Yes, it does occur and there is a name for it.
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“Coprophagia” is the term used when an animal eats its own feces. And no it’s not normal, while it does happen frequently. “Pica” is the term used to describe the actual disorder when a living creature consumes non-food items. This is serious business and needs to be addressed.
Avian Nutrition Specialist
Much of the discussion surrounding coprophagia in animals is still a hypothesis, but it is widely believed that it is caused by a nutritional deficiency of one or more nutrients mainly Vitamin B12, iron and/or zinc.
It is not known if the diet of these animals lack these nutrients or if the animal’s digestive system is not properly absorbing these nutrients. It could be a different case depending on each animal.
In our exotic birds there are additional theories.
As of late I have more and more customers and avian nutritional clients coming to me stating their beloved parrots are “eating their poop” and want answers. I am finding that this phenomenon is occurring in those birds who either have previously been fed, or are currently fed a highly processed diet of kibble and/or a diet high in botanically classified vegetables containing high amounts of cellulose
A very predominate explanation as to why any animal consumes its own feces is the lack of digestive enzymes endogenously (within the body). Digestive enzymes are necessary to properly break down all of the foods consumed which contain macro and micro nutrients. Many diets our pets are fed severely lack in digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzymes are biologically mixed in all foods consumed and digested and then excreted in feces of all animals. Although the body synthesizes its own digestive enzymes, with all of the highly processed foods we feed to our pets in this modern day of highly processed kibble, our pets are not consuming the amount of nutritional precursors their bodies require to properly synthesize and utilize naturally occurring digestive enzymes endogenously (within the body).
This is one reason why we see our dogs consume their own, as well as cat and bird feces, the high amount of digestive enzymes that are excreted in the feces of animals. Animals will consume their feces, or the feces of other animals to increase the amount of digestive enzymes in their own digestive tract. Isn’t Nature amazing in how it provides for our animals? I think so!
Also, if the digestive tract of any living creature has been damaged due to improper diets, illness, disease and/or auto-immune disorders digestive enzymes will not be naturally produced in sufficient quantities. In cases such as these exogenous (outside of the body) digestive enzymes supplementation may become paramount for a body to properly digest, absorb and metabolize all of the foods consumed. Furthermore, if the digestive tract is severely damaged, beyond repair due to scarring from consuming foods a bird should not consume on a high volume basis, such as dead, dry seeds and high cellulose foods, then supplying an outside source of digestive enzymes on a continuous basis will be absolutely necessary!
Again, with all of the highly processed foods consumed today in our society by both humans and animals, the lack of naturally occurring endogenous digestive enzyme levels are lowering more and more all the time in all domesticated living creatures. If a creature did not receive its parent’s biologically produced healthy gut bacteria at birth, or hatch an in birds then the production of naturally occurring endogenous digestive enzymes will be permanently altered and lacking for the remainder of that living creature’s life!
What to do?
Feed as much raw food to your pets as possible. Raw foods contain digestive enzymes. Is it any wonder that foods that are highest in digestive enzymes are foods that are found in abundance in our birds' indigenous to regions of their origins? I think not. some the most amount of digestive enzymes are found in pineapple, papaya and green banana! Also Bee pollen!
Kibble is not raw, nor is it indigenous food our birds would consume in the wild. Kibble is processed using extrusion and pressurized methods. Usually these methods use very high heat. The extrusion/pressure uses such high pressure and heat to form the kibble that virtually all digestive enzymes are totally destroyed. Many other macro and micro nutrients are totally or partially destroyed. Even kibble that has been “cold-pressed” cause digestive enzymes and Omega 3s to be destroyed.
What methods of processing food define “raw” foods?
Obviously all fresh food that is not cooked in any way is raw, but also gentle dehydration of foods is also considered raw if the food is dehydrated at no higher temperature than 115 degrees F. Sprouts are raw and provided excellent sources of digestive enzymes and other nutrients.
If you are feeding a pre-formulated food to your bird make absolutely sure that food is gently dehydrated, not mechanically extruded or pressed. Even better, see if that food contains added digestive enzymes.
Returning to the “why” an animal consumes feces the answer is two-fold. First if the animal has not received its parent’s gut flora at birth or hatch, or not enough of that gut flora its overall healthy gut flora will be severely blunted from the start of its life. Short of having a Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT) there is no way to introduce healthy gut flora from its own species. FMT, to my knowledge is not yet available for exotic birds. FMT is a procedure in which fecal matter, or stool, is collected from a tested donor, mixed with a saline or other solution, strained, and placed in a patient, by colonoscopy, endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, or enema. The only way left to introduce healthy gut flora is by feeding exogenous digestive enzymes that are species-specific and for the animal to consume its own feces and thereby reintroduce any digestive enzymes that have passed through its own excretion system.
You may see your bird consume its own droppings if you are feeding a raw diet, especially if you just began feeding a raw diet. This is simply the bird’s instincts picking up on the fact that healthy digestive enzymes have been excreted and your bird is attempting to get as much of the healthy digestive enzymes back into its digestive tract. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you stopped feeding a highly processed diet and recently began feeding a raw diet. Your bird instinctively knows that the raw food it is now consuming has something very worthwhile to re-consume to extract all of the healthy nutrition even the bird’s own droppings now have to offer. As long as your bird is parasite-free, allow you bird to consume its droppings if it is on a raw diet so that the digestive tract enzymes can be replenished as soon as possible.
