Your Guide To A Rabbit’s Digestive Tract
Mikelle Roeder, Ph.D. - Multi-Species Nutritionist
At Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition, we know it’s important to understand each animal’s digestive system and how it absorbs nutrients in order to formulate feeds that will provide optimum nutrition. That’s why we asked Ph.D. Animal Nutritionist Mikelle Roeder to break down the rabbit’s G.I. tract. Keep reading to learn more about the inner workings of your furry friend.
The rabbit digestive tract greatly resembles that of a horse. Both are “hind-gut fermenters,” meaning they have an organ called the “cecum” that functions much like the rumen of a cow, but instead of being at the beginning of the digestive tract, it is at the end. The cecum is full of special microbes that break down and digest the various fibers and other feedstuffs that enter the cecum.
Since rabbits have this cecum, they require a high fiber forage diet, but because the beginning of the digestive tract is like that of a monogastric animal, like a pig or a human, the fiber quality must be high. Rabbits don’t do well with coarse, mature fiber sources.
Good quality fiber is a major energy source for rabbits and an effective tool for maintaining the microbial population in the cecum. Healthy microbial populations in the cecum are critical for proper digestion and optimal gut health.
Path Of Digestion
Food travels from the stomach to the small intestine, where it encounters enzymes which aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients from proteins, sugars and starches. From there it travels to the cecum, where the microbial breakdown of fiber occurs. It then enters the large intestine, where there is significant water resorption, followed by excretion of the feces.
If the cecum occurs at the end of the digestive tract, how do the nutrients released from the fiber get absorbed? Volatile fatty acids, which are the energy component of fiber digestion, can be absorbed directly through the cecal epithelium. However, other nutrients such as amino acids, vitamins and minerals are excreted in a special soft fecal pellet known as “night feces” due to the fact that they are excreted only at night. We never see them because rabbits practice coprophagy; they eat these special night feces directly from the anus. This no doubt has a “yuck factor” for humans, but for rabbits it is an extremely efficient way to capture and utilize the nutrients produced by the fermentation of feeds in the cecum.
Like all animals, rabbits need a balance of all the necessary nutrients in order to be productive, healthy and happy. What they need is determined by their stage in life. Young growing bunnies and lactating does will have the highest nutrient requirements, while adult rabbits will have the lowest. Breeds with long fur, such as Angoras, may require more protein and fat to support optimal coat quality. Properly balanced feeds that meet your rabbits’ needs will keep your bunnies healthy and happy throughout their lifetime.