Fact or fiction?
Quiz on eating feces
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Coprophagy (eating feces) is common to many animals, and horses are no exception. How much do you know about this phenomenon? Let’s check your understanding with a fact or fiction quiz.
True or False Quiz
Click the statements to see the answers. How’d you do?
Q: Eating feces is normal.
TRUE – There is evidence suggesting an odor from the feces of the mare may attract the foal. Coprophagy is observed in foals from 2 weeks up to 10 months of age, but is more common with foals less than 8 weeks old. There is also evidence that the pheromones in bodily fluids may influence sexual attraction and behavior. Check if the horse is eating feces or primarily smelling and mouthing them.
Q: Foals are more likely to learn about food selection if they eat their mother’s feces.
FALSE – This does not make biological sense.
Q: Coprophagy may serve to immunize the newborn against parasites.
FALSE – There is no evidence that antigens or antibodies are present in feces, that when consumed, will provide passive immunity.
Q: The mare's feces contain a pheromone that encourages foal to eat feces.
FALSE – There are pheromones associated with waste products that may encourage exploring waste product, but no evidence to support that it “encourages the foal to eat feces”.
Q: Coprophagy may serve to strengthen the social bond of mother and foal.
FALSE – While foals often prefer the feces of their dam and seldom eat their own or those of other horses, it does not suggest that it strengthens the maternal bond.
Q: Coprophagy in adult horses means that something is lacking in their diet such as vitamins & minerals.
Eating feces may be due to a lack of nutrition if the horse has a poor body condition. It does not, however, suggest a lack of a particular nutrient. Studies suggest that rabbits eat soft fecal pellets (fecal pellet in the rectum that has not been evacuated) to “recycle” the B-vitamins that are generated by the hindgut bacteria. Horses do not have the dexterity to accomplish this physical challenge.
Q: Coprophagy will populate the foal’s gut with “good” bacteria.
TRUE – Foal’s exploration and muzzling of his/her environment will expose the foal in the beginning days of life to bacteria, including from waste products. The influence of type of bacteria has not been documented.
Q: Horses on limited feed intake and have an infrequent exercise program appear to be more prone to coprophagy.
TRUE – Exercise and adequate fiber intake appear to reduce the incident of coprophagy in adult horses. Meal feeding an animal that is a continuous grazer can trigger nutritional management challenges.
Q: Adult horses are more likely to eat feces when they are lacking protein.
FALSE – Coprophagy is not related to protein in the diet.
Feeding a balanced formula high in soluble fiber (beet pulp & soy hulls) to complement the forage portion of the diet appears to reduce the frequency of eating feces. Feeding a low calorie, no grain, high soluble fiber balanced formula, such as Integrity Lite, is one way to ensure that the daily diet is balanced.
Ingestion of fecal material frequently raises concerns with horse owners. Coprophagy is a natural exploration by all equids and the primary benefit is inoculating the gut with bacteria that are necessary for hindgut digestion in the herbivore gut. The habit is more likely behavioral and is often accentuated through boredom.
In the wild there are “stud piles” of manure which some believe is a method of stallions “marking”. There are pheromones in these body fluids which are chemical substances detected by scent and may influence sexual attraction and behavior, which is why feral stallions in the wild will actively explore and smell urine and fecal deposits.
A horse cannot process the thought, “oh, I need a little more iron, or riboflavin, or copper” and start seeking out a food source that supplies that nutrients. However, there are physiological mechanisms with all animals that tell us when we are hungry, thirsty, or a desire for a “taste for salt”. For all practical purposes coprophagy has absolutely nothing to do with nutrition unless the horse is unhealthy and in very poor condition.
During my early days as a professor, I recall another professor at another university rationalizing that since microorganisms in the hind gut produce B-vitamins and vitamin K, coprophagy is a method of retrieving those nutrients since the nutrients can only be processed and absorbed in the foregut. This reasoning is based on the rabbit consuming a soft fecal pellet before evacuation. That reasoning is not valid. Horses have a very long gut and microorganisms do live throughout the gut and there is a significant population of micros in the distal (end) section of the small intestine. These micros can produce the B vitamins and vitamin K and there is an opportunity for absorption of those nutrients in the distal portion of the foregut. So there is physiological process in the horse for the B vitamins and vitamin K to be made and absorbed.
Coprophagy is sometimes confused with the term Pica. Pica is the eating of non-foods such as dirt, sand, bark, twigs, etc. This behavior may be associated with hunger but more commonly is a result of exploratory behavior of the horse, including boredom. Mouthing or muzzling objects is one way in which horses explore their surroundings.