Do Gerbils Need Hay? (If so, How Much and What Kind?)


Do-gerbils-need-hay

Maybe you are already buying plenty of treats for your gerbils and wonder if you need to add hay to their diet?  Perhaps you have some friends who are giving their gerbils hay and wonder if you should do the same? You may be trying to sort through all the information on the web and wonder if you should add some hay to your gerbil’s diet.  

Do gerbils need hay?  Gerbils do not need hay for food.   They will chew on hay as a way to sharpen their teeth.  Because gerbils can burrow underneath the hay, it makes an ideal addition to whatever bedding you use. 

Some people assume that all small rodents have similar nutritional requirements.  If a guinea pig needs hay, wouldn’t a gerbil need hay? However, that is not true.  We’re going to dig into why gerbils don’t need hay but how they can benefit from it.  If you decide you want to buy some hay for them, we will let you know which kinds are ideal for your cute gerbils. 

Gerbils Do Not Need Hay

First things first—Gerbils are cute.  Guinea pigs are cute. Both have four legs, a tail, and are small rodents that make great pets.  The similarities end there, though.

To understand some of the differences between the two, it helps to know something about their history.  Gerbils were once called desert rats because they are desert animals that come from Mongolia and Northern China.  Most gerbils in America come from a group brought to America in 1954.

Guinea pigs, on the other hand, are descended from a South American rodent that no longer exists in the wild.  This difference is the first piece of evidence that the two pets would have different diets.  After all, if your ancestors lived in an environment filled with grasses, you would most likely eat grass.  If, however, your ancestors lived in sandy areas, then you would be more likely to eat seeds and nuts. 

That is why guinea pigs should be served high amounts of grass.  Veterinarians at North Carolina State University recommend that guinea pigs should have 80% hay in their diets.  Since the ancestors of guinea pigs lived in areas with much vegetation, it makes sense they would require high levels of grasses, like timothy or orchard hay.

Gerbils, however, are descendants of animals that lived in habitats where grass was not plentiful.  When describing a gerbil’s diet,  Susan Brown, DVM, writes that you should “leave a small amount of grass hay in the cage.”  If you want to feed your gerbils what they would have eaten in the wild, you will need to hunt up some saltwort, bristle grass, or lyme grass.

Did you know:  Guinea pigs are herbivores while Gerbils are omnivores—although they mainly eat vegetarian food, they occasionally like to snack on an insect.

As long as you are providing your gerbil with healthy, well-balanced foods (more about that in a bit), you never have to give them any hay.  

How Can Hay Benefit Gerbils?

gerbil-sharpen-teeth-with-hay

Just because we don’t need something doesn’t mean we can’t have it.  The same is true for gerbils. Although they don’t need hay, it does provide several benefits.  

Teeth

Gerbils, like all rodents, have front teeth (incisors) that never stop growing.  These are called open-rooted teeth, and they continuously grow more tooth tissue. It might help if you think of them as fingernails that need to be trimmed.  

We use nail trimmers to keep our nails short, but gerbils chew on hard things to keep their teeth from becoming overgrown.  If they have nothing to chew on, then their teeth will overgrow, resulting in painful eating, or gum or mouth damage, including teeth that grow through their jaws. 

Along with the many items you can buy in toy stores or order online, hay is an excellent option to provide them with chewing opportunities.  If you watch gerbils interact with hay, you will see that they spend most of their time chewing it into smaller bits.

However, your gerbil will get bored with chewing on hay.  Ideally, you want to give them a variety of things to chew on so that you are providing a stimulating environment.   

Consider the following for your gerbil to chew:

  • Paper towel or toilet paper rolls
  • Cardboard
  • Manilla folders 
  • Paper lunch bags
  • Untreated wood (but not pine or cedar)
  • Wicker
  • Hay and other natural grasses
  • Gerbil food mixes

When picking paper products, avoid those with ink, and avoid wood products that contain glue (like corrugated cardboard or particleboard).

Gerbil Not Chewing?

If your gerbil is not chewing on hay or other chewy items, then you need to investigate why.  One reason could be it has some sort of dental disease.

If your gerbil is suffering from dental disease, you might observe some of these:

  • Selection of soft food over something harder to chew
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Drooling

Should you see any of these signs, find a vet who specializes in small animals.  Attempting to trim your gerbil’s teeth will be painful and could worsen dental problems.

The good news, according to Heidi L. Hoefer, DVM, is that gerbils rarely have dental issues, as long they have plenty of opportunities to chew.  Along with the perennial cardboard and chewy snacks, hay is something else for them to grind their teeth on.

Bedding

Gerbils love to dig and burrow.  They had plenty of practice doing so in sandy environments, so it is as natural to them as breathing.  If you are going to have a gerbil, you will need bedding and lots of it. Two to three inches is the recommended amount, and you can include shredded paper (but not the waxy kind), cardboard tubes, paper towels, shredded hardwoods like Aspen, and hay.  The hay becomes something else to dig under.  

Gerbils might munch on the hay a little, but if you observe them, you will see that they are primarily cutting it into smaller pieces.  They like to use the hay to help strengthen the tunnels and build nests.  If you watch them in action, like in this cute video, you will see the gerbil grab a bunch of hay and take it to her nest:

Therefore, even though gerbils don’t need hay, you should give them some to encourage them to nest and forage.  

Digestion

Another reason to give your gerbil hay is that chewing aids their digestion.  Hay will provide much-needed fiber. Fiber is essential for their gut health, and vets recommend that they have a diet high in fiber

What Kind of Hay Is Best?

Typically, the first hay that gets mentioned when talking about hay and gerbils is timothy.  Other types of hay available for purchase include orchard hay, alfalfa hay, and oat hay.  

When you purchase timothy hay, you can get one of three cuttings.  

  • The first cutting is low in protein and fat but high in fiber.  
  • A second cutting has a better balance of protein, fat, and fiber.  
  • The third cutting has the highest amounts of fat and protein.  

The second cutting should be your go-to.  Some companies will tell you which cutting of hay you are purchasing.  This Timothy hay from Kaytee Natural is a highly rated 2nd cutting.

Orchard hay is often mentioned as another option.  Because it is softer hay, people often use it as a “treat” hay.  If your gerbils don’t like timothy hay, then look into this alternative.

Bottom Line

There is nothing wrong with giving your gerbil hay.  Ideally, you want to provide them timothy or meadow grass over alfalfa hay.  As with most things, moderation is key. If your gerbil is only eating hay, then it’s probably time to look at their overall diet.  And if all your gerbil is doing is chewing up the hay and then spitting it out, that’s okay, too.

Niklas

I love animals! I grew up with everything from dogs and cats to rabbits and guinea pigs. I enjoy learning about pets and to share what I learn with others.

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