Why Do Rabbits Eat Their Own Poop?

Think only dogs eat poop? Think again! Rabbits actually have a normal, healthy habit of eating their own poop. Strange but true! However, they don’t eat just any old poop. Rabbits produce special poops called cecotropes that are packed with vitamins and nutrients. Eating cecotropes allows rabbits to digest their food twice and absorb more nutrients. It may seem gross to us, but for bunnies, it’s as natural as chewing their greens. Yet sometimes rabbits do start eating the wrong kinds of poop, which can signal health problems. Want to learn all about the weird world of rabbit poop-eating? Read on to get the full scoop! This article reveals why rabbits eat poop, the secrets of their digestive system, and how to keep your bunny healthy.

It’s healthy for rabbits to eat their own poop

Rabbits eating their own poop may seem gross to us, but it's actually a healthy and important part of how they digest their food. The key to understanding why rabbits eat their poop is to know a little bit about their unique digestive system.

Rabbits are herbivores, meaning they eat plants. They have a specialized digestive system that allows them to process and absorb nutrients from fibrous plant material. An important part of this process involves a special type of feces called cecotropes, or "night feces."

Cecotropes are soft, dark, mushy balls of partly digested food that rabbits normally produce at night. They come from the cecum, which is a pouch connected to the intestines where plant materials undergo additional breakdown by bacteria and fermentation. The cecum is so important for rabbits that's it's often called their "second stomach."

The cecotropes contain a mix of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and beneficial bacteria that were not fully digested during the first pass through the rabbit's system. Rabbits instinctively eat these nutritious cecotropes straight from their anus in order to get maximum nutritional value from their food. This practice is called coprophagy.

For rabbits, eating cecotropes is as natural and essential as chewing their regular food. Mother rabbits even teach their young kits to eat cecotropes as part of their normal development.

While the idea of eating poop may be off-putting to us, for bunnies cecotropes are an important source of vitamins B and K, proteins, carbohydrates, and fatty acids. They allow rabbits to thrive on a diet of grasses, leaves, bark and twigs which might be difficult for other animals to digest efficiently.

So while it may look gross to us, rabbits eating cecotropes is actually a clever evolutionary adaptation that helps them get the nutrition they need from their plant-based diet. It's perfectly normal and healthy rabbit behavior.

The rabbit digestion

To better understand why rabbits eat their own poop, it's helpful to take a closer look at the unique digestive system of rabbits:

Rabbits are hindgut fermenters, meaning their digestion relies on fermentation by bacteria in an enlarged cecum or "hindgut." This allows them to break down and absorb nutrients from fibrous plant materials like grasses and leaves.

  • When a rabbit first eats, food passes through the esophagus into a stomach-like compartment called the proventriculus. Here, it is moistened and formed into soft pellets.

  • The pellets then enter the true stomach where acids and enzymes begin breaking it down further.

  • From the stomach, partially digested food moves into the small intestine for additional enzyme action and absorption of simple sugars and amino acids.

  • The remaining food moves into the cecum, a blind pouch connected to the intestines. The cecum contains a diverse community of bacteria that ferments plant materials – breaking down fiber, extracting nutrients, and producing vitamins.

  • The fermented cecal contents, now called cecotropes, are passed out of the anus and directly eaten by the rabbit. Cecotropes are coated in a layer of mucus and odorless.

  • After ingesting the cecotropes, they move to a part of the stomach called the fundus where the nutrients are further digested and absorbed. The remains are formed into hard fecal pellets, which the rabbit excretes.

So in summary, rabbits eat their cecotropes as a way to capture nutrients that would otherwise be lost during their specialized digestive process. The cecotropes provide rabbits with essential vitamins, minerals, proteins and fats that allow them to thrive on an herbivorous diet.

Different kinds of rabbit poop

Rabbits actually produce two different types of feces:

  • Hard round pellets – These are the dry, fibrous fecal pellets that rabbits normally expel. They are made up of indigestible fiber from the rabbit's food. Rabbits do not eat these.

  • Soft mucus-coated cecotropes – Cecotropes form in the cecum and contain nutrients digested by bacteria. Rabbits eat these directly from the anus to recover nutrients.

The two types of poop look very different:

Hard poop pellets are dry, brown, and oval-to-round shaped. They are made up of compacted fiber that could not be digested by the rabbit. Rabbits expel hundreds of these pellets per day.

