By Abigail Edis FdSc RVN CertVNES CC Exotics veterinary nurse.
Wild weeds and plants make a fantastic addition to a piggies’ diet, not only are they more natural, but there is also a lot of variety you can give, and some even are known to have excellent health benefits, though there is little research into this area in piggies. For example, plants such as milk thistle are known to help the liver, mint for digestion and nettle is meant to have benefits to the urinary tract. During the warmer months of the year here in the UK you can wild forage for many different plants for your furry friends, so here is a handy little crash course in foraging, feeding, drying and cultivating of weeds – the best type of fresh food for your pigs.
What are the advantages of feeding weeds?
Weeds are a much more natural food item for guinea pigs (and rabbits). In the wild meadows and scrublands of South America piggies are grazing all the time on grasses and weeds and many different plants. These plants will also be seasonal and varied. Weeds are also likely better for our pets, some scientific studies have shown many wild weeds have higher levels of fibre and some vitamins than green vegetables such as kale, making many of them superfoods in their own right.
The big plus for me is this food source can be free, and I also highly enjoy searching out plants on a warm summer afternoon in my nearby fields. But fear not, you don’t need to be a botanical geek or go walking far, you can also grow many of these plants in your garden and even windowsills if you’re not up for countryside trails or don’t have the luxury of living close to green areas.
When should I feed and how much?
You can feed weeds at any time you like. Think of weeds as you would fresh vegetables, you can feed as you would these. In the summer months, when weeds are abundant, I feed the herd weeds instead of veg, or you can do a bit of a mix, just ensure your portioning as you would veg.
Where to start?
I was quite daunted by the idea of identifying and picking wild plants for the piggies initially, also not wanting to pick anything toxic to them, but over the past few years have grown in confidence. It has taken me a few years to get used to many of the plants, and I am still learning new ones often, so don’t worry about knowing them all right away. The easiest thing to start doing is picking the common plants which many people will already be able to identify. Easy and obvious starting points are dandelions and plantain, both easy to spot and grow absolutely everywhere. Many plants grow in gardens so if you don’t have close access to public rural footpaths/bridleways then a great start is in the garden. Great places to forage are public footpaths and some parks (careful they are not sprayed with pesticides), rural roadside (not heavy traffic roads), friends paddocks or farmland (with permission) and allotments (with permission). Plants are also very seasonal, so you will find them at different times of the year, or even different years
Some of the golden rules about foraging are:
- never take a large amount of the plant, take small amounts as not to disturb natural hedgerows/environments. It is illegal to uproot wild plants
- never trespass onto private land – stick to public access routes
- if picking from local dog walking areas try to pick away from the pathways to avoid potential contamination from dog waste
- avoid busy roadsides if you can, quiet country lanes are better if picking roadside
- never pick a plant unless you’re sure of its identity – if in doubt leave it. If your picking for rabbits ensure your bunnies are fully vaccinated against VHD/RHD both 1 and 2 as wild plants may have the virus on them – this does not affect guinea pigs so no need to worry about them.
Growing at home
Growing at home is, of course, a fabulous way of having fresh weeds and plants onhand, especially if you’re unsure about identifying plants yourself or you are limited on access to green space. Many weeds grow with no problem in small window pots and trays, so even in the smallest of homes can accommodate this. You can also grow lots of different varieties of grasses, which piggies will enjoy including cereal grasses like rye and oat, alfalfa (as a treat only) and Timothy grass.
Most of these plants will grow with little care, so no need to worry about being particularly green-fingered either, just regular water and some sun are usually all that’s needed. There is a variety of places you can get wild plant seeds from but here are a few I know and have used.
Take care that the plants are on the list of safe ones for piggies as some of these sites sell food for tortoises too, for example.
