I get asked so often about pellets, they are a stress point in the small pet community and for good reason. In recent years there A LOT of brands have joined the market; the ingredient lists are overwhelming. Sadly, so many are not worth a dollar of your hard-earned money, some are just plain rubbish & are produced only to fill a gap in the market & not your pet’s diet so to speak. I must also mention that different age groups & species require different ingredients so there isn’t just one magical pellet to suit all.
Oxbow, Origins & Science Selective are all brands i’ve personally used for my Rabbits over the years and are widely promoted by exotic vets & rescue organizations across Australia as a well-rounded option. I must admit I didn’t always understand the importance of a quality pellet & that’s why I’m an advocate of sharing learnings without judgement. I currently feed all 6 of our house bunnies on Adult – Grain Free Science Selective, they all eat it without tummy upset and genuinely enjoy it. A few of my buns had tummy issues with Origins, and two out of 6 didn’t like Oxbow. I couldn’t possibly pinpoint the exact reason, but I found what works for all of them. I want to be very clear that all buns & piggies are different, I’ve nothing against any of these brands – they are absolutely the better of what is available here in Australia. It’s all about finding one to suit your pet and it’s not uncommon having to try a few before you settle on one.
The good news is the understanding of the nutrient requirements for house Rabbits & Guinea Pigs are always undergoing a continuous investigation & evolution within quality brands. The knowledge bank is growing for consumers with the help of social media. As the years go by animal scientists are learning more & more about how our pets’ bodies work, what they metabolize well, what they don’t need & how much they do.
I won’t be pointing out the worst brands by name as that might get me ‘busted’ haha! But will provide you information to help you understand the ingredients so you can make up your own mind about which product is right for your pet. There is a brand commonly sold in supermarkets across Australia which is possibly the WORST on the market, again I can’t say the name but next time you go to buy your usual flip over the pack and have a little read about what’s inside. If you’re buying 2kg of pellets from a supermarket for under $7.00, think about it this way, by the time a supermarket takes a cut & the producer takes a cut, and the suppliers of the ingredients take theirs too, the ingredients must be pretty poor quality. Bulk byproduct fillers & fats are cheap…. let’s leave that there for now.
One question that I see being asked; in the small pet community, in a rather a shy manner is:
Do I even need to give my rabbit / guinea pig pellets?
Firstly, don’t be shy to ask this question 😊 Some might find my answer eyebrow raising at first, but the general answer is NO. However there is a big dot dot dot……………BUT!……after that. Let me explain myself, it’s very open ended and should evoke discussion on an individual basis.
A pellet free diet isn’t out of the question and is becoming very popular if you can provide a well-rounded diet. You do have to be dedicated and have the resources to do this successfully. Vets often recommend dropping pellets if your bun or pig is having tummy troubles, allergies, or are experiencing weight issues. They are super easy to over feed and can be expensive. FRESH is BEST is always the best policy for our pets but understandably achieving this is hard.
Pellets designed by GOOD companies are genuinely created to fill the gaps in your pet’s nutritional requirements. They (animal scientists) carefully curate a broad-spectrum formula to aid your pet’s healthy balanced diet. They source ingredients to tick certain boxes, fiber, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals…. Some of these ingredients may need to be altered with abit of science for shelf stability, others come from direct natural sources, some may be entirely artificial. Pellets should never be used as a sole food source and should only compliment your pet’s diet. Natural derivatives are always best but even these need some investigation at times as quantity and quality come into play. Typically, if pellets are required in your rabbit or guinea pigs’ diet, they should only equate to 5% or less in a daily food map.
Here’s a typical simple food chart example.
An ideal situation would be covering all the food groups without pellets because fresh is best – balanced hay, grass, veg, herbs, flowers, fruit / treats, water, sunlight & exercise should mean your pet is very happy and healthy. A healthy pet will be active, have a great coat/hair, skin, nails, a sparkle in their eyes and age with grace. Access to all the food groups/nutrients isn’t always easy for everyone so we are very lucky to have some amazing companies working very hard to develop pellets to supplement our pets.
The nutritional balancing act is particularly important to an animal that relies solely on you, their human to provide them with everything they need daily. Keeping buns & Piggys indoors for a more immersive environment has become the better option for our little highly intelligent / prey animal buddies. But keeping them safe and happy has also taken away the forage aspect to their diet. So that onus now relies on you to provide them the full circle of nutrients. Loads of things can affect your pet’s ability to equally absorb all the positive factors required to maintain their health. Not enough of one thing can throw out something else, illness and aging can complicate things further. Having quality pellets available in your pets diet can put your mind at ease regarding their general health.
