Is Straw Or Hay Better For Cat Shelters?

Both straw and hay are common materials used for bedding in outdoor cat shelters. They help provide insulation and cushioning for cats seeking refuge from the elements. When deciding between straw or hay for a cat shelter, there are pros and cons to consider for each material.

In general, straw tends to be more absorbent and hay provides better insulation. Straw also has lower dust content. However, hay is often more readily available and cheaper. The choice between straw or hay bedding often comes down to cost, availability in your area, and your cat’s specific needs.

This article examines the key differences between straw and hay as cat shelter bedding. It compares the two materials across factors like cost, absorption, pest risks, and more. By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of which is better for your outdoor cat shelter.

Difference Between Straw and Hay

Straw and hay may look similar at first glance, but they have some important differences. Straw is the dried stalks that are leftover after grains like wheat, oats, barley, or rice are harvested (Source). The stalks are allowed to dry out in the field before being baled. Straw contains very few leaves or seed heads since the grain has already been removed.

In contrast, hay is made from legumes, grasses, and other plants that are specifically grown to be cut and dried for animal feed. Common hay crops include alfalfa, timothy grass, Bermuda grass, and clover (Source). The entire plant is cut while still green, then cured and dried before being baled into rectangular bales. Good quality hay retains the nutrient-rich leaves, blossoms, and seed heads that provide nutrition for livestock.

So in summary, straw consists of the dried stalks leftover from grain crops, while hay is made from nutritious grasses and legumes grown specifically for animal feed.

Cost Comparison

Straw generally costs less than hay. According to Everything You Need to Know About Hay and Straw, “On average, straw costs about half as much as hay.” Hay is more expensive because it has greater nutritional value as livestock feed. The prices for both straw and hay can vary based on the region and season.

In some areas, straw can be purchased for as little as $2-$4 per bale, whereas hay sells for $5-$15 per bale. During winter months when feed is in higher demand, hay may be priced at the higher end of that range. Straw is easier to obtain year-round since it’s primarily used for bedding rather than feed. According to the Alley Cat Allies, straw can cost “two or three times less than hay.”

When shopping locally, it’s important to compare both the current market prices in your area and the quality of the straw or hay. Opting for a lower grade of straw with more waste may end up being a false economy compared to good quality hay. For cat shelters specifically, straw remains the more cost-effective option in most regions.


When it comes to absorbency, straw tends to be more absorbent and stay drier than hay when used as an animal bedding. Straw has hollow tubular stems that can soak up moisture, while hay is made up of broad grasses that don’t absorb as efficiently. One study found that straw absorbed over twice as much liquid as a similar amount of hay (Source). Chopped straw can have an even better moisture absorption capacity than unchopped, allowing urine to filter down through the bedding (Source). Overall, straw provides superior absorbency compared to hay, keeping bedding drier for longer.

Dust Content

Straw tends to have less dust and small particles compared to hay. This is because straw consists of the dry stalks left over after grains like wheat, rice, oats, and barley have been harvested.

Hay, on the other hand, is made from grasses and legumes that are cut and dried while still green. This drying process makes hay more prone to containing fine particles and dust.

Less dust is ideal for cat shelters as it reduces the chances of respiratory irritation if cats breathe in particles. Straw’s lower dust content makes it a better choice over hay for bedding material in outdoor cat houses.

One study found wheat straw bedding contained 50% less inhalable dust particles compared to hay bedding options (Source 1). The lower dust content contributes to a more comfortable shelter environment.


When it comes to insulation and warmth retention, straw generally performs better than hay. Straw has a higher R-value which measures resistance to heat flow. According to Baled, inch for inch, straw bales insulate about the same as fiberglass, with an R-value range of 2.38 to 0.94 per inch ( This is comparable to materials like stone wool or fiberglass. The hollow stems of straw are excellent insulators that trap air and provide good insulation against both cold and heat.

Hay, on the other hand, is denser and less hollow which reduces its insulating properties. The compressed grasses and weeds in hay bales have lower air pockets, resulting in lower insulation value. While hay does provide some warmth retention, straw is superior when it comes to insulating cat shelters.

Pest Risk

Straw tends to have lower pest risks compared to hay when used as bedding. Hay is more prone to developing mold and bacteria due to its higher moisture and nutrient content (Source). The curing process for straw removes more moisture, making it less hospitable to pests.

Straw also lacks the nutrients needed for pest growth. Hay contains proteins, vitamins, and sugars that can enable pest populations when exposed to moisture (Source). The lack of nutrients in straw helps suppress pest growth.

Overall, straw’s lower moisture and nutrient levels make it less prone to harboring problematic mold, bacteria, and other pests compared to hay. This makes straw a safer and more hygienic bedding option for animal shelters.


When it comes to allergies, straw tends to be the better option compared to hay for cat shelter bedding. Hay contains pollens, dust, and other allergens that can cause irritation for some cats, especially those with respiratory issues. The Fine Furzey Farm site notes that ” Hay contains a high amount of ‘spiklets’ which often irritate cats’ paws and skin.”

Straw is made from the dried stalks of cereal plants like wheat, rice, oats or barley. Since it does not contain the seed heads, it has lower levels of pollen and allergens. The Wisconsin Humane Society advises using straw over hay because “straw lacks many of the dusty components that can irritate a cat’s nose or lungs.” They recommend wheat or oat straw as good hypoallergenic options.

For cats with allergies or respiratory issues, straw creates a less irritating bedding material. However, any cat can develop a sensitivity over time. The Kitty Tube site recommends occasionally switching between wheat and oat straw to avoid the development of allergies. Monitoring cats for signs of irritation or allergy is also advised when using either straw or hay bedding in shelters.


Straw is typically more widely available and easier to source than hay. Straw is a byproduct from grain crops like wheat, oats, barley, and rice so there is abundant leftover straw after the grains are harvested (Source). Straw can be purchased from farm supply stores, pet stores, and online retailers.

Hay is made from grasses and legumes that are specifically grown to provide nutrition for livestock. This makes hay less abundant than leftover straw. Hay may be more difficult to find depending on the region, season, and local farming practices (Source). Retail options for hay are more limited than straw. It’s often bought directly from hay farmers or farm cooperatives.

Overall, straw tends to be more widely available year-round and can be purchased from a variety of sources. Hay may take more effort to locate depending on location and time of year.


When comparing straw and hay for use in cat shelters, there are pros and cons to each that are worth considering. Straw tends to be more absorbent, lower in dust, and less likely to contain mold or pests. However, hay provides better insulation and is usually easier and cheaper to source.

For most cat shelter operators, hay may be the better option overall. The lower cost and availability of hay in most areas makes it more accessible. The increased insulation also helps keep shelters warmer in cold weather. While straw has some benefits in terms of absorption and cleanliness, the cost savings and insulation of hay are likely more important factors for shelters with limited resources.

That said, either straw or hay can work well for cat shelters. Shelter operators should consider the climate of their area, budget, and availability of materials when deciding between the two. Proper maintenance and changing out wet or soiled bedding frequently is also key to keeping shelters clean, dry and comfortable for cats.

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