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Medical Index
First Posted Jan 25, 2010
Jul 22, 2010

Coprophagia in Horses

by Debora Johnson

What is coprophagia? Coprophagia is defined as the practice of eating feces. Horses are one of the animals that may do this. Most often it is seen in foals. Adult horses are less likely to participate in this act, and if they do, it is considered normal in small doses, only. Beyond that, in adult horses, there may be some underlying problems.

Coprophagia and Foals

Foals may eat feces in the first month or two. Usually they eat the manure of their mother. The eating of feces by the foal should abate at around two months and cease altogether by the fifth month or when the foal is weaned. Bellow are several reasons why a foal may eat its mother's feces:

  • Improves Digestion - Eating the mother's feces adds maternal bacteria into the foal's gut.
  • Improved Immunity - By eating the mother's feces the foal stimulates its immune system to set up defenses against common pathogens found in the mother's feces. It is not known if this practice extends to parasites. The science is not in yet.
  • Bonding - Although there is no scientific proof of this it is felt that the foal establishes a bond with its mother by eating her feces.
Coprophagia and Adult Horses

An older horse may be seen eating his own manure or the manure of other horses at the barn. This is usually a red flag--there is some reason for this. The following are a few possible reasons for this behavior:

  • Dietary Imbalance - Protein, fiber, trace elements, nutrients and salts are very important in your horse's diet. A lack of any of these or improper balances of them may cause this behavior. You may also see adult horses eating dirt, licking iron, wood, bark or eating foreign objects. Another term for this behavior is "pica." A closer look at what your horse is being fed or if your horse is not getting food, etc. because of aggressive stablemates or being low in the pecking order.
  • Boredom - Boredom is a big problem and can lead to other vices besides coprophagia. Is your horse in a stall for prolonged periods of time? Does your horse have a regular turnout? Is your horse getting enough exercise? Are there toys in the stalls to keep your horse amused? Does your horse have a stablemate when in the stall?
  • Exercise - Lack of exercise can also be the culprit. Regular turnout, regular visits from you and an exercise program are really important.
  • Pain - Pain can cause a horse to exhibit behaviors that are not usually seen in a healthy horse.

Whenever there is concern call your vet.

Medical Index