By Karla S. Rugh, DVM, Ph. D.
Digestion starts in the mouth, where the rabbit chews its food very thoroughly (up to 120 times per minute), grinding it into small bits.
The food then passes to the stomach, where it mixes with gastric secretions that contain acid and enzymes, which break the food down into its basic components.
The next destination: the small intestine, where most of the sugar, starch and protein are absorbed. The fiber is separated according to particle size.
The large particles pass into the colon for eventual elimination.
The small particles pass into the cecum, a large, pouch-like structure (two to three times larger than the stomach) that lies between and to the side of the small intestine and the colon. In the cecum, microorganisms ferment the particles and digest the fiber and any remaining sugars, starches and proteins. During this process, B-vitamins and other nutrients are produced and absorbed into the bloodstream.
The remaining cecal material is formed into cecotropes, which are soft, greenish, strong-smelling pellets that are rich in B-vitamins and protein. The cecotropes pass into the colon with hard pellets of undigested fiber and waste material. The rabbit eliminates the waste material during defecation but eats the nutrient-rich cecotropes directly from its anus (a behavior termed “coprophagy”). As off-putting as coprophagy sounds, this “nutrient recycling” provides the rabbit with B-vitamins, protein and other compounds essential for its health. At any rate, you may never see your furry pal eat a cecotrope, because most rabbits take care of this task at night, while their people are sleeping. Indeed, rabbits, are different from us and other mammals by the way they eat and how they eat!
Excerpt from the Popular Critters® Series magabook Rabbits®,with permission from its publisher Lumina Media. Purchase Rabbits here.