Understand your rabbit's digestive system and how to diagnose problems

It is important to understand your rabbit's digestive system. It will help to be aware of a serious life threatening conditions in rabbits, how to read the signs and hopefully avoid the problems.

A rabbit's digestive system allows them to eat a variety of plant material, extracting and processing nutrients that are indigestible to less adaptable herb eating mammals (herbivores).

Rabbits have an oesophagus, stomach and intestinal tract like other mammals.

However, because they dine on plants that are high in fibre they have developed a system for dealing with this called 'hind gut fermentation', where indigestible food matter is broken down into manageable chemicals.

Fibre in a rabbit's diet is used for nutrition and is also vital in keeping the rabbit's highly complex gastrointestinal (GI) tract in good and proper working order.

The indigestible fibre keeps the intestine moving along smoothly.

Without this interaction you can get serious problems which become rapidly life threatening, such as GI Stasis. Hence the reason for a high fibre diet with little carbohydrates.

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As soon as a rabbit stops eating, the motility (automatic stomach contractions that moves the food along the digestive tract) of the GI tract will be affected, so even if the problem does not start with GI motility problems, GI motility will be affected and cause serious illness.

Rabbit's have large stomachs to enable them to process large amounts of plant material quickly.

Food passes rapidly through the gut and fibre is eliminated from the digestive tract as soon as possible allowing the rabbit to be light and small, advantageous in a prey animal.

In their natural environment rabbits graze and eat at dawn and dusk, termed as 'crepuscular'. They do not need to eat small amounts all day long.

A rabbit's lips (prehensile) grabs the food, The front teeth, consisting of four upper and two lower incisors, which like all rabbit's teeth grow continuously throughout their lives, then slice the food matter. This is then is passed onto the back molar teeth, where it is chewed into small particles and swallowed.

Once swallowed, a slender tube, the oesophagus, carries the food to the stomach, a thin walled organ with little power of contraction.

The food matter then passes, through the digestive system, from the stomach through a muscular band of tissue known as 'pylorus' which controls the entrance of the food into the small intestine.

This small intestine continues until it enlarges into the 'sacculus rotundus', an enlarged sac peculiar to the rabbit.

From the sacculus rotundus runs the large intestine consisting of the caecum (pouch like portion of the large intestine), colon and rectum.

The large sac called caecum, where the large and small intestine meet, contains a diverse population of healthy bacteria, enzymes, and other organisms to help digestion.

When food reaches the caecum, from the small intestine, the gastrointestinal tract diverts certain material into the caecum while the rest pass directly into the large intestine as waste, which you see as the resultant round droppings.

Two scent glands deposit scent on waste pellets and these pellets are used to mark the rabbit's territory.

The indigestible fibre in the caecum is meanwhile broken down and turned into nutrients.

This material is moved through the digestive system one more time.

Several hours after eating, the material from the caecum is formed into small round moist pellets called 'cecotropes'. These pellets are coated with mucus and passed out of the body for eating.

Cecotropes can look like a clump of small brown chocolate raisins and the rabbit eats them immediately.

This action can sometimes be mistaken for thinking the rabbit is grooming their hind end. Cecotropes are soft in substance and green to brown in colour. They smell stronger than the waste pellets.

You should not see too many cecotropes in the hutch, but if you do it could mean a diet too rich in protein or there is a serious problem.

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