Eating of Non-food Items in Horses

Vladimir Negron
Nov 03, 2011
3 min read
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank

Coprophagy in Horses

Coprophagy, by definition, is simply the act of eating dung, or feces. Usually seen in young foals, coprophagy (or dirt-eating, as it is commonly called) is generally regarded as a normal behavior as long as the foal does not exclusively eat feces or ingest large quantities of it over a long period of time. In most cases, coprophagy is a harmless behavior that wears off as the foal ages. There are many theories as to why young foals are inclined to do so, the primary one being that the dung contains bacteria that are necessary for populating the foal’s intestinal tract and promoting healthy digestion.

In some instances, this behavior does not subside as time goes on, creating the possibility of health issues in the older animal. Once the horse has passed the age of about five months, coprophagy is to be considered an abnormal behavior requiring professional help. The reasons behind the behavior may lead to discovering underlying health issues that require further treatment.

Symptoms and Types

  • Eating dirt
  • Eating manure
  • Unexplained colic –abdominal pain
  • Ulcers
  • Digestive problems

Causes

  • Lack of roughage to graze on
  • Nutritional deficiency (i.e., mineral or protein deficiency)
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Abnormal behavior (stereotypic behavior)

Diagnosis

Although it does not necessarily take a veterinarian to recognize coprophagy, it would be helpful to have your foal looked over by an equine veterinarian if the issue has not cleared up around five months, if the behavior appears to be excessive, or if there are other health problems that are seen along with the behavior.

The main issue with coprophagy occurs when horses continue to exhibit this type of behavior, as there is a potential for parasitic infection. In these cases, your veterinarian will verify the horse does not have parasites.

Treatment

In most cases, coprophagy is not an illness, per se, but a habitual behavior. For this reason, treatment usually focuses on altering the environment instead of the animal itself. In older horses, such behavior may indicate some type of deficiency, one that has to be corrected through changes to diet or supplementation. Once the minerals or vitamins that they are lacking are restored, the coprophagy is likely to cease. However, in some cases, if the coprophagy has continued for a long period of time, it becomes a habit and may not stop if only the deficiency is corrected.

Living and Management

If your horse persists with the dirt eating or manure eating past the time when it is acceptable, something will need to be done to change the situation before it causes problems with the health of the horse. Removing the horse from the area where it has access to manure, or where the dirt may be tainted by manure may work in cases that are more difficult to resolve. Your equine veterinarian will have more information to share with you on the topic, and will be able to determine which behavioral modification methods will work best for you and your individual horse.

Prevention

Keeping stalls and small paddocks free of excessive manure accumulation will help reduce the temptation of coprophagy in a horse. Also providing a complete horse feed that has been formulated to ensure proper mineral balance along with plenty of roughage will help keep your horse on an excellent plane of nutrition. Providing proper mental stimulation by interacting with your horse on a regular basis and ensuring he has enough space to exercise himself and graze will help decrease the chances of developing a stereotypic behavior, such as what coprophagy can become in the older horse.

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