- Galens Garden http://galensgarden.co.uk
- Herbiseed http://herbiseed.com
- Meadow mania http://meadowmania.co.uk
Alternatively, some large garden centres will sell small wildflower plants and seeds. I have managed, this year to get hold of teasel, corn chamomile, herb Robert, knapweed and meadow cranesbill which I was delighted with. These may require a Ripplewort Herb Robert Mallow
Storage and drying
Once picked, it is nice to feed fresh, however wild weeds can be stored for a short time. They can be placed into bags in the fridge and fed as you would other fresh veggies. They can also be dried and fed later in the year – I will often stockpile dried weeds for the winter months where there are less fresh weeds available, or I am unable to get out due to short daylight hours. I like to dry weeds in the height of the summer when I can dry quicker, and the temperatures are better for it. There are several methods I have tried with drying, all have worked well. My first is to tie in bunches and hang weeds from the washing line (the only downside to this is I managed to sting myself on nettles several times hanging out the washing!), my second method is laying plants out on top of the guinea pigs’ run in the sunshine, I had to place mesh over these to avoid them blowing away, you can also get drying nets which I am planning on trying this year.
Weeds must be in warm environments, in the sun if you can. They should ideally not get wet (i.e. get rained on) and plants do better being separated to avoid the risk of mould or mildew building upon them. If you see any signs of mould, then the plant should be discarded. If in the direct sun and they are kept dry, however, this doesn’t happen much. Those plants with thicker stalks take longer to dry for obvious reasons, and some weeds don’t dry as easily. However, good drying candidates include (but not limited to) dandelion, plantain, silverweed, herb Robert, nipplewort leaves, sow thistle, lavender, chamomile, vetch, nettle and brambles
Identifying weeds takes time and experience. Don’t expect to be able to ID plants overnight, start with a few and slowly build up your confidence and expertise. I Will happily spend hours over the fields milling over plants, but this isn’t for everyone. Pay attention to the plants’ size, leaf shape, flower and also smaller details such as hollow stalks, furred greenery, spiky leaf edges, for example, all of this will help. If in doubt about your plant, then leave it be- better to be safe than sorry.
There are a few books that can be of help with identifying if you’re interested,these are:
- Foraging for rabbits, by Twigs Way(available on the Rabbit Welfare Associate and Fund website)
- Green foods for rabbits and cavies by FR Bell
- Collins wildflower identification
There are also a vast range of apps available to help ID plants just using your phone camera.
Here’s a shortlist of some of the plants safe to feed piggies, there are plenty more. Please ensure if you’re picking you identify them well. I take no responsibility for determining them. (Some of these may also have other common names):
Dandelion, plantain (broadleaf and longleaf/ribwort), prickly lettuce, catsear, hawksbeard, hawkbit, sow thistle/milk thistle, avens, shepherd’s purse, groundsel, nipplewort, common stinging nettle, red and white dead-nettle, vetch, yarrow, bramble/blackberry briar, hawthorn, clover, cranesbill, silverweed, chickweed, mallow, chamomile, cleavers/goosegrass (sticky weed),chicory, buddleja, hazel, hogweed/cow parsnip leaves (USA giant hogweed should not be fed), willow, wild thyme.
There are domestic garden and kitchen plants/herbs which you can feed as part of a varied diet which you may find interesting.
These include: Basil (all varieties), thyme, rosemary, parsley, chervil, sorrel, coriander, sage, mint, dill, fennel, English mace, winter savory, summer savory, peppermint, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, lavender, wild and planted strawberry plant (and fruit), apple and pear tree branches and leaves.
As you can see, even from this smallest piggies can have quite a tasty variety in their diet. Variety really is key to happy, healthy piggy. You may find that initially some plants are not eaten well, this is often because guinea pigs are quite neophobic (suspicious of new food items)and it may take a few times of offering a new plant before they decide they enjoy it.
What’s poisonous and/or toxic
The one thing we all worry about feeding our small furries something toxic to them, so here are a few common plants which are known to be toxic to piggies. Bluebell, forget me not, nightshade, foxglove, hemlock, ragwort, crocus, buttercup (in large quantities), celandine, elder, poppy, oak, beech, daffodil, lily of the valley, rhubarb, potato (leaves and stem), tulip, snowdrop, yew, ivy (though this plant may be okay at certain times of year I tend to steer clear of it).If you’re worried you’ve fed something toxic then give your vets a call, you can also call the animal poisons helpline (can be used for all other pets too!).
I hope this little topic has brought you closer to understanding the fantastic benefits of feeding more natural weeds and plants and makes you realise it’s not all that daunting