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January 24, 2009

Coprophagia

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

Hi Cherry,

Since October I own a curly horse who was given to us from its owners in the sub-arctic Nome, Alaska. We live in more temperate Alaska. The horse is a six year old gelding. He weighed about 960 #s at 15.2 hands when he arrived in October and we managed to bring his weight up to 1,111 #s despite a very long cold spell of minus 30F recently.

Just a few weeks ago I noticed that he grazes on his own manure. I feed him timothy hay (6.9 to 7.2 percent protein according to the farmer) and about 10 percent more with each 10F drop in temperature from freezing, so at minus 30F, he got about 30# a day. He also gets about eight pounds of 12 percent sweet feed (Stablechoice) a day and he's got a mineral stone to lick on and water offered at least twice a day. Before I switched over to the sweet feed grain mixture, I fed him soaked beet pulp that his previous owners gave him.

What is he lacking that he needs to eat his own poop? I don't think he's bored as he has on a 100x100 ft turnout area with a run-in shelter and he's got lots of company as we also have a dog team with 30 dogs that accepted him as part of the family.

My question is if the poop eating is a bad habit or sign of lack in nutrition?

Thanks a lot, Diana Haecker, Talkeetna, Alaska

 

Hello Diana,

When an animal eats manure, it is termed coprophagia.

Since I know of no research on the topic, I'm going to run through all the possible causes that I can think of. First of all, it is...

How to Think Like A Horse by Cherry HillRegular behavior for foals.
It is a fairly commonly observed behavior in foals. In foals, a popular explanation is that the foal intrinsically knows that it needs to populate its digestive system with the bacteria from the dam's manure that will help the foal's intestines break down its new diet which includes roughage. Some have speculated that adult horses might be doing the same thing.

Horsekeeping On A Small AcreageComfort Food !!??
With older horses, eating manure might start out as an innocent experiment, perhaps an attraction to warm feces which might appear like a mash, a comforting meal on a very cold day. Especially when a horse is a bit underweight, it is easy to see how manure could serve as another feed source. That's why in many extreme horse rescue operations, the first responders make note of very little feces around (and wooden fences and.........). But you report your horse has gained a good bit of weight, and is in good condition, and is being fed properly.

Fiber, Protein, Energy ?
It has also been speculated that a horse might eat manure because he lacks fiber, protein, and energy in his diet. You outline an excellent cold weather feeding regimen for your horse which appears to include ample roughage (long stem hay), protein (12% protein sweet feed), and energy (timothy hay plus the 8# of grain per day) with extra hay in proportion to the drop in temperature. Kudos to you.

StablekeepingLack of Minerals or Salt?
Another possibility cause for coprophagia could be a need for certain minerals or salt. You do mention a mineral block, but I wonder if your horse has access to a plain white salt block too. Often horses need/crave more salt than they get in a mineral block. That's why I provide each horse with free choice access to a plain white salt block as well as what is popularly referred to as a 12:12 block - that is a calcium/phosphorus trace mineral block where the calcium and phosphorus are in an equal proportion to each other. Some horses eat more of one block than the other and it changes from week to week, season to season.

Water?
Having lived in Alaska myself, I know you are doing the best you can watering him, but if there is any way you can set up free choice water, that would be ideal and would erase that from the possible list of causes. There is a slight possibility he is attracted to feces because of its high moisture content.

Boredom?
People and animals do all sorts of strange things when they get "cabin fever" and your horse could possibly be a bit bored since I'm guessing he doesn't get ridden much this time of year. It could be an activity to just pass the time.

But the bottom line is this, and it is just me guessing from what you provide below and my observation of horses over the years: Your horse was underweight. He was fed a beet pulp mash by his original owners and for a while by you. He might have started eating manure more than a few weeks ago, when he was still a bit underweight, and perhaps missing his "mash". What started as a behavior with a cause initially (being underweight, hungry, cold, and liking his mash) may just be continuing as a habit - just because. Horses are like that - often continuing a behavior long after the initial cause is gone.

Cherry Hill's Horsekeeping AlmanacIf he were my horse, I'd make sure he has a mineral AND salt block, plenty of water, and exercise and diversion.

Stay warm. Breakup is just around the corner !Cherry Hill horse trainer and author of 30 books and DVDs

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