Why is it so especially important to follow the feeding instructions on your pellets?
Over feeding pellets can throw out important body balances. Excess of vits/minerals, proteins, fats etc can have adverse effects on the gut, liver/kidneys. Rabbits & Guinea Pigs require various levels of nutrients which is why they have separate specialty pellets that change with age groups & aliments. My heart sinks when I see people feeding bowls of pellets freely, but I will never judge, simply offer advice – it’s become my mission to help share knowledge and promote conversation about this as it’s very easy to give in to your pet who often beg, even do tricks for more delicious pellets – everyone starts out learning as they go, I too at one point was feeding one of my rabbits in the early years a pellet equivalent to corn, wheat & flour because he LOVED them ☹ but honestly they didn’t love him back. Another adverse side to feeding too many pellets, is some pets love them so much they become picky with their diets and start avoiding the more vital components like hay – which should sit around 80% of their daily diet. Too much of a supposed ‘’GOOD’’ thing can become bad quickly.
Dependent on the brand and age/ size of your pet anywhere from a little as 1Tbsp, ¼ cup to ½ cup will be a suggested feed. We can’t stress enough the importance of sticking to the guidelines. It’s all about balance.
Don’t mix: One major difference in Rabbit vs Guinea Pig pellets is the vitamin & mineral components, each pet requires different ratios & frequency. In particular close attention is to be paid to Vit C & Calcium. Do not be tempted to cross feed if you keep both as pets. Be careful not to feed guinea pig foods to rabbits & vice versa.
No sudden changes: Changing from one brand to another to quickly can also upset your pets balance, if you need to change slowly wean off one brand then start the other in small amounts until the feeding level is reached – best done over a few weeks. Hidden pellets: I would also like to mention those who purchase treats that contain pellets as a listed ingredient – this can mean they use ANY pellet. Ask questions and be sure to adjust your pet’s diet to suit.
A pellets ingredient should be listed in order of prevalence – For example the 1st ingredient will make up most of the content, the last will be the least abundant. A quality product will openly list ALL specific ingredients and follow the rules (there are no laws in place to prevent misinformation, so you need to find a reliable brand). I strongly urge you to steer clear from brands who use shorthand information only saying ‘’contains all natural ingredients, or simply list byproducts or ‘’derived from’’ but don’t elaborate. The better brands will list a hay first followed by natural ingredients that make up a list of desirable vitamins / minerals, protein, fiber, fats. If the ingredients are mostly artificial or byproducts your pet might as well be eating cardboard. Fillers & binders have their place but not in the core/bulk composure. They are too often used to make a product cheaply – it’s all about the bottom line $$$$. A good rule of thumb is if you’re paying under $10 for 2kg or less of pellets your probably buying wheat, flour, oats, corn, molasses, and bunch of cheap manmade vits & minerals. A lot of things are added to cheap brands to give them selling points but are not created equal.
Vitamins are organic substances, which means they’re made by plants or animals. Minerals are inorganic elements that come from soil and water – the earth. Rabbit’s & piggy’s being herbivores need to gather everything they need from plant-based matter. We will talk more about these in a moment.
NOTE about storage: Certain ingredients vital in pellets can be affected by heat, light, and air. Particularly vitamins, they will degrade overtime so sticking to use by dates is a good idea. Store your pellets in a cool, dark place in an airtight container or sealable bag to help maintain the levels.
Ingredients you may find in Pellets
Hay – Dried with hot air and crushed into powder. Hay should be the 1st component of any quality pellet.
- Dehydrated alfalfa meal, alfalfa or Lucerne – fiber, protein, great source of Vit A & K. Some well know brands do have this as a first ingredient – follow feeding instructions to the letter to avoid calcium overload. In general avoid if your pet is over 6months, & steer clear if your pet is on a strict low calcium diet… Can be good for pets who are pregnant or suffering with illness (have a chat with your vet).
- Timothy Grass Meal – ground timothy hay, good for all ages, good source of Vit K & A, protein, fiber….
NOTE: you won’t see Oaten Hay listed as most pellets are imported into Australia, though popular here it’s not in other countries, the next best type of hay for all round consumption is Timothy, its profile is very close to oaten.
- Wheat middling’s, wheat bran & pollard – the part of wheat grain that doesn’t end up as flour. middling’s & pollard have a finer texture to wheat bran but generally the same product, the out layer of wheat hulls. This is typically high up in the list of ingredients it’s a great source protein, fiber, phosphorus though it is low in essential amino acids so these will be covered by other ingredients.
