|What are Lab Blocks?
by David Imber
|Q: What is a lab block and where can you buy them? Is lab block only used when hamsters are sick or can it be part of a regular diet.
A: Lab blocks are a generic term, and some form can definitely be found in most major pet stores. Kaytee used to have one called "Forti-diet", but I believe that name is now given to their seed mix. Sunseed had one called "Critter Cubes" I think. From my description below you'll be able to find them in the store.
The strict term "lab block", however, refers to the diet given to laboratory animals, and this can be purchased through veterinary supply houses and some agricultural markets. In the northeastern and central United States there's a farmer's cooperative market called AGWAY that sells livestock feed of various kinds, and I've purchased lab blocks there. The composition is tailored to the type of animal you're feeding, although I recall seeing one that claimed to be balanced for both rats and hamsters.
The appearance of lab blocks is pretty uniform. They are usually cylindrical pellets about one inch long and one half inch in diameter. They may also be shaped like cubes or thick wafers. They are generally a bit harder than dog biscuits and more fibrous. Most are greenish- brownish in color. If you use a standard hamster mix, such as Kaytee Fiesta, the small, green cylindrical chunks are minor variations on a lab block.
The theory behind their manufacture is that the full complement of nutrients and vitamins can be synthesized from plant and animal sources, which are processed into a paste that is then dried and shaped for uniformity. This uniformity is the key to their use. Lab blocks provide a level of control when dealing with animals being bred specifically for scientific experimentation. If the type or amount of food varies from animal to animal, blood chemistry results from those animals cannot be legitimately compared.
Likewise, our pets will tend to pick and choose from among the mixture of ingredients in the standard bag assortment, and as a result may feed themselves an unbalanced diet, with too many starches and carbohydrates and not enough protein, minerals and amino acids. For this reason some people like to supplement bag mixes with a lab block every day. The reasoning being that if the ham favors the block, it will act like a "one-a-day" vitamin/nutrient supplement.
Another great benefit of lab blocks, and the reason I've used them in the past, is that they're nice and hard, and will help keep the hamster's teeth in trim.
There are problems with relying too heavily on lab blocks in my opinion, though. For one thing, many hamsters find them unappetizing. Also, like any processed food, the nutrition they contain will not enter the body as efficiently as nutrients contained in foods that animals have adapted naturally to digest (the idea behind the "whole foods" movement). What's more, processed foods begin to lose nutritive value as soon as the process is completed, unless they're enriched with preservatives. Lab blocks lose food value from sunlight and oxidation, and it's hard to tell how long they've been sitting around. If you're a major testing lab with thousands of animals you'll most likely get freshly pressed blocks straight from the manufacturer and go through them quickly. But the stuff you might get from Petco is another story. They may contain nothing but empty calories by the time they enter your home. Still, as an occasional supplement, and especially to help with overgrown teeth, they're not harmful and may have some positive value. I know one person who has made a "mash" with the powder that collects from settling in the bag and goat's milk that she claims is a "miracle food" - and it has definitely done wonders for her hams when needed.
My approach to diet is a bit different, and relies more on fresh ingredients and controlled seed mixes we put together ourselves. We also hold the belief, perhaps naive, that hams that are given maximum variation in their diet, activity and environment turn out noticeably brighter, more responsive and more sociable - although these notions are subjective and more anthropomorphic than may be appropriate.
So I think that sums up lab blocks.