How does the rabbit get those essential nutrients? She eats the cecotropes as they exit the anus. The rabbits blissful expression when she's engaging in cecotrophy (the ingestion of cecotropes) will tell you that she finds this anything but disgusting. In fact, rabbits deprived of their cecotropes will eventually succumb to malnutrition. Cecotropes are not feces. They are nutrient-packed dietary items essential to your companion rabbit's good health.
A rabbit may produce cecotropes at various times during the day, and this periodicity may vary from rabbit to rabbit. Some produce cecotropes in the late morning, some in the late afternoon, and some at night. In any case, they usually do this when you're not watching (quite polite of them). This might be why some people refer to cecotropes as "night droppings," though cecotropes are not always produced at night. A human face is apparently an excellent and refreshing palate-cleanser, as a favorite activity immediately post-cecotrophy often seems to be "kiss the caregiver". Mmmmmm.
Anyone who lives with a bunny has seen a fecal pellet. These are the small, brown "cocoa puffs" that (we hope) end up in the litterbox. They should be relatively spherical, somewhat dry and friable, and composed mostly of undigested fiber. Rabbits do not ordinarily re-ingest fecal pellets, though a few bunnies seem to enjoy an occasional fecal pellet hors d'ouevre with no harm.
A normal cecotrope resembles a dark brown mulberry, or tightly bunched grapes. It is composed of small, soft, shiny pellets, each coated with a layer of rubbery mucus, and pressed into an elongate mass. The cecotrope has a rather pungent odor, as it contains a large mass of beneficial cecal bacteria. When the bunny ingests the cecotrope, the mucus coat helps protect the bacteria as they pass through the stomach, then re-establish in the cecum.
Diarrhea in Baby Rabbits: A Life-Threatening Emergency
One of the most common signs associated with sudden death in baby rabbits is diarrhea, which can appear very quickly and kill in a matter of hours. Thus, it is of vital importance that any baby rabbit showing signs of lethargy, inappetence (not wanting to eat), or runny stool be taken immediately to an experienced rabbit veterinarian for emergency, life-saving treatment. Delaying even for an hour or two can mean the difference between life and death.
If you cannot find a rabbit-experienced veterinarian, but have an emergency clinic that is willing to accept help from unknown persons on the internet (that would be me), then please print this Emergency Treatment Protocol for Diarrhea in Infant Rabbits. This is a protocol I developed while trying to save wild baby cottontails and hares, and it is the only thing I have found that does save them. I hope no one reading this ever needs it...but it is here, just in case.
True diarrhea is more prevalent in baby rabbits than in adults, especially if the babies have been taken from their mother before they are ready for weaning. Sadly, many baby rabbits are weaned too young to be away from their mothers. Instead of being allowed to nurse for a full, normal eight weeks, they are taken away while they are still "cute" and marketable--often as young as four weeks. This can spell death for many of them.
Without mother's antibodies, complex organic compounds and proper pH environment her milk provides to help protect the baby's intestines, these babies are highly susceptible to over-proliferation of foreign bacteria. One of the most common culprits of runny stool in baby rabbits is accidental infection by the common human intestinal bacterium, Escherichia coli. This is transmitted from humans to baby rabbits during handling, since these bacteria are all over us, not just in our intestines. Handling an unweaned infant rabbit without properly washing and disinfecting one's hands is a good way to transmit these opportunistic pathogens. Even a loving kiss on a too-young baby rabbit's lips can kill. Until a young rabbit is at least eight weeks old, she should not be taken from her mother, as mama's milk affords protection against E. coli and other bacteria until the baby's own immune system can handle them.
Another pathogen that can cause diarrhea in baby rabbits is Eimeria spp., the causative agent of coccidiosis. The reproductive sporocysts of these protist parasites can usually be seen in the feces of the host, so your vet may wish to examine the fecal sample of the affected rabbit for signs of coccidial sporocysts.
Perhaps the most common complaint regarding rabbit health is the problem of mushy or runny stool sticking to the bunny's anal area and creating a nasty, stinky mess. In most cases (in adult rabbits, at least), this mass is made of poorly formed cecotropes that have the consistency of toothpaste, rather than the normal form of bunched, squishy pellets.
The cecum is a delicately balanced ecosystem. If the intestine is moving too slowly, or if the rabbit is getting a diet too rich in digestible carbohydrates and too low in crude fiber, the complex population of bacteria in the cecum can become "unbalanced." This condition is known as cecal dysbiosis. Cecal dysbiosis means that the beneficial bacteria (e.g., Bacteroides spp. and a variety of others, including archaeans) are outcompeted and outnumbered by less desirable inhabitants such as yeast (a fungus, usually Saccharomycopsis sp.) or even very harmful bacteria such as Clostridium spp., related to the ones that cause tetanus and botulism.
A rabbit suffering from cecal dysbiosis will produce cecotropes that are mushy, pasty or even liquid. They are usually quite foul-smelling, and often stick to the bunny's back end in great, nasty clumps. These unformed cecotropes are not a primary disease, however. They are a symptom of a disorder somewhere in the bunny's system. In order to solve the runny stool problem, the underlying cause must be addressed.
Unlike most mammals, baby rabbits have a sterile lower intestine until they begin to eat solid food at the age of 3-4 weeks. It is during this time that their intestines are at their most vulnerable: the babies need their mother's milk, which changes pH and provides vital antibodies that help the baby gradually adjust to his changing intestinal environment, to protect them against newly introduced microorganisms. Without mother's milk, a baby starting to eat solid food is highly susceptible to bacterial enteritis (inflammation of the intestinal lining), which can cause fatal diarrhea. Runny stool in a baby rabbit should be considered a life-threatening emergency, and anyone seeing this should contact a rabbit-savvy veterinarian immediately, and consult the Emergency Treatment Protocol for Diarrhea in Infant and Juvenile Rabbits to be well-informed about questions to ask the vet.
Some of the most common causes of intestinal slowdown (and hence, cecal dysbiosis) in rabbits include pain/stress due to
Once an underlying source of pain/stress is treated, the runny stool often resolves on its own. But if the condition is not treated, it can progress and eventually result in a potentially life-threatening condition, ileus, or GI stasis, in which peristalsis stops completely.
To prevent this, be sure to learn how to give your bunny a butt bath--SAFELY.
Resolving runny stool in a rabbit is not always a simple matter. It may require dietary changes, good husbandry, and sometimes extensive diagnostic work and treatment by your veterinarian. But it will all be worth it for a long life filled with happy, nose-wiggling love and a nice, clean bum.