15 Monogastric Digestion

Sites of Digestion

In monogastrics (simple stomached animals, including humans), there are 5 main “sites” of digestion.

chart of nutrient enzymes and targets

Oral cavity

Chewing and the production of saliva both help with digestion. Chewing breaks down food into smaller components and increases the surface area available for enzymatic digestion. In some species, saliva contains salivary amylase. This compound can start the process of carbohydrate digestion. Dogs, cats, sheep and goats do not have salivary amylase.

People (and many omnivores) have salivary amylase.




Try this

Because of salivary amylase, starches start to break down into sugars. Longer chewing (and mixing of food with saliva) should increase the sweetness you can taste. Next time you eat a starchy food such as a potato, notice how the taste changes as you chew


Protein digestion starts in the stomach. Acid and pepsin break down proteins into polypeptides.  Inactive pepsinogen is produced by chief cells in the stomach and is converted to pepsin by the hydrochloric acid released from the gastric parietal cells. The active pepsin then breaks down proteins. Once activated, pepsin can activate itself so the cycle continues.

Meantime, salivary amylase is inactivated by the stomach acidity so carbohydrate breakdown stops. Some animals produce gastric lipase, permitting some fat digestion in the stomach but this is not the main site of fat digestion.

Liver/gall bladder

Bile is required to digest fats. Bile salts are released from the liver and help break up fat globules, allowing them to be broken down into smaller components by pancreatic lipase. Without bile, pancreatic lipase can’t do anything.

After monoglycerides and fatty acids enter the cell, they are recombined into triglycerides. The triglycerides are coated in proteins and transported into the lacteals as chylomicrons.

Image result for bile and fat digestion

Not all species have gall bladders but they all have biliary systems.

Small intestine and pancreas

The small intestine works similarly across species despite dietary differences. The main function of the small intestine is to move nutrients from the diet into the bloodstream.  In a herbivore, this includes the non-cellulose parts of the diet (fats, proteins, carbohydrates from grains or oils) rather than hay.

Once foodstuffs enter the small intestine, they are mixed with enzymes and buffers from profuse pancreatic secretions  and from the small intestinal brush border. The enzymes (amylase, trypsin, chymotrypsin, lipase, carboxypeptidases, endopeptidases) start breaking down the food products into glucose, amino acids, free fatty acids and monoglycerides. Pancreatic enzymes are released in an inactive form (zymogen) and must be activated. Along with peptidases that can digest proteins directly, intestinal cells produce enterokinase which converts the pancreatic trypsinogen (a zymogen)  to trypsin (an active enzyme). Trypsin then converts other zymogens to active forms. The process is enhanced by calcium in the duodenum. These enzymes work on carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Motility and digestion

The intestinal wall contracts rhythmically to mix the ingesta with the enzymes (segmentation).

The simpler food components are absorbed through capillaries and lymphatics in the intestinal wall where they can be transported to the liver and then to other organs.  Simultaneously, the ingesta is moving from the duodenum, through the jejunum and into the ileum. Gradually more and more of the ingesta is exposed to the gut lining and can be absorbed if it hits the right receptors.  Most of the simple sugars and proteins are absorbed in the jejunum. If fats are in low concentration, they can also be absorbed in the jejunum. Excess fats are absorbed in the ileum. The ingesta will often be held and mixed in the ileum until the fat content is minimal (see “ileal brake“).

During the process, any structural carbohydrates (hays, grasses, seeds) in the diet are not broken down but are being hydrated by active fluid secretion. Eventually the remaining components are moved into the cecum where microbial digestion will start.

The water exchange that occurs in the small intestine equals about 1.5x the total extracellular fluid volume of the animal over a 24 hour period. The small intestine is the main site of water secretion and water absorption in all species. Colonic water absorption occurs (especially horse colons) but colonic water absorption levels are still less significant than small intestinal water absorption.

Digestion by dietary component


Carbohydrates are primarily digested by pancreatic amylase in the small intestine.


Proteins are digested in the stomach (pepsin) and SI (trypsin and chymotrypsin).


Lipids must be emulsified by bile salts before they can be broken down in the SI by pancreatic lipase. The breakdown triglycerides are coated with proteins and absorbed into the lymphatic system.

Proteins and lipids

Challenge questions

  • If pandas are really carnivores, how do they eat bamboo?
  • What makes feces brown? What would feces look like if the animal had no pancreatic enzymes?
  • Why do some animals eat their own feces? Explain coprophagy and cecotrophy.

Resources- Digestion

GI anatomy and physiology – Osmosis.org; covers it all including motility

Digestion overview – 3D horse digestion guide; equine but nicely done for all species

Comparison pigs, horses and cows – basic but cool shows how GI tracts compare

Pancreas function – Education Portal; great lecture review

Gastric secretions – will help connect to microanatomy

Dietary protein – drawittoknowit- great way to learn the material

What is bile – another good review of fat digestion

Digestive hormones – more if you are interested

Nutritional tips for veterinarians-Equine vet. Educ. (2018) 30 (9) 486-496- nice review of equine differences compared to small animals etc

Resources – Absorption

Absorption of nutrients – Khan Academy

Nutrient absorption and utliization by ruminants, CSU- I love their approach to physiology

Absorption of lipids, CSU

Control of the GIT-digestion and motility put together- Khan academy – really nice to come back to

Villi structure – really important for diffusion

Just for fun

Unsaturated vs saturated vs trans fats – Malone’s favorite; now I get it

The digestive system – species comparison, fun to watch

Grain overload, UIll

Short bowel syndrome, 2006 Compendium

Aspirin absorption – relaxing, explains drug -protein binding, bioavailability and drug metabolism

The naked mole rat – The brainscoop; unique GI tract too!

Why pandas are bad at being pandas – they can’t digest bamboo well at all

 Why did pandas go vegetarian– this girl is just impressive

Protein digestion – fun version

Why you can’t eat grass- video

Why is poop brown – video



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Vet Med: Applied GI Physiology- Supplemental Notes Copyright © by Erin Malone DVM PhD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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