should also contain all the nutrients it needs, or at least be very easy to supplement e.g. with another kind of added hay or with a cuttlebone. Here’s a list of the most popular brands today:*
- American Pet Diner
- Feldman’s Hay
Most owners stick with Oxbow. It seems to be higher quality than Kaytee hay.
Alternatively, you could consider buying hay from a local feed store. This is ideal because the hay will be fresh and you can talk to the actual people who grew it about its nutritional content. You can also buy in greater bulk. But if you don’t have feed stores or local growers, pet store hay is fine.
*Note: we have not been paid to include reference to these products. These brands are included only because they are those that most owners use.
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