Coprophagia // or coprophagy // is the consumption of feces. The word is derived from the Greek κόπρος copros, "feces" and φαγεῖν phagein, "to eat". Coprophagy refers to many kinds of feces eating, including eating feces of other species (heterospecifics), of other individuals (allocoprophagy), or its own (autocoprophagy) – those once deposited or taken directly from the anus.
In humans, coprophagia has been observed in individuals with mental illness. Some animal species eat feces as a normal behavior; other species may not normally consume feces but do so under very unusual conditions.
Consuming feces carries the risk of contracting diseases and bacteria spread such as E. coli, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis E, pneumonia, polio, and influenza. Coprophagia also carries a risk of contracting intestinal parasites.[medical citation needed]
Coprophagous insects consume and redigest the feces of large animals. These feces contain substantial amounts of semi-digested food (herbivores' digestive systems are especially inefficient). Two feces-eating insects are the dung-beetle and the fly.
Termites eat one another's feces as a means of obtaining their hindgut protists. Termites and protists have a symbiotic relationship (e.g. with the protozoan that allows the termites to digest the cellulose in their diet via the protists. For example, in one group of termites, there is a three-way symbiotic relationship - termites of the family Rhinotermitidae, cellulolytic protists of the genus Pseudotrichonympha in the guts of these termites, and intracellular bacterial symbionts of the protists.
Domesticated and wild mammals are known to consume feces. In the wild they either bury or eat waste to protect their trail from predators. Mother cats are known to eat the feces of their newborn kittens during the earliest phase after birth, presumably to eliminate cues to potential predators and to keep the den clean.
Rabbits reingest their own droppings (rather than chewing the cud as do cows and many other herbivores) to digest their food and extract sufficient nutrients. Chewed plant material collects in a chamber between the large and small intestine containing large quantities of symbiotic bacteria that help with the digestion of cellulose and also produce certain B vitamins. After being excreted, they are eaten whole by the rabbit and redigested in a special part of the stomach. The pellets remain intact for up to six hours in the stomach; the bacteria within continue to digest the plant carbohydrates. This double-digestion process enables rabbits to use nutrients that they may have missed during the first passage through the gut, as well as the nutrients formed by the microbial activity and thus ensures that maximum nutrition is derived from the food they eat. This process serves the same purpose within the rabbit as rumination does in cattle and sheep.
Cattle in the United States are often fed chicken litter. There are concerns that the practice of feeding chicken litter to cattle could lead to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad-cow disease) because of the crushed bone meal in chicken feed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates this practice by attempting to prevent the introduction of any part of a cow's brain or spinal cord into livestock feed. Other countries, like Canada, have banned chicken litter for use as a livestock feed.
The young of elephants, giant pandas, koalas, and hippos eat the feces of their mothers or other animals in the herd to obtain the bacteria required to properly digest vegetation found on their ecosystems. When they are born, their intestines do not contain these bacteria, they are sterile. Without them, they would be unable to obtain any nutritional value from plants.
Hamsters, guinea pigs, chinchillas and naked mole-rat eat their own droppings, which are thought to be a source of vitamins B and K, produced by gut bacteria. Gorillas and chimpanzees eat their own feces and the feces of other gorillas and chimpanzees. This may serve to improve absorption of vitamins or of nutritive elements made available from the re-ingestion of seeds.
Pigs sometimes eat the feces of herbivores that leave a significant amount of semi-digested matter, including their own. In some cultures, it was common for poor families to collect horse feces to feed their pigs, which contributes to the risk of parasite infection.
Lewin reported that "... consumption of fresh, warm camel feces has been recommended by Bedouins as a remedy for bacterial dysentery; its efficacy (probably attributable to the antibiotic subtilisin from Bacillus subtilis) was anecdotally confirmed by German soldiers in Africa during World War II".
Centuries ago, physicians tasted their patients' feces, to better judge their state and condition.
Society and culture
The 120 Days of Sodom, a novel by the Marquis de Sade written in 1785, is replete with detailed descriptions of erotic sadomasochistic coprophagia. Thomas Pynchon's award winning 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow contains a detailed scene of coprophagia. François Rabelais, in his classic Gargantua and Pantagruel, often employs the expression mâche-merde or mâchemerde, meaning shit-chewer. It is in turn a citation of the Greek comedians Aristophanes and particularly Menander, which often use the term skatophagos (σκατοϕάγος). In one dialogue, Rabelais speaks of coprophagia as a Christian gesture, saying that monks swallow the shit of the world, that is the sins, and for this they are ostracized by society.
- Fecal-oral route, a route of disease transmission
- Fecal bacteriotherapy
- Coprophilous fungi
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- FDA Urged to Ban Feeding Chicken Litter to Cattle, 2009-11-02, L.A. Times
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- le Marquis de Sade (1785) Les 120 journées de Sodome, ou L'École du Libertinage
- Thomas Pynchon (1973) Gravity's Rainbow, Part 2, episode 4.
- Rabelais, Book 1, ch. 40 and Book 3 chap. 25
- Rabelais, Book 1, ch. 40 quote: "ilz mangent la merde du monde, c'est à dire, les pechez"
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