Caecotrophy might not be a term you have come across before. So what exactlty does it mean? Which pets do this and why do they do it? Caecotrophy is a fascinating digestive strategy which some small mammals use in order to gain extra nutrients. 

Caecotrophs are a type of soft faecal pellet which some animals will consume. The process of eating these is known as caecotrophy. It is sometimes also described as pseudo-rumination. You may have caught your pet eating their own faeces and wondered why they do it and if it is normal… 

It may seem an unpleasant concept to us, however it is very normal for a number of species to partake in this behaviour. It was thought at first to be a behaviour unique to rabbits; however, we now know a wider range of pets use this digestive process to their advantage. It is useful to understand the process as it is a vital part of these animals receiving adequate nutrition. 

Which pets are known to use caecotrophy as part of digestion?

  • Rabbits
  • Guinea pigs
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Hamsters
  • Chinchillas

How does the process work?

Rabbits and rodents have a similar digestive system, the start of which is one simple stomach. During normal digestion, food is chewed and swallowed. It enters the stomach and continues on into the small intestine. Food is further broken down in the small intestine and nutrients are absorbed here. Once food goes beyond this point most nutrients cannot be absorbed; however, the food has not been broken down enough to release all the nutrients. 

Food then enters the caecum, the junction between the small and large intestine. Here a process known as fermentation occurs. Bacteria are involved in fermentation and this breaks the food down further. The extra nutrients released during this process are then contained in the caecotrophs.

Many of the nutrients from the caecotrophs – such as the proteins – cannot be absorbed as they pass through the colon, so instead the animal eats the caecotroph directly from the anus as it is passed. The second passage of the caecotroph through the digestive tract allows these nutrients to be absorbed in the small intestine. 

Sometimes caecotrophy is known also as hind gut fermentation as it is the second part of the digestive tract or the hindgut where further breakdown of the food occurs. It has also been likened to rumination and dubbed pseudo-rumination as ruminant animals also use bacterial fermentation in the digestion of food in the rumen. However ruminant animals such as cattle use their foregut, the multichambered stomach for this process. Animals which use hindgut fermentation such as rabbits and rodents differ as they have one simple stomach. 

What is the difference between normal faeces and caecotrophs?

Caecotrophs contain a higher percentage of protein, essential fatty acids and lower percentage of fibre. They also have a high level of B vitamins and vitamin K. Ingestion of caecotrophs is also a vital step in the animal maintaining a normal balanced gut flora, essential for health and digestion.

Normal waste faeces are dry and hard, whereas caecotrophs are moist pellets. You won’t often see any evidence of caecotrophs or their ingestion unless you spot your pet in the process of taking the caecotroph directly from the anus. Rodents may sometimes eat the caecotroph from the cage floor, and it is important they get the opportunity to do so. Generally, the animal will consume a caecotroph once a day either first thing in the morning or late at night. However, it is known in rodents such as rats the amount of caecotrophs which are consumed is related to life stage, with pregnant rats consuming significantly more. 

Consumption of the caecotrophs not only ensures the animal is able to absorb the extra nutrients, it also means their gut flora is maintained. The gut flora is a population of helpful microbes which play a vital role in hindgut fermentation and normal digestion. The balance and maintenance of the gut flora of rodents and rabbits is a delicate balance. If the gut flora of an animal is disrupted problems such as diarrhoea can develop. Rabbits with disrupted or abnormal gut flora are at particular risk of serious complications developing which can result in life-threatening gut stasis.

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So, although caecotrophy isn’t a concept that seems particularly pleasant for us, it is perfectly normal for a range of small pets. The process ensures health and wellbeing are maintained via this unique process. 

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