The purpose of this blog is to share general information and is written to the author's best knowledge. It is not intended to be used in place of veterinary advice. For health concerns, please seek proper veterinary care.
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Chinchillas are a fabulous exotic rodent that you can take into your care as long as you have the space and resources to provide for its diet and home.
When you are caring for any animal that is exotic, such as a chinchilla, you always will want to make sure that you do the right amount of research so that you know what to expect and how to handle it.
It is natural to observe your pet’s behavior to make sure that it is doing well and that it is thriving. While doing this with your chinchilla, you might notice a relatively disturbing habit — that it eats its own poop.
If you have never owned a chinchilla (or a rabbit), it would only make sense to be disturbed by this habit as this is not healthy behavior for most animals and is often indicative of a nutritional deficiency. After all, poop is meant to be the waste of the foods you’ve eaten, so it would make no sense for an animal to eat it regularly, right?
While this is absolutely the case for most animals, this is actually not the case for chinchillas and a few other select animals. This is because chinchillas and these other animals engage in a behavior that is known as coprophagy, or the eating of feces, as a natural part of their life.
In order to better understand why this happens and what you should do about it, you need to understand what cecotropes are and how these play a role in your chinchilla’s behavior.
The first thing to know is that if your chinchilla is doing this, you don’t need to worry at all and it is actually a sign that everything is just fine with your furry friend.
Understanding Cecotropes and the Chinchilla’s Digestive System
Chinchillas are not unique in this behavior of eating their own poop, as disgusting as it might be for you to realize it. Rabbits, guinea pigs, and a fair few other rodents engage in this behavior too, and it is completely normal and even healthy for them to do this.
This is because these animals produce a type of feces that is known as a cecotrope. This type of poop, which is also known by the names of “cecal pellets,” “night feces,” and “soft feces,” is a product of the cecum, which is a part of the digestive system.
The digestive system of the chinchilla works through a process known as “hindgut fermentation,” which is where the bulk of beneficial bacteria of the digestive system are housed in the cecum. The cecum is very close to the anus of most of these animals and comes after the intestinal tract.
What this means for your chinchilla is that even though the intestines have already absorbed what nutrients it can from the food, there is a large number of nutrients that are lost from the bacteria processing the food just before the chinchilla passes it, producing a cecotrope.
These cecotropes are incredibly nutritious, containing twice the protein of a standard pellet of poo as well as high amounts of vitamins B and K, which are very important for your chinchilla’s health.
Because your chinchilla has lost out on these nutrients during the first pass of digestion, the chinchilla will do the next best thing and simply eat the cecotrope again so that it can absorb the nutrients through the intestine before passing the cecotrope as true feces this time.
This way, the intestines (which draw the nutrients out of the cecotrope and allow for the chinchilla to actually make use of them) process it and allow for your chinchilla to get everything that it needed originally from its food. While it might seem like a roundabout way to get the nutrients needed, this is the way that chinchillas and a handful of other mammals have evolved.
Though it might seem disgusting and unhealthy for your chinchilla to do this, it is completely normal and it is even necessary to ensure that your chinchilla is getting everything that it needed from its food.
You don’t have to worry about your chinchilla’s health at all if you see it eating cecotropes (which do look different from standard feces), and you can rest comfortably knowing that this is perfectly fine behavior for your chinchilla to engage in.
Should You Discourage Your Chinchilla From Doing This?
To most people, this type of behavior is disgusting and even abhorrent, but it is important that you let your chinchilla engage in it. This is how chinchillas absorb the nutrients that they need, and if they aren’t allowed to eat their cecotropes, then they may begin to suffer nutritional deficiencies because of it.
If it helps you to think about it, you can think about this process in the same sense as goats or cows chewing cud. In these animals, they chew through their food once, swallow it, process it in the rumen, and then bring it back up to be chewed again for more nutrients, much in the same sense as how chinchillas will eat their cecotropes to gain more nutrients than they otherwise would.
To most people, cows and goats chewing cud is normal and standard behavior and most people don’t think about it as the equivalent of these animals eating bile or vomit, which it is. It is important to adopt a similar mindset when you think about your chinchilla eating its cecotropes, as they are vital to keeping your chinchilla well fed and nourished.
Typically, chinchillas will pass cecotropes at times when they are not eating, so this process does not interfere with their usual pellet munching. If you notice your chinchilla eating something when it is not normally eating pellets, then there’s a good chance that it is going through this process.
In chinchillas specifically, it takes about one and a half hours for the whole thing to be done and for your chinchilla to move on with its day. If you are, understandably, disgusted by this, you can hold off interaction until your chinchilla is done processing its cecotropes so that you don’t have to think about it that much.
You should never, ever discourage your chinchilla from being able to do this, as it is incredibly important for their sensitive digestive systems to get all of those nutrients from the cecotropes. Not only can this lead to malnutrition and health problems associated with deficiencies in vitamins, but this also means that it can upset your chinchilla’s digestive system.
If your chinchilla’s digestive system is disturbed in any way, such as from a nutritional deficiency, it may stop working as it should, leading to even more problems with your chinchilla’s health. These problems can quickly snowball into drastic circumstances that can greatly affect your chinchilla’s long-term health.
Because of this snowball effect, you should never try to discourage your chinchilla from eating cecotropes. It may be a disgusting and unnatural behavior to most pet parents who have not owned rabbits or chinchillas, but it is very necessary for your little rodent friend if you want it to thrive under your care.
If it helps you, you can also learn what makes a cecotrope different than standard feces in appearance so that you can be absolutely certain that your chinchilla is not just eating its poop, but that it is simply giving its partially processed food a second pass so that it can get all of the nutrients that it needs to fully live its life.