Which hay is for guinea pigs?

25 Jun

You read that right. Like horses, cavies are natural grazers, and grass makes up the majority of their preferred diet. But in most domestic settings, feeding large quantities of fresh grass is not realistic. Thus, we typically turn to dried grass — hay — as an alternative, but suitable staple.

Even if you buy the majority of you cavy supplies from a pet store, you’re likely to encounter a wide variety of available hay products. Which is best? This is largely a matter of opinion. Different options offer different benefits. Here are a few hay types you might consider.


This is what comes to mind when most people thing of hay, but it’s fundamentally different from other types of hay in that alfalfa is not technically a grass, but a legume. It is widely available and often less expensive than other hay varieties, and it is frequently the base for pelleted cavy feeds, as well.

As a legume, alfalfa tends to be high in both protein and calcium. While extra protein is a boon for growing cavies and long-haired show cavies, the excess calcium can be problematic for adult cavies, especially those prone to bladder stones. It is also slightly low in fiber, which makes alfalfa easier to digest for young or ill cavies, but doesn’t help to maintain the digestive system of adult cavies.


Timothy is a true grass hay, and often highly recommended for guinea pigs. Though less common and more expensive, some high-quality pellet feeds are made from Timothy. The raw hay is more widely available, as it is often fed to horses as well.

Timothy contains less protein than alfalfa, but it also has less calcium, which can make it a good choice for mature cavies. It’s also slightly higher in fiber than alfalfa and other legume-based hays. However, because the moisture content is low, Timothy tends to have a coarse texture. This is good for your cavy’s teeth, but your pet may think otherwise if it’s used to softer textures.

Timothy hay is drier than other kinds of hay, and more resistant to spoiling and mold. This can make it a worthwhile choice if you plan to store your hay for any length of time.

Orchard Grass

This is less common than Timothy and alfalfa hays, but orchard grass is known to appear in stores on occasion. From a nutritional standpoint, orchard grass and Timothy are remarkably similar. Orchard grass may be slightly higher in protein and slightly lower in calcium, but the two varieties are close enough that an early cut of Timothy could easily reverse that comparison. The texture of orchard grass tends to be somewhat softer and finer, which may make it more popular among some cavies.


This is another uncommon hay variety that has recently cropped up in pet stores. It contains slightly less protein than orchard grass and Timothy, and slightly more calcium, though, again, with different cuts, that comparison could come out differently. The texture is similar to Timothy, thought it may contain fewer stems and seeds.

Oat, Wheat and Barely

Our staple grains are in fact species of grass we have bred for their seeds and, often times, the grassy portion of the plant may be dried and sold as hay products. Most grain hays are low in both protein and calcium. Oat and wheat hays have a dry, coarse texture; barely is softer and finer.

While many varieties of hay are now available in pet-sized bales at most major pet stores, buying in bulk is generally cheaper. If you have several animals, you may consider contacting a local farmer about purchasing a few bales for yourself for a significantly lower price that what you will find at the store. Just be sure to store it somewhere dry, and keep it away from rodents and other animals that may spread diseases to your cavies.


3 Responses to “Which hay is for guinea pigs?”

  1. Val June 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    I have been keeping a small herd for 23 years and also worked as a ranch hand for several years, this is a very good post. One thing “missing” though is one advantage of hay over fresh grass is that it doesn’t carry the same risk of contaminants. I’ve never heard of guinea pigs with worms, but that’s always a risk with horses and other animals on fresh grass. I would think it could be a small risk, though chemical contamination might be the bigger risk.

    • EmaPen June 25, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

      Thanks Val! I’ve actually never heard of a guinea pig with worms either. I wonder, is it possible? I have a vet friend who might know; I’ll be sure to ask her next time we meet up.

      • Val June 25, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

        My thought is that I don’t think the worms care, but that most guinea pigs we know are fed hay and live in urban areas. Grass-fed rural pigs? Could be. Most of the worms are various species of livestock flies, so the animals bring them with them from one area to another. Grazing wildlife can spread them too, but guinea pigs have a different digestive system than most herbivores, so maybe that might kill them.

        Frederick Wigglewhiskers, adorable harlequin breed standard train-wreck pig that he is (and awkward at seven weeks old) — “supervised” the typing of this post. 😉

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