What Is Coprophagy?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

Coprophagy is the consumption of fecal matter. For an example of this, you need look no further than the dogs in your neighborhood. As humans, we think of this as a gross practice but to many animals, it is simply one more food source. There are always bits of undigested matter within the feces and this gets cycled into the animals diet. Many different species practice coprophagia and some that don’t, will eat feces in unusual circumstances.

A female Oriental Latrine Fly feedings on animal feces. © Muhammad Mahdi Karim.

Coprophagy is present in both plants and animals

This practice is seen in many carnivorous plants like the pitcher plant. They use the feces left behind from commensal animals as a source of nutrients. Termites are believed to use this practice in order to recycle the hindgut bacteria. This bacteria is apart of the digestive process of most animals. Another animal known to eat the feces left by themselves and others is the pig. They eat the fecal matter of other herbivores because of the high content of undigested plant fiber that can be found in it. It is not uncommon in some cultures for farmers to collect the feces of cows and horses as feed for their pigs.

Pig toilet

In China, there is a practice of something called a pig toilet. This device saves human fecal matter and garbage to be feed to local pigs. In the United States, there was a practice of feeding cattle the litter from chickens. The FDA called it into question because of a concern that the cattle would get mad-cow disease, Canada banned the practice, while America merely restricted the addition of any part of a cow’s brain or spinal cord from being used in feed. It is being reported that the feed made from chicken litter is heated to a temperature that kills the bacteria.

Two Common Blue butterflies feeding on a feces. © William M. Connolley.

Mother’s feces

Some animals, like the young elephant, koalas, hippos and pandas eat their mother’s feces. This is in order to obtain the hindgut bacteria so that they can properly digest the vegetation found in their environment. These animals are not born with this bacteria in their digestive tracts.

Source of vitamins

Chinchillas, capybara, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs and hamsters eat their own feces to improve the levels of vitamin B and K in their diet. This same type of behavior has been observed in gorillas and chimpanzees. It is believed to improve the absorption of certain nutritive elements. Cats are well-known for eating the faces of their newborns. She does this not only to keep her den clean, but it also serves to eliminate possible clues to predators that she has given birth. You will also see this type of behavior in both wild and domesticated felines. Typically, a dominant feline will openly display her feces while less dominant felines will chose to eat or bury their waste.

Excellent example of coprophagy, dung beetles. © Rafael Brix.

Humans do it too

Any human beings, this practice is frowned upon. However, there are some instances where the feeding of a close relative with fecal matter is done to cure intractable diarrhea. The reason for this also stems from watching nature. Replacing the gut bacteria is the primary reason, and rather than eating the fecal matter, it is administered through enema.

Mental illness

There are also cases of humans use fecal matter in sex. They can’t get aroused any other way. This is seen as a form of mental illness (depression, schizophrenia and pica) and is currently being studied. Doctors say that this form of coprophagia in humans can cause the person to have problems in other areas of their lives.

Unusual eating behavior

  1. Geophagy: eating earthly matters
  2. Detritivore: feeding on decaying matter

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