Soybean products have been used for hundreds of years in animal feed – though some question marks surround the use for rabbits and guinea pigs. Some studies have shown it’s amino acid profile may have negative impacts on the caecum & could cause urinary tract issue, I do believe this is related more to the part of the soy plant being used – Soybean ingredients are hard to avoid in a lot of brands as they are typically used as the major source of protein, fiber & phosphorus just like wheat middling’s, they also contain Vit K, B1, B9 & copper. Most likely your pet will be fine with most soybean products, however, stay away from brands that use whole soybeans & excess oil. If your pet is having tummy upsets or urinary sludge, they might be one to avoid altogether….
- Soybean meal or hulls – by product of soybean oil production. Bean & Oil is remove leaving the outer shell.
- Soybean Oil – fat. Extracted, heat treated – from soybeans. Binder
- Corn distillers dried grain – a source protein, Phosphorus, fat – however it’s a cheap filler/by product of corn-based product production such as biofuel & alcohol, there a far better options available – AVOID
Some binders are required to form the pellet, without them they would simply fall apart & spoil quickly. Though important for shelf stability they shouldn’t be high up on the list of ingredients, bare minimum requirement. I’ll use our treats (Smooshie Face Treats) for example as the concept is basically the same, we don’t use binders – they need to be stored airtight, all our ingredients, hay, veg & fruits are mixed together & dried (dehydrated), the moisture is almost removed – only 10% is considered shelf stable. Soon as they hit the air, they start resorbing moisture from the atmosphere, within an hr the crunch can soften. Our products are unique, we chose a shorter used by date, bake to order and storage instruction to avoid binders. For big companies short used by dates don’t work for warehousing and put a strain on their bottom line. Using sugar, fats/oil or clay can stop this drama from happening. Some clays can absorb up to 3 times their weight in moisture, sugar preserves & fats repel moisture.
- Sodium Bentonite – volcanic ash natural clay powder, water adsorption, binder- Often found in clay cat litter products can also be used safely in food – max 2%. If your pet has hydration issues this might be a substance to avoid – this would mean no pellets
- Lignin sulfonate – extracted from wood, non toxic, dust control. Binder
- Cane Molasses – cheap natural sugar, typically used to preserve & increase palatability – should be used sparingly, best avoided if possible. BINDER
- Corn syrup – avoid, as bad as refined sugar BINDER
- Oats – good fats, protein – can cause fast weight gain, should only be used sparingly and if included at all be low down on the list of ingredients.
- Barley – Vit B complex, fat, because this is a grain it’s best avoided
- Hydrolysed Yeast, yeast culture, brewer’s yeast – palatability and enhance flavour, if high up in the list of ingredients avoid if possible
- Canola – fat, questionable regarding liver function and gas production, some research shows a soild no. I would avoid
- Vegetable oil – fat, avoid
- Rosemary Oil – palatability, natural preservative, iron, calcium and vitamins A, C, and B-6
- Lentils – protein, fibre, used a lot in grain free option, typically high in starch often used as a binder/filler
- Flaked Peas – plant-based protein, fats, promote weight gain
- Beet Pulp – good source of fiber
- Linseed – omega 3 & 6 fatty acids, protein, fiber, cardiovascular health
- Sunflower – rich in biotin vit b
- Yucca schidigera extract – anti-inflammatory qualities, some studies have shown it adjusts PH levels reducing the smell of pet waste – lowers ammonia levels in the caecum of rabbits.
- Flaxseed – vit E & omega 3
- Clover – high in fibre, vit A – can cause gas in some pets
- Lupins – protein, cheap alternative to soy – avoid if possible
Let’s get into the Vitamins, then on to minerals, these are where it gets a little tricky. Vitamins are measured using complex equations by nerdy scientists resulting in tiny amounts, you’ll see wording such as IU (international Unit) or an easier one to remember is mcg/ mg ‘microgram’ (1 millionth of a gram). The ratio is usually list per kg/kilogram
Vitamins A,D,E,& K are fat soluble, Vit C & B complex are water soluble, there are 8 different types of Vit B – 13 Vitamins in total – They can be listed as a ingredient under a few different names.
Vit A & K are easily obtained from hay/veg – Vit D can be sourced from some foods but mainly from sunlight so you should not find this added to many pellets, if you do see it, it should be way down the list of ingredients.
