House rabbits are often presented to the veterinarian with the chief complaint of “diarrhea”. Very commonly it is not true diarrhea – loose or liquid feces – that is the real problem. It is usually loose cecotropes that are the real problem. Let’s look at how a rabbit’s intestinal tract normally works to understand this problem. Rabbits produce two different products in their intestinal tract. One is the normal dry hard fecal pellets that we normally see in the litter box (or around the floor) and the other is a soft cluster of small cecal pellets that are coated in mucous. this second product is the result of a fermentation process that goes on in the cecum and these are called cecotropes. Other names for this product is “night feces” or “soft feces” . The cecum is the largest section of the rabbits GI tract. There are many different organisms that live in the cecum that break down the hight fiber foods such as hay that are consumed in a healthy rabbit’s diet. These organisms process high fiber food into usable nutritional products such as essential fatty acids. Once processed and packaged with a mucous coating, these cecotropes are excreted and are usually ingested directly from the anus. It is the mucous coating that protects this special package of nutrients from the very acidic environment of the stomach and helps it get into the intestines for proper absorption.
The term cecal dysbiosis refers to something having gone wrong with the biology of the cecum. “Cecal” refers to the cecum, the “fermentation vat” of the digestive tract. “Dys” refers to a malfunction and “biosis” referring to the “biology” of the cecum. So what caused this cecal dysbiosis? The most common cause is a diet too rich in simple sugars or carbohydrates. One of the populations of organisms that becomes imbalanced when there is too much carbohydrates in the diet is a yeast called Saccharomycopis guttutaus.
To understand how this can happen think of making home-made bread or beer. To “activate” the yeast you put in it in a coup of warm water and add a little pinch of sugar. Saccaromycopsis yeast are present in the normal rabbit in low numbers. When sugar is added to the soup of ingesta and organisms in the cecum the yeast population thrives and multiplies exponentially. Other populations of organisms such as the bacteria clostridium piliforme, Clostridium spiroforme and E. coli also become imbalanced. The result is that the manufacture of normal cecotropes as well as normal intestinal motility is altered. Ingesta winds up sitting in the cecum too long and “over fermenting”. Instead of the nice tidy packages of cecotropes that look like a large raspberry, the resulting product is a malodorous glob of gooey cecal waste that easily becomes matted on the rabbit’s rear as well as smeared on the floors in your home.
Cecal dysbiosis is a serious condition. When your rabbit is not forming and ingesting normal cecotropes it is missing out on an essential part of their vital nutrition. You should have your rabbit evaluated by your veterinary as soon as possible if you detect this situation. Due to the strong odor and mess of malformed cecotropes it is usually a very obvious condition. Your veterinarian will thoroughly review your rabbit’s diet and history. It is very important that you are 100% honest with your veterinarian regarding what your rabbit has been eating. We all love sweet and high fat content foods. And we all love to give our pets treats. Sugar and fat are two of the key things that make our food taste good. Our rabbits companions like treats too, but it is up to us to provide them with healthy snacks that won’t upset their delicate digestive tracts.
Some of the most common culprits in causing this disease process are crackers, excess fruit, cereal, chocolate, ice cream, bread, commercial yogurt drops and commercial “treat mix” type foods. To restore normal function to your rabbit’s digestive tract it is imperative that all of these such foods be eliminated immediately. When your rabbit gives you a hard time about this you have to be firm and consider what is best for your rabbit’s health. There are alternative treats that you can give that not only taste good, but are healthy for your pet. These would include fresh leafy green vegetables and especially herbs such as basil, dill and cilantro.
Under no circumstances should high carbohydrate commercial treat mix foods (the kinds with seeds, corn, dried fruit and nuts mixed in), yogurt drops, cracker, cereal etc… be introduced to the rabbit again. It is imperative that all members of the household are aware of the importance of permanently eliminating these foods from the rabbit’s diet. After resoluion of the cecal dysbiosis, foods should be reintroduced very slowly. Wait 2-3 days between each new addition. If the loose cecotropes return, stop the new food immediately and go back to just timothy grass hay and leafy greens. Timothy hay and leafy green vegetables are actually a very adequate maintenance diet that rabbits can live on for the rest of their lives.
To further learn more about this silent killer, please visit GastroIntestinal Stasis.