Koko, our puppy, came running to greet me, and I bent down to scoop her up. But I recoiled at the last minute. Her breath stank of feces. I scolded her whenever I caught her eating poop, but she wouldn’t desist. So I followed her whenever she went out to do her job, and poured vinegar over the poop. I thought that would solve the problem. But I continued to get that disgusting whiff on her breath. Was she eating other dogs’ business? I poured vinegar on all the droppings I could find.
The vet said, “Koko must be suffering from mineral deficiency.” She prescribed a supplement, but the puppy persisted in seeking a poop fix. Perhaps vinegar wasn’t distasteful enough, so I sprinkled chilli powder. Either Koko was somehow finding un-garnished poop or she was immune to chilli powder.
Not only is poop appealing to some animals, it can make the difference between life and death. About 20 ago, a clutch of green iguanas hatched for the first time at the Madras Crocodile Bank. No matter what herpetologist Farida Tampal fed them, they refused to eat. We became concerned as the hatchlings lost condition. Rom and Farida pored over books on iguana care, and wrote to specialists in the U.S. and Europe. Someone suggested letting the hatchling iguanas taste their mothers’ feces.
The hatchlings didn’t merely taste mamma’s poop, they gobbled it up as if it was a delicacy. There were no more feeding problems. Apparently, iguanas hatch from eggs without any gut flora or bacteria vital for digestion. By eating mamma’s excreta, they were inoculating themselves with a culture of bacteria that would last for their lifetimes.
Since then, I’ve discovered many such as rat pups, koala joeys, foals, and elephant and hippo calves need an inoculation of their mothers’ gut bacteria. Besides microorganisms, a rat mamma’s droppings are rich in deoxycholic acid that’s essential for the development of nerves and fighting infections.
Other creatures, such as hares and rabbits, are regular poop-eaters. Jonah, a baby black-naped hare, came to live with us after his mother was killed by a predator. He produced soft, glistening-moist, tan-coloured pellets and hard, dry, black ones. He ate most of the soft pellets but didn’t touch the others. Biologists say when these creatures are prevented from eating their poop, they lose weight and become anaemic.
Eating poop seems to be a peculiarly vegetarian adaptation. Some herbivores such as cows have multi-chambered stomachs to break down plant cellulose, while hares have simple digestive systems. Cows chew cud, and hares eat poop.
Some animals’ poop is other animals’ manna. Pigs seem to love feces of any kind. And then there are dung beetles that live solely on excreta.
Naturally, my next question was: From where do we get our gut flora. Some scientists suggest we are born with them, and others say we gulp some while popping out of our mothers’ birth canals. In case of Caesarian births, bacteria are transmitted when adults fondle and kiss us as babies.
Later in life, should these microorganisms get nuked by antibiotics, our stomachs can be colonised by a nasty bacterium, Clostridium difficile, which causes severe chronic diarrhoea and even death. The condition is now being successfully treated by fecal bacteriotherapy, transferring gut flora from a healthy person to the patient’s colon. It sounds like a disgusting, far-out medical fad, but more and more case histories are being published in respected journals such as the Journal Of Clinical Gastroenterology.
Koko eventually stopped eating dog poop, but a new problem arose. When monkeys roost anywhere on the farm overnight, all the dogs make a beeline for the spot the next morning and gobble up the droppings. Our dogs have plenty of gut flora and are well-fed. What could be so appetising about stinky, brown fecal matter? Then I read monkey poop is rich in Vitamin B12. Could that explain the gastronomic attraction?
Or are our dogs pigs incarnate?