If you watch your pets for long enough, you may notice your gerbils eating poop. While this is disgusting to humans, ‘coprophagy’ is a common behavior among Rodentia.
Coprophagy helps animals ‘re-digest’ vitamins and nutrients in their feces, e.g. vitamins B and K. It also helps re-digest tough plant matter, i.e. fiber. You shouldn’t stop gerbils eating poop.
Aside from dietary factors, gerbils may also eat poop to stop predators from finding them. Even though this isn’t an issue in captivity, coprophagy is instinctual behavior, so they’ll still do it.
Do Gerbils Eat Their Poop?
According to the Journal of Nutrition, rodents such as gerbils do eat their own poop. You may notice your gerbil eating its own poop soon after it goes to the toilet. Or, you can see them eating poop from another gerbil. They can even eat poop that has lain around for a while.
You may not have noticed this if you haven’t had your gerbils for long, or don’t pay them much attention. But they can do so frequently, so you will likely observe this happening at some point.
Gerbils have good reasons to do so. It can be good for their health, as backed up by scientific studies. It’s a regular part of the gerbil’s digestion. So:
- The gerbil will eat
- It will digest the food normally, until it reaches the intestines
- It is then excreted quicker than it is in other animals, and re-digested around 4-8 hours after it was first eaten
Gerbils aren’t alone in this behavior, either. Eating poop is known by the scientific term coprophagy, and it’s surprisingly common in the animal kingdom. Almost all rodents do the same, and many other bigger animals do too.
Is a Gerbil Eating Poop Unhealthy?
Gerbils can eat their own feces with a minimum of complications. Even though it contains bacteria, your gerbil will live a full-and-healthy life if it performs coprophagy in the wild and captivity.
However, eating poop is linked to health in another way. It can be a sign that your gerbil isn’t getting enough vitamins from its food. So, it could be a sign that you should change your gerbil’s diet. But don’t worry too much, because this is normal behavior.
Your gerbil will never die from eating its own poop. This behavior is common to all gerbils.
What Are Cecotropes?
Cecotropes are a specific kind of feces produced by some animals, like rabbits and hares. They are the product of the cecum, a specific part of the gut.
It’s a small pouch that sits between the large and small intestines. According to Applied and Environmental Microbiology, gerbils have one like rabbits and hares do.
Gerbils aren’t part of the same family (lagomorphs) that produces cecotropes. However, the idea is essentially the same. The food is first passed through the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine. It then heads to the large intestine.
What happens in people is that the food then passes through the rest of the guts, and eventually to the anus. However, in animals that eat their own feces, the food is forced backwards from the large gut to the small intestine.
It is then broken down some more, before it passes quickly through the large intestine and pooped out. The animal will then eat its feces to put it through the stomach and the small intestine again.
Why Do Gerbils Eat Their Own Poop?
Even though it seems vile, there are clear reasons why gerbils eat poop. According to the Cornell Veterinarian, the most common reason is that your gerbil isn’t getting enough nutrients. It eats its own poop because it contains undigested vitamins, minerals, and nutrients.
Eating poop is also similar to cud-chewing, where an animal brings up food to chew it again. It allows fuller digestion of plant matter. Coprophagy serves the same purpose. So, rather than being unhealthy as it would be for other animals, rodents do this for health reasons.
Difficulty Digesting Plant Matter
The majority of what gerbils eat is tough and fibrous. In the wild, they eat lots of root vegetables, plus grains and seeds. These can be difficult for the gut to break down if they contain lots of fiber. That’s why fiber is considered good for gut health, as it makes your intestines work harder.
However, fiber has a downside. Because it’s hard to digest, your gerbil may be defecating before its food is fully digested. By eating its own poop, your gerbil gets the chance to digest the food again.
In doing so, it can digest the remaining fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and fat that it didn’t the first time around.
You may wonder why gerbils don’t take longer to digest, instead. This would make more sense, rather than eating something full of bacteria like poop. The issue is that gerbils have to eat lots of food throughout the day.
If the gerbil were to digest for longer, it would miss out on the nutrients it gets from eating more. As such, coprophagy is a good compromise that keeps your gerbil eating throughout the day.
Lack of Vitamins
Every animal’s gut is filled with bacteria. These bacteria assist in the breakdown of food, but they also serve other purposes, too. That’s why there are so many products for people that contain ‘good bacteria’ for the gut.
The bacteria in a gerbil’s gut produce vitamins B and K. Vitamins are certain molecules that help the body do certain things. They’re essential, and without them, the body can’t do those things at all. Vitamins are as crucial to gerbils as they are to us.
However, because the gerbil’s digestive process runs quickly, these vitamins aren’t absorbed easily. Your gerbil may go to the toilet before it can absorb these nutrients. It may eat its own poop, so it gets a second chance to digest them.
The same applies if your gerbil’s diet doesn’t contain enough vitamins. If that’s the case, then the gerbil’s instinct will kick in and make it eat its own poop. People have the same instincts, which is why pregnant women crave different (and sometimes unusual) foods.
It’s not necessarily easy for a gerbil to find vitamins in its diet, especially B vitamins. Many people struggle to get enough B vitamins, particularly if they don’t eat meat. Gerbils don’t eat meat, either in the wild or in captivity, so they can experience this problem.
Some B vitamins are only created by bacteria (like vitamin B12). So, coprophagy is a good way for gerbils to find enough B12.
To Avoid Predators
If you’ve ever watched a nature documentary, you will have seen people hunting or tracking animals. One way of doing so is to look for hoof or paw marks. Another effective, and more relevant method, is to find the animal’s poop. If it’s fresh, you know it’s nearby.
Predators other than people know this, too. A predator can catch the scent of a prey animal’s feces and follow it. If it’s fresh, this can lead it directly to its prey.
Gerbils know this, too. This is what the predator wants, but not what the prey wants. The prey wants to avoid the predator at all costs.
As such, they avoid pooping directly on or in their burrows. Another tool in their kit is to eat their feces to get rid of it. This limits the amount of feces they leave around their burrows, and makes it harder for predators to find them.
Even though these issues may only apply in the wild, your gerbil will still display them in captivity. Coprophagy is nothing to worry about.
Can You Stop Gerbils Eating Their Own Poop?
You can prevent your gerbil from eating lots of its poop by regularly cleaning its cage. Whenever you notice that your gerbil’s cage is soiled, you can spot clean it. You can do so by removing the poop and the bedding surrounding it.
What you can’t do is teach your gerbil to stop eating its poop. Gerbils are smart, and can learn some things. But this is something dictated by instinct, not by ‘rational’ thought. Even if you clean your gerbil’s enclosure regularly, you can’t get rid of its instinct.
Also, gerbils can eat their poop quickly. They can do so almost as soon as they go to the toilet. As such, you would have to clean your pet’s cage frequently, and watch over it constantly. This isn’t possible, at least not to the extent required.
Even if you could, though, you shouldn’t stop your gerbil from eating its own poop. It does so for clearly defined reasons. Stopping your gerbil from eating its poop is a bad idea because eating poop can be good for your pet’s health.