Foal Eats Manure

Q. One quick question. What about our foals that eat manure? Why do they do it? I find it completely disgusting. My little filly paws and chows down mouthfuls of fresh, warm poop.

Terry, Alabama

A. This charming behavior is called coprophagia, from the Latin for "feces eating." In young foals of any equid species, it appears to be just as normal as grooming, nursing, or romping. There is an obvious peak in frequency at about two weeks to one month of age. It is usually the dam's feces, and you're right--they can ingest substantial quantities, and freshly voided manure seems to stimulate their interest. In wondering why this behavior has evolved (meaning the benefits have outweighed the risks), veterinarians and animal scientists typically discuss a couple of ideas. One is that eating feces of an adult herdmate might effectively populate the gut of the young with the "good" microorganisms that aid in digestion. Another idea is that parasite eggs are ingested as well, possibly stimulating the young immune system to build a defense against parasites. There's probably not good proof, but I find thinking about potential benefits can dispel disgust. However, it is thought that coprophagy is a good reason to keep mares on a deworming schedule pre-partum as prescribed by a veterinarian, since the foal will be ingesting parasites.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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