What is Coprophagia?
Although this sounds like an unusual practice, horses are one of the few animals that may do this. If your horse is an adult, there may be some underlying reason for eating manure such as a mineral deficiency in their diet, boredom, or the need for more food. The young foal may sometimes take up this practice around a few weeks old, lasting to about two months old, and usually eat the manure of their mother. Whether it is to help their immune system develop or to bond with their mother, the exact cause is unknown. It typically ceases by the time your foal is into its fifth month.
Foals may practice eating manure in the early months of their life as a natural step towards maturity, while in the older horse you need to evaluate the habit by checking for underlying problems.
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Symptoms of Coprophagia in Horses
- Eating the manure of the mother is known to be seen often in foal
- Eating manure in very small doses may be noted in older horses (if the amount is more than a little it is time to find a reason and correct it)
- Exhibiting behavior that points to boredom
- Both foals and adult horses may indulge in this practice
- While it is natural for your young foal, it is unusual in your adult horse
- Sometimes known as pica, which is when your animal licks or eats unusual things such as dirt or manure, or licks wood or iron
- Adult horses sometimes may eat a little but if it is a larger amount and happens regularly you may have to check for dietary imbalances
- Catch it while in the early stages to prevent it from becoming habit forming
Causes of Coprophagia in Horses
- To aid in digestion
- The practice adds maternal bacteria into the gut
- The mother’s feces stimulate your foal’s immune system for defence against common pathogens
- Bonding (although no proof exists that this eating of the mother’s manure establishes a bond, many people support this theory)
- Diet in general may be poor (the hay quality may need improving)
- Boredom (your horse needs exercise, companionship when in the stable or needs to be turned out more often)
- Mineral or salt nutrients may be lacking in your horse’s diet
- Pain (this can cause your horse to act or do unusual things)
- Lack of roughage in the diet
- Hunger (if your horse has aggressive paddock mates they might be missing out on their share of the food)
Diagnosis of Coprophagia in Horses
Although coprophagia is an usual habit, but it is not a problem unless your adult horse does it continually. Young foals will often grow out of this by about the fifth month. If this condition continues in either the young foal or adult horse, you may need to consult your veterinarian in order for him to check that there are no underlying causes. It may be a dietary deficiency caused by prolonged stall confinement and set feed pattern. Horses like roughage in their diet so your horse may be craving something substantial to chew on.
Your horse is much like you, they like variety in their diet. Mixing up their diet can make it more interesting for them and keep them from developing bad habits such as eating manure. Once your foal or horse forms a habit, it can be very hard to break them from it. So, catching it in the early stages for an adult horse helps. For the young foal, giving them plenty of variety and interest helps to prevent the continuation of this habit, and as for foals, most grow out of it naturally. Plenty of fresh air and exercise will help all ages of horse to exhibit healthy, normal behavior.
The veterinarian may want to do blood tests to verify that your horse is in good health and does not have parasites, infection, or any other illness that may alter his eating habits and demeanor. He will also want to evaluate the diet that your horse is presently on in case there are changes that should be made.
Treatment of Coprophagia in Horses
Diets should be examined to ensure your horse is getting his recommended daily requirement of protein, minerals, and vitamins that are essential for healthy development. Your horse should have plenty of grass or hay to give him plenty of chewing time – this chewing is healthy for your horse and enables him to feel full. While acknowledging that your horse may get fat on a continuous grazing cycle, be conservative and do not feed alfalfa or top quality grass hay to a horse that gets little exercise.
Prolonged stable confinement may create boredom for the solitary animal so turning your horse out to enjoy the pasture and adding in some exercise or even providing a paddock friend may help alleviate boredom. Have your veterinarian return for additional consultation and testing if your equine companion is still consuming large amounts of manure. There still may be an underlying health issue that needs attention. It seems that if your horse is provided with two sources of roughage they will be less likely to develop these unusual behaviors. A good deworming schedule is a must in these cases.
Recovery of Coprophagia in Horses
Although many consider this condition to be troubling, within reason it will not do harm to your horse. Having said that, your horse may make it into a habit and habits in horses are hard to break. When you first see this manure eating behavior develop, it is time to look for diversions to break the monotony of your horse’s day. Change the daily routine, introduce a friend, put him through a good exercise regime, and change his diet adding more variety and interest. You will find that these changes will divert him from his newly formed habit. Clean out the stall regularly and remove manure from the pasture on a regular basis. Give him no opportunity if possible to indulge and you may find the habit will pass with time and good management.