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Small mammal herbivores part 1: digestive system adaptations to a herbivorous diet

02 September 2022
10 mins read
Volume 13 · Issue 7
Figure 1. Rabbits and other companion herbivores have specific nutritional needs that are informed by their digestive physiology. Providing appropriate diets in the veterinary hospital, as well as counseling pet owners on what to provide at home, are important skills for the veterinary nurse to master.


Nutritional disease is common in exotic companion mammals, and the unique dietary adaptations of herbivorous species only compounds this issue. The target species (including lagomorphs, and hystricomorph or caviomorph rodents) exhibit anatomical and physiological adaptations to a plant-based diet that is low in calories and protein, and high in fibre. Digestive tract adaptations such as hypselodont dentition to hindgut fermentation will be reviewed. Veterinary nurses are in an excellent position to counsel pet owners on the appropriate nutrition of their companion animals, and understanding these unique adaptations provides the necessary baseline knowledge to make recommendations.

Nutrition has been recognised as the fifth vital assessment, following temperature, pulse, respiration, and pain, by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (Freeman et al, 2011). While this campaign has focused on raising awareness of the importance of nutrition for canine and feline patients, it helps bring to mind this aspect of care for any species that is brought into the veterinary practice. Exotics practitioners are no stranger to nutritional needs and disease in exotic companion animals: husbandry-related diseases are disturbingly common in exotic pets. Estimates of the prevalence of husbandry-related diseases range depending on the study, but it is generally agreed that inadequate husbandry is a leading cause of illness in captive exotic animal species (Hartmann, 1993; Fawcett, 2011; Jekl et al, 2011; Prebble, 2011; O'Neill et al, 2020). Client education of appropriate husbandry practices is critical for prevention of husbandry-related disease as well as treatment, however the veterinary staff must be well versed in the needs of these animals in order to provide appropriate information.

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