Title image courtesy of J.F. Rabbits.
Sometimes, chinchillas eat their own poop. But they only eat a special kind of poop called cecotropes. But how? Why? Won’t ‘cecotropes’ make your chinchilla sick?
What are cecotropes? Cecotropes are a kind of partially digested poop that chinchillas eat again. The purpose of eating cecotropes is to extract more nutrients from the food. This is necessary because chinchillas eat highly fibrous food that’s difficult to break down. Cecotropes are larger, softer, shinier and smellier than regular poop and are almost always ‘produced’ at night. They won’t make your chinchilla sick; rather, chinchillas get sick if they don’t produce and eat cecotropes. If yours doesn’t, talk to a vet.
The guide below first looks at what cecotropes are, what they look like, and how they’re different to regular poop. We’ll also cover how chinchillas make cecotropes by using their fascinating digestive system (in ways that we can’t), and why chinchillas need to make cecotropes in the first place.
What Are Cecotropes?
Do chinchillas eat poop? Yes, and no. Cecotropes are a special kind of poop that many animals produce. You might know them by alternative names like caecal pellets or night feces. They’re made in a special part of the gut, so they look and smell different to regular poop. When chinchillas produce them, they immediately eat them again so that they can digest them for a second time. This is something that lots of animals do, and is known as cecotrophy, cecophagy, pseudorumination, refection or coprophagy. All of these words mean the same thing: eating poop.
Cecotropes pronunciation: Seek-uh-tropes
Seek like the word ‘seek’, uh like the short u in ‘under’, and tropes like the separate word ‘tropes‘.
As disgusting as this idea is, it’s a very important part of the chinchilla’s digestive process. As such, it’s good for your chinchillas to do this, not bad. If anything, it’s a bad sign if your chinchilla doesn’t produce and eat cecotropes.
If none of this sounds familiar, don’t worry. Chinchillas produce cecotropes at night and eat them immediately. That’s why many owners have never seen their chinchilla either producing or eating them.
Are Cecotropes Different to Regular Poop?
Cecotropes have a different appearance, texture and smell to regular poop.
Normal chinchilla poop is a deep dark color and comes out in individual pellets. It’s small and dry and has little odor. That’s because the chinchilla has digested it twice over, thereby removing as much water from it as possible. Cecotropes are larger, smooth and soft, and come out in bunches.
You can instantly tell the difference between a cecotrope and normal poop just by looking. If you’ve ever had other small animals before, like rabbits, you may already have seen one.
What Do Cecotropes Look Like?
The first thing you’ll notice about cecotropes is that they’re bunched together. Regular poops come out in individual pellets, but cecotropes are clustered together. They look like small bunches of grapes or blackberries. When you break them apart, they look like small berries. You won’t ever notice normal chinchilla poop clumped together like this.
They stick together because their texture is different. You can tell that just by looking. They look smoother and softer than regular poop. It’s this slight stickiness that makes them stick together in bunches. If you touch them, they’re mushy. They also look much more wet. They’re shiny, not only because they contain more water, but because they’re covered in a light mucus. This comes from the gut.
Cecotropes may also be a lighter brown color than normal feces. Again, that’s because they contain more water.
What Do Cecotropes Smell Like?
Another way to distinguish cecotropes from regular poop is their smell. Cecotropes are made from partially digested food, and are full of bacteria from the cecum. This means they have a strong fecal smell. This is unlike normal poops, which are dry and almost odorless.
All that being said, there’s not normally a need to tell the difference between cecotropes and regular poop. If your chinchilla is healthy, then one or two ‘missed’ cecotropes—ones it didn’t bother to eat—shouldn’t be a problem. But if you spot lots of them and they appear consistently, there may be an issue with your pet’s diet or health.
When Do Chinchillas Produce Cecotropes?
Cecotropes are sometimes called ‘night feces’, and that’s because they’re produced at night. Chinchillas are most active at night, although they aren’t fully nocturnal. An animal’s digestive system is most active when it’s awake. It’s likely for this reason that chinchillas make cecotropes at night rather than during the day.