Cecotropes are soft, shiny, coiled, and dark green to brown or black in color. They have a strong odor, and contain nutrients absorbed by cecal bacteria during fermentation.

Rabbits produce cecotropes at a specific time of day, usually late at night or very early morning. They turn around and pull cecotropes directly from the anus into the mouth. Cecotrophes are coated in a layer of mucus and odorless when first eaten.

Most rabbit owners will never see cecotropes because rabbits consume them directly from the anus. You may catch a glimpse of a rabbit eating cecotropes if they produce an excess. Hard fecal pellets are what you'll find scattered in the rabbit's environment.

So while rabbits do eat their own poop, they only eat the soft, nutrient-rich cecotropes. The hard fecal pellets that amass are not eaten. This helps explain why rabbit feces comes in different forms with different purposes.

What if rabbits aren’t eating their cecotropes?

It can be cause for concern if a rabbit stops eating its cecotropes. There are two main reasons this might happen:

The rabbit is producing too many cecotropes

In some cases, rabbits may start excreting excess cecotropes that they cannot fully consume. This can happen if:

  • The diet has too much protein, sugars, or starch – this overfeeds the cecal bacteria and causes them to overproduce cecotropes.

  • The rabbit has dental problems or misaligned teeth that prevent thorough chewing – larger food particles reach the cecum and cause excess cecotrope production.

  • The rabbit has a gastrointestinal condition that speeds transit of food, limiting cecal fermentation time and leading to overload of partially-fermented cecotropes.

  • The rabbit is obese and cannot properly reach and consume all cecotropes.

In cases of excess cecotrope production, the uneaten cecotropes accumulate in the cage. This can lead to issues with the rabbit ingesting too much fur while grooming, or developing irritated skin from contact with excess cecotropes.

Treatment involves identifying and resolving the underlying cause – dental problems, obesity, or improper diet. The rabbit may temporarily need help keeping the cage and fur clean until cecotrope production normalizes.

The rabbit cannot reach to eat their cecotropes

Sometimes mobility or flexibility issues prevent a rabbit from properly reaching and consuming their cecotropes directly from the anus. This can happen with:

  • Obesity – excess fat limits the rabbit's ability to reach the anus area and cecotropes.

  • Arthritis or muscle weakness – musculoskeletal impairment restricts movements needed to eat cecotropes.

  • Injury or surgery – for example, limb fractures or abdominal surgery that require bandages or splints can prevent normal cecotrophy.

  • Neurological deficits – conditions like stroke or spinal injury that affect coordination or sensations around the tail.

  • Physical defects – rabbits with abnormal spine curvature or limb development may struggle with cecotrophy.

  • Long fur coat – some long haired breeds can get covered in excess fur that limits their flexibility and reach.

If mobility issues are preventing cecotrophy, uneaten cecotropes will stick to the rabbit's fur around the tail. Treatment involves keeping this area clean while addressing the underlying condition – weight loss, physical therapy, trimming long fur, or post-surgical recovery. Most rabbits can resume normal cecotrophy once the limiting condition improves.

Rabbits who eat their poop (not cecotropes)

While cecotrophy is totally normal, some rabbits do develop an unhealthy habit of eating their regular hard fecal pellets. Reasons this may happen include:

  • Dietary mineral deficiencies – rabbits lacking phosphorus, calcium, or sodium may crave and eat feces to meet their needs.

  • Boredom or stress – rabbits with inadequate mental stimulation or stress may snack on poop for comfort.

  • Changes to digestive bacteria – antibiotics or sudden diet changes can kill off healthy cecum bacteria needed for cecotrophy.

  • Dysfunctional cecum – after severe infections like coccidiosis, the cecum may not produce proper cecotropes.

  • Pain association – rabbits with painful urinary issues may associate pain with normal poop, and eat it to relieve the pain.

Eating regular fecal pellets does not provide the nutritional benefits of cecotrophy. It also poses much higher disease risks from re-ingesting pathogens. If stool-eating persists, consult an exotics vet to identify and address the underlying cause.

In summary, cecotrophy is healthy while eating other droppings is not. Make sure your rabbit can comfortably reach cecotropes to support their nutritional needs. Monitor for signs of excessive or abnormal poop-eating to catch any emerging health issues promptly. Paying attention to your rabbit's pooping habits will help keep them healthy and happy!

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