A bird consuming its own feces may occur for several months...especially if your bird's digestive tract has been damaged by previous diets. If the damage is severe or permanent you may see your bird consume its droppings well into the future without stopping. In fact, the longer a bird consumes its own feces is a very strong indicator of just how damaged its digestive tract really is...Remember, animals operate by instinct (what I call "Parrotuition") and do for themselves what will cause their overall species to thrive!
Birds, especially parrots do not process protein in the same manner as mammals due to their unique digestive system. I have attempted to educate the avian community on the lack of “ceca” in the parrot’s digestive system. The ceca takes fibrous vegetative matter and pulverizes it down to a liquid that can be reabsorbed into the metabolic system and used as a viable carbohydrate in the systems of mammals. Since parrots do not have ceca cellulose cannot be used as a nutrient and therefore only serves as a laxative and is completely eliminated through the cloaca.
Gluconeogenesis and Protein Synthesis
There is something very important that occurs when cellulose is liquefied in the ceca, it supplies yet another valuable carbohydrate source which is used as an energy source. Sufficient carbohydrates and dietary fats are necessary for protein synthesis. Without the parrot’s digestive tract able to utilize cellulose as an energy source, nitrogen from dietary proteins cannot be adequately produced leaving our parrots at a loss for certain nutrients. This may potentially cause them to turn to their feces in an attempt to search out the nitrogen excreted in their feces in desperate search for the nitrogen as well as Vitamin B12 lacking in their diet.
Since parrots cannot liquefy cellulose from botanically classified vegetables they receive very little carbohydrates from vegetables. This is one reason why Nature created parrots to consume mostly tropical fruits; these foods contain just the right kind of carbohydrates necessary, also high in Omega 3s as dietary fat needed for gluconeogenesis and protein synthesis.
They key proteins parrots may be lacking in their diet if their system is not able to carry out protein synthesis are methionine, arginine and alanine. Methionine is an essential amino acid, which means it must be present in the diet; the body does not synthesize it. Arginine and alanine are both non-essential amino acid which means they are synthesized by the body (arginine only recently gained this classification only because it is so abundantly available in our modern day diets). Methionine is definitely the key player here. If a bird cannot make use of methionine, due to some genetic malfunction or digestive disorder all other proteins will not be metabolized. Even if methionine is added to the diet often this makes no difference if it is not intrinsically unavailable; methionine is the caboose in the train of proteins pushing all of the remaining proteins on to their destination.
When combined with the small amount of “animal protein” our birds consume their diet creates just the right amount of nitrogen needed for their unique digestive system. Parrots do not derive the bulk of their protein from “crude protein” or nitrogen burn off like mammals do, instead they derive the bulk of their protein from “true protein” or real protein from the breaking down of foods they ingest into single-unit molecules for total absorption. This begins in the proventriculus by the utilization of the main digestive acid known as hydrochloric acid. However, parrots do have a small intrinsic need for nitrogen in their diet and will seek it out in their droppings if their diet lacks adequate and proper carbohydrates, dietary fats and proteins, OR if their system is unable to digest, absorb and metabolize those nutrients.
Phosphorus is another nutrient excreted in high amounts in a bird’s droppings. It is quite possible a bird is attempting to gain additional phosphorus when eating its droppings. If this is the case we need to take a look at the bird’s overall diet to ensure it is receiving enough phosphorus in its diet. We also need to look at the overall calcium to phosphorus ratio. This may be difficult. Again I must mention with so many of us feeding a large volume of vegetative side dishes we make in our own kitchens, without testing our mixes through a qualified food testing laboratory for a nutritional analysis we really do not know the qualitative nutritional analysis of the mixes we are feeding to our birds. Even if we are feeding a formulated mix that has been laboratory tested, but we are adding our own side dishes to those mixes we could potentially be throwing the overall nutritional balance way off depending on the volume of side dishes we are adding to the overall diet of our beloved bird.
If your bird is partaking of its own droppings I would encourage you to first have a thorough veterinary checkup performed to make sure your bird is not ridden with parasites or heavy metal toxicity. Both of these may be the hidden meaning behind your bird ingesting its own feces. If your bird’s vet checkup returns normal for both parasites and heavy metal toxicity, then it’s time to begin scrutinizing the overall diet. Begin removing any plant matter that is high in cellulose and make absolutely sure your bird is consuming enough quality carbohydrates similar to what it would consume if it were living in its wild, indigenous region. In addition make sure your bird is also receiving a good amount of dietary fats in the way of balanced Omegas. In my opinion birds should be receiving ratios of about 2:1 and even as high as 1:1 in ill birds, Omega 6 to Omega 3. Their brains are actually larger than ours in comparison to their body mass. It stands to reason they need lots of high quality dietary fat for their brains to function properly given that brains are about 70% fat.
I reiterate, while we may not know the specific nutritional profile requirements for each species of exotic bird, we do have a good, general idea of what correct nutritional profiles look like overall. We know what protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral amounts should be in general for most species of animals and we should be following those guidelines to ensure we do not under-nourish or over-nourish our beloved feathered friends. Throwing caution to the wind, and throwing the bathwater out with the baby is only asking for health problems in the long term none of us want to see our beloved feathered companions suffer.
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