This also means that many owners never see their chinchillas produce and eat cecotropes. If your pet is in good health, it’s definitely making and eating night feces—you just don’t see it do so.
How Do Chinchillas Produce Cecotropes?
The production of cecotropes is unique to animals with a certain kind of gut. They are made in a similar way to our poop, but with a few extra steps added in.
Are Chinchillas Hindgut Fermenters?
Cecotropes are made through a process called ‘hindgut fermentation’. Food first passes through the esophagus and stomach, as normal. It’s chewed up in the mouth and further broken down with acid in the stomach. It then heads through the small intestine and the colon, just like how our digestive systems work.
However, because of the fibrous nature of the foods chinchillas eat and the chinchilla’s digestive system, something completely different happens next. Rather than being excreted straight away, the food is forced back up the gut. It enters a pouch at the very beginning of the colon/large intestine called the cecum. Here, the complex fibers in the food are broken down by bacteria into simple sugars. These are easier to digest. The food is then passed out through the colon and anus.
But, as you already know, that’s not where the story ends. The chinchilla then reingests this food. But why would they do that—can’t the large intestine just absorb all the nutrients from the food again?
Why Do Chinchillas Make Cecotropes?
It’s common sense that there must be a reason for chinchillas to go through all these extra steps just to digest their food. So, why do chinchillas eat cecotropes? If you would guess that it’s something to do with getting extra nutrients from the food they eat, you’d be right…
Large Intestine vs. Small Intestine (Are Cecotropes Nutritious?)
The digestive process in mammals is long and complex. Food is first broken down in the mouth and stomach, but hardly any nutrients are absorbed at this stage. The food then passes to the small intestine, which is where the animal absorbs around 90% of the nutrients from its food. The large intestine absorbs some nutrients, but is mostly useful for absorbing water.
This is the key reason why chinchillas produce cecotropes. When the food is first digested, the chinchilla struggles to break it down. The food makes its way through the small intestine but few of the nutrients in it are absorbed. It’s only later on, when the food is in the cecum of the large intestine, that bacteria break it down more fully. But since food can’t go from the cecum back into the small intestine, it has to go out the other end and be eaten again.
Put simply, if the chinchilla didn’t produce cecotropes, it would only get a fraction of the nutrients in its food. But by reingesting it, it absorbs more.
Adaptation to a Dry Environment
Another factor that encourages cecotrope production in chinchillas is that they need to conserve water in the wild.
Chinchillas live in the Andes Mountains, which are very dry. They’re so tall and so long that weather systems can’t cross over them. On top of that, cool and dry winds from the Pacific Ocean make the area even drier. That’s why the nearby Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. Chinchillas have to obvious adaptations to this dry environment. The first is their fur, which keeps them warm high up on mountain sides. The second is that they conserve water.
If you’ve ever seen a chinchilla pee, you’ll have seen this adaptation. A chinchilla’s pee is a deep yellow, even orange color. That’s because their urine has little water in it, relatively speaking. By reingesting cecotropes, the chinchilla gets a second chance to absorb water from them.
Why Can’t Chinchillas Digest Their Food Like We Do?
Digestive differences between animals are explained by looking at their diets.
Chinchillas eat a very high fiber diet. Somewhere between 20% and 30% of a chinchilla’s diet is fiber, which is far higher than we get from our food. These fibers are difficult to break down. That’s why after going once through the chinchilla’s digestive system, and even heading back up to the cecum before coming out, a chinchilla’s feces is still only partially digested.
Other animals experience the same problems. Cows ‘chew the cud’, which is a different way of achieving the same thing. The food is chewed swallowed, digested, and then brought up again to be chewed once more. This breaks down fibrous grass and allows the cow to digest more of its nutrients.