Vit A, B12 & B9, D & E are stored in the body by both animals and use as required.
Guinea Pigs require between 10-30mg of vitamin c per day as they do not reproduce their own like a rabbit. It needs topping up continuously. Most Guinea Pigs may very well require supplements to reach their daily Vit – C targets, especially if they are growing, unwell, stressed, or pregnant. Generally, the most effective & natural way to deliver your piggy’s requirement is to feed them Vit C rich fresh fruit/veg daily, they will absorb what they need and pass the rest. If you don’t have access to fresh produce a quality pellet with a shelf stable Vit C supplement will be required to avoid a myriad of health issues. Like bumble foot, rickets, scurvy, brittle, or malformed bones etc.
Rabbits maintain their vit C & B levels naturally, collection & reproduction reoccurs in the cecum (gut) and they receive the nutrients each time they eat their cecotropes (soft poops). If a rabbit pellet contains these vits it should be in very tiny amounts way down the list of ingredients.
Minerals & Trace elements
You will find these listed as the last ingredients in pellets, though important in the big picture they’re only required to be supplemented in tiny amounts as they are easily obtained from eating any plant-based matter & are shelf stable in comparison to vitamins, both rabbits & guinea pigs will use what they need and pass the rest. Minerals interact with vitamins aiding the body in energy, repair and supporting bodily functions. Some minerals found in pellets are ‘chelated’ which means they have been altered with abit of science for better adsorption – some may be artificial copies and best avoided.
Ive tried to give you all the names they might appear as and what they are for.
- Magnesium Sulphate – Muscles & blood, regulate calcium
- Manganese Proteinate (chelated) – Manganous Oxide – muscles & blood
- Calcium Iodate – Iodine – Thyroid & glandular support
- Copper Sulfate – Copper – energy, collagen production, hair, regulate iron
- Zinc Sulfate – Zinc Proteinate (Chelated) – skin & bones, energy, cell support
- Iron – red blood cells, energy, oxygen
- Sodium – Salt – Saccharomyces cerevisiae – Sodium selenite – Blood, electrolytes, fluid cells
- Potassium – blood, electrolytes, fluid cells
- Cobalt- Cobalt Carbonate – aid creation of b12
- Calcium – calcium phosphate – calcium Cardonate / limestone – bones, teeth, growth
- Phosphorus – important to work with calcium to create hard bones
- Dicalcium Phosphate – phosphorus & calcium blend
- Choline Chloride – man made additive similar to vit b3, b6, b12 – not natural
Special NOTE about Calcium & Oxalates:
Oxalates are a plant compound, they can be consumed & considered harmless in small amounts, they passed through the body and out with your pet’s urine, they are not required by the body to function –found mostly in dark leafy greens like kale & parsley / but also in fruits & other plants with high density nutrient levels.
Rabbits need around 200mg of calcium per kg of body weight per day, a guinea pig 8000mg
Calcium is also found in the same sort of plants important for bone and tissue development, unlike oxalates the body does use it for function, but it’s only required in very small amounts. Added calcium can be problematic in both Guinea Pigs & Rabbits as any excess can bind to oxalates. As it travels throughout the system it can crystalize forming bladder sludge and stones quickly. If you see a milky white substance in your pet’s urine, it’s a sure sign build up is happening, if your pet is straining to toilet, or is siting hunched, stretching a lot they may already have stones, you’ll need to cut back immediately on certain foods with oxalates/calcium (including pellets) with added calcium and book a visit to see your vet.
High Oxalate foods: beets and beet greens, collard greens, kale, parsley, spinach, chard, silverbeet, watercress, soy products, wheat bran
High Calcium Foods: spinach, dill, dandelion, parsley, watercress, beets, kale, chicory, endive mustard greens, Chinese cabbage, coriander, Silverbeet, turnip, carrot, romaine lettuce, raisins, orange, blackberry, kiwifruit, papaya, alfalfa, legumes
The long story short…….
The choice is entirely yours if you would like to add pellets to your pets diet, always remember quality over quantity, purchase the very best pellet you can afford & stick to specie/age specific brands. If you are still feeling a little overwhelmed or unsure i hope this article might encourage you to have a conversation with your vet about diet / health management. If you would like me to elaborate on anything more above or there’s something i haven’t mentioned please reach out, it’s all about sharing and learning together 🙂 In coming weeks i hope to put together a fun ‘Australia’ specific food chart to help reveal more about wholesome diet , i’ve wanted to do this for years! haha
Big Love Holly xx @ Smooshie Face HQ