While the idea of eating poop might seem disgusting to most (hopefully all) humans, it’s actually a very common practice in the animal world. So common, in fact, that there’s a term for eating poop.
Coprophagia is defined as the eating of excrement, and it’s a habit shared by many creatures, including rabbits, rodents, beavers, dogs, hippos, elephants, and even non-human primates like gorillas and orangutans.
Of course, none of these creatures are eating poop for fun, and we doubt it’s because they like the taste (unless they’re dogs). Rather, for some animals, feces has direct nutritional benefits when eaten, while other animals, such as dogs, may eat their poop because of curiosity, taste, or behavioral reasons.
But let’s talk about rabbits. Eating poop doesn’t make them dirty creatures. In truth, they are incredibly hygienic. Rabbits simply eat feces for the nutritional value it provides.
Cecotropes – Special Edible Feces
It’s important to understand that rabbits don’t just eat any feces they find. They only eat a special type of feces that they produce mostly at night known as cecotropes.1 These stools are soft and sticky, rather than the hard little pellet-like droppings you typically see. You’ll rarely see cecotropes, though, because rabbits eat them as they exit the body. If you do see your rabbit’s cecotropes uneaten, then your rabbit is likely unwell.
During the day, your rabbit will poop many times, releasing small, formed pellets in large numbers. These are not cecotropes. Cecotropes are made only at night. Nutrients ferment in a special part of the rabbit’s intestinal tract called the cecum, which then produces the cecotropes.2
Why Do Rabbits Eat Their Own Poop?
Your rabbit’s normal poop that’s being passed throughout the day doesn’t provide any nutritional value, which is why you don’t see your rabbit eating it. However, the cecotropes that your rabbit excretes at night are loaded with important nutrients.
Rabbits are herbivores. They strictly eat plant material that they forage. Plant material is very dense and loaded with fiber, making it difficult to digest. Because of this, a lot of the plant material passes through your rabbit’s gastrointestinal tract without being fully digested.
To avoid wasting all these nutrients, rabbits re-ingest them through their cecotropes. This allows their body to get a second chance at digesting that fibrous plant material. Bacteria and yeast from the rabbit’s cecum break down the indigestible fiber from grasses and hay, providing essential nutrients and fatty acids. These fermentation products are then coated in mucus before they are excreted as cecotropes. The second pass is much easier since the plant material has already been broken down to some degree and is now easier to digest.
A secondary reason for this additional digestive process is to ensure the rabbit’s digestion goes smoothly. Since rabbits can’t vomit, this process must continue without a hitch, as the rabbit will likely die if anything gets stuck in their digestive tract.
Should You Stop Your Rabbit from Eating Their Poop?
Absolutely not! Eating cecotropes is essential for your rabbit’s health. If you happen to find that your rabbit is not eating their cecotropes, then you need to worry. Your rabbit needs the nutrients contained in those cecotropes that they can only digest the second time through. Granted, this only applies to cecotropes. If your rabbit is eating the little hard droppings they produce during the day, then you should stop this and contact a vet as there might be an underlying issue to consider. But you should never stop your rabbit from eating the cecotropes they produce at night.
To us, the idea of eating poop is repulsive. But to your rabbit, it’s an essential health practice. Still, your rabbit shouldn’t be eating just any poop. They can only get the nutritional benefits they require from special feces called cecotropes that they produce at night. If you find these sticky, soft feces in your rabbit’s enclosure, it’s a sign that something might be wrong as your rabbit can’t meet their nutritional requirements without consuming these cecotropes.
Featured Image Credit: T. M. McCarthy, Shutterstock