Did you find out that your rabbit eats its droppings? For humans, the elimination of faeces is one of the basic principles of hygiene. So it is only logical that you feel disgust at the thought of your pet swallowing its feces. Don’t worry, this is not a disturbance in your rabbit’s behavior. On the contrary, it meets basic needs. Here is the explanation.
Coprophages and animals practicing caecotrophy
Eating its droppings is not the only thing the rabbit does. It is a behavior shared by other animals.
Among these animals, there are the “coprophages”. This term is composed of two ancient Greek words: kopros which means “excrement” and phagos which means “who eats”. “Coprophage” therefore literally means one who eats his excrement. Coprophagous animals are mainly insects, beetles or diptera. The best known of them is undoubtedly the dung beetle.
Other animals practice “caecotrophy” (pronounced sekotrofi). This word is made up of a first Latin term, caecum, which means “blind intestine” and a second ancient Greek term, trophy, which means “food”. Most shrews, marmots, beavers, chinchillas, koala, rabbits and hares belong to this category.
The essential difference between coprophages and caecotrophists is that the former feed on the faeces produced by other animals, while the latter eat only some of their own excrement.
Why does the rabbit perform kaecotrophy?
Among his droppings, the rabbit selects those that are moist and therefore soft: they are called “caecotrophs”. The process of life takes place according to a well-regulated mechanism. Let’s take a closer look at the one that governs the rabbit’s digestion and justifies that it eats its droppings.
The rabbit is a herbivore. The food of a domestic rabbit is essentially composed of hay that it can eat at will. This hay is mostly made up of fiber. This means that the rabbit produces energy and cells, including muscle cells, from fiber. Therefore, a special chemical treatment is required to successfully produce proteins from fiber. Humans, for example, are not able to do this, which is why their diet must include protein.
Everything in rabbits is adapted to the herbivorous diet, from the dentition to the cecum (part of the intestine that acts as a pocket to allow the fermentation of absorbed food), through the particle separation system in the proximal colon that leads to the formation of soft faeces.
It is during fermentation that proteins and nutrients, which are absent from the rabbit diet, are produced. It is the bacteria present in the cecum that perform this function.
At the exit of the cecum, in the colon, a sorting process takes place between digestible and non-digestible fibers because they are too large. This is done by a peristaltic movement (automatic muscular contractions) which makes the former rise towards the cecum, while the latter are evacuated in the form of dry and hard droppings. The expelled soft faeces are ingested by the rabbit to be processed in the small intestine. This double process leads to the term double digestion.
The wet faeces are coated with mucus whose role is to protect them from the stomach acidity and make them reach the small intestine intact. Without this protection, the nutrients would be destroyed.
Since the cecum is located at the end of the digestive system, there is not enough time for the rabbit’s body to assimilate the nutrients. For this reason, rabbits have a real need to ingest their soft feces as soon as they are produced. These feces are usually produced at the end of your rabbit’s night, after a long period of sleep. The rabbit contorts itself to catch them directly from the anus. If he didn’t, he would be deficient.
Evolution of the rabbit’s diet
Rabbits head their mothers on average once every 24 hours, sometimes twice.
Between 4 and 6 days of life, the young rabbit consumes, in addition to suckling, hard faeces that have been deposited in the nest by the mother. The aim is to stimulate the development of the bacterial flora of the cecum.
The ingestion of solid food only starts in a really meaningful way when the young rabbit can easily access the mother’s feed trough and the water pipette. This usually occurs between 17 and 20 days of life.
Weaning is done when the young rabbit can ingest dry food. In the wild, this occurs at about 3½ weeks of life, when the mother is pregnant again and preparing for the next litter. In the days that follow, the young rabbit absorbs between 25 and 30 solid and liquid meals per 24 hours. It is between 22 and 28 days of life that the caecotrophy behaviour takes place.
The domestic rabbit is weaned only between 4 and 5 weeks of life. It is between weaning and 8 weeks of life that the growth rate reaches its highest level.
When the rabbit does not eat its droppings
Before 3 months, the rabbit has not acquired the habit of eating its soft faeces. However, after this age, it is not normal for the rabbit to leave them alone and not eat them. It is an abnormality whose cause must absolutely be found.
An obese rabbit, for example, will have difficulty catching its soft feces when it comes out of the anus. This is an important reason to quickly treat a possible overweight rabbit. He may also experience back pain that prevents him from taking the correct position.
Inappropriate nutrition can also cause digestive disorders. The domestic rabbit often suffers from a diet that is too rich in sugar, because it is offered too many treats. This lowers the pH-value of the digestive tract, which can lead to the disappearance of the bacterial flora in the cecum and thus to a halt of the fermentation process. This can also lead to the development of bad bacteria which can then develop and cause sudden death of the rabbit.
The cage of a healthy rabbit is therefore a cage where there are no caecotrophs. Occasionally, the rabbit may not grasp them immediately because it has been distracted. However, once they fall to the ground, these droppings smell very bad, even for the rabbit, which will then leave them behind.
You must differentiate between caecotrophs and normal looking but soft droppings that are sometimes produced by the rabbit to mark its territory. The former are really shiny because of the presence of mucus.