As for why chins produce cecotropes rather than ‘chew the cud’ like cows do, that’s easily answered. There’s more than one way to achieve the same goal, and both animals extract more nutrients from their food, but by different means. It’s just that the chinchilla evolved to do it one way while the cow evolved to do it another way.
Why Is My Chinchilla Not Producing Cecotropes?
You may never have seen your chinchilla produce and eat a cecotrope, but that’s because it does so at night. Even if you watch your pet, you might not see it do so; that’s because your chin eats it immediately, literally picking it up as it ‘makes’ it and eating it.
The only instance in which your chinchilla would stop making cecotropes is if it has GI stasis. Stasis is where your chinchilla’s gut stops working as it should. It’s caused by debris such as plastic building up in the gut, getting stuck in the cecum, and preventing digestion. When a chinchilla has stasis, it stops eating and pooping. This means it would stop making cecotropes too.
If that’s the case, then cecotropes are the least of your pet’s problems. Talk to a vet for medical assistance.
Are Cecotropes Bad for Chinchillas?
This is a common misunderstanding new owners make. They see their chinchilla eating its own poop and think there must be something wrong with its health, or that eating poop might make their chinchilla sick. But neither of those things is true.
Why Don’t Cecotropes Make Chinchillas Sick?
Eating a cecotrope won’t make your chinchilla vomit (which it can’t anyway!), it won’t give your chinchilla digestive troubles, and it certainly won’t kill it. But why not? After all, they are full of bacteria.
The reason is that cecotropes contain gut bacteria. Your chinchilla’s gut already contains lots of these bacteria, and they’re essential to breaking down foods. The bacteria in your chinchilla’s cecotrope are like the ‘good bacteria’ that you get in yogurts or supplements. They won’t make your pet sick.
The only way in which a cecotrope could compromise your chinchilla’s health is if it has cuts in its mouth. These could get infected by bacteria and form an abscess. But if your chinchilla has dental problems that cause cuts and gum damage, these will likely get infected whether it eats cecotropes or not. And this certainly isn’t reason enough to discourage the behavior.
Why Is My Chinchilla Not Eating His Cecotropes?
If you notice lots of cecotropes on the floor of your chinchilla’s cage, it may have a health issue.
One potential relevant health problem is gastrointestinal stasis. As described above, this can stop a chinchilla from eating and pooping. The chinchilla either has to stop eating or pooping first, so it’s possible that your chin will have produced a cecotrope but not eaten it. GI stasis is accompanied by other symptoms such as bloating around the middle, signs of pain and lethargy.
Something else that might make your chinchilla stop eating its cecotropes is if is has a dental problem. Chinchillas’ teeth grow continuously throughout their lives, and if your pet doesn’t have any chew toys, they can develop malocclusion. This is where the teeth grow out of shape and get too long. They can cut into your chinchilla’s gums and cause painful abscesses that get infected easily. As it becomes painful for your chinchilla to chew, it may avoid eating, which may mean it doesn’t eat its cecotropes. And because the teeth grow up into the jaw as well as downwards, malocclusion can still cause jaw pain even if the teeth are clipped/ground down to a normal length.
Finally, your chinchilla may not eat its cecotropes if it isn’t eating a suitable diet. An incorrect diet, e.g. one of nothing but vegetables, has all sorts of effects on a chinchilla’s digestion. Poor diet causes bloating, stasis, nutritional deficiencies, diarrhea and general ill health.
Is My Chinchilla Producing Too Many Cecotropes?
There’s no such thing as your chinchilla producing too many cecotropes.
Cecotropes are an inevitable part of digestion in chinchillas. Chins need tough and fibrous food, and to fully digest that food, they need to create cecotropes. All of the food that chinchillas eat will undergo this process: not some, not most, but all.
As such, the only instance in which a chinchilla would produce more cecotropes than usual if it was eating more than usual. This is next to impossible since chinchillas already spend most of their waking hours eating hay. If you find cecotropes on the floor of your chinchilla’s cage, the issue isn’t that it’s producing too many, but that it isn’t eating its cecotropes for the reasons covered above.
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