The Good, the Bad, and the Disgusting.
Some dogs love to eat poop. They crave cat poop, horse poop, or the poop of unseen backyard creatures. Some enjoy the feces of fellow canines. Some prefer their own. Some hunger for a certain frozen wintertime treat, i.e., poopsicles. The official term for poop-eating is coprophagy, from the Greek for feces, copros, and eat, phagein. But in any language, it’s just plain gross! And if your dog is a culprit, you may be struggling to understand this exasperating habit.
Here’s the scoop.
Feces-eating is actually a healthy and natural practice for dams with young pups. Puppies are born with an immature digestive system. The dam must lick the perineal area (i.e. the anus and genitals) of each puppy after feeding to teach the pup how to urinate and defecate. Consuming the puppies’ excrement serves the additional purpose of keeping the den clean and removing odors that could attract a predator. Some pups seem to learn this routine from their mothers. They may learn to stimulate themselves and then consume the feces. This behavior tends to wane as the pup is weaned. By the same token, it’s not uncommon for a curious older puppy to sample his own poop. This is usually self-limiting.
But why would a self-respecting grown dog engage in such a filthy habit? To a human, it’s disgusting. Not to mention the possible health risks of parasites or other vile infections. Here are some possible reasons.
- Some dogs may eat feces to make up for a nutritional deficiency. This can result from a poor diet or a digestive problem that interferes with nutrient uptake (such as parasites, food allergies, or pancreatitis). If your dog is eating his or her own feces, the first step should be a visit to the veterinarian. Your vet will recommend tests such as bloodwork and a fecal examination to exclude possible medical causes.
If it tastes good, do it!
- Your dog’s ancestors were scavengers. To them, even the foulest-smelling leftover could be the makings of a nutritious meal. Some speculate these instincts carry over to this day.
- Cat feces, a favorite delicacy, tends to be high in protein.
- Digestive disorders—or simply an overly rich diet—can increase the content of undigested fat and protein in a dog’s stool, making it a tasty treat.
- Some hypothesize that poop reminds dogs of the warm, soft, regurgitated meals a mother dog would give her pups in the wild, like very smelly comfort food.
- Some dogs eat feces because they’re just plain hungry. More frequent meals may help.
- Some dogs may eat feces simply because they are bored or neglected. Others may compulsively eat stool as a manifestation of stress. Puppy mill dogs are a common example. When this is the case, the best strategy is to remove the sources of stress and to enrich the dog’s environment with things like toys, more exercise, hide-and-seek games, and obedience training.
- Dogs may eat their own stool to hide the evidence. This can happen when they’ve been reprimanded too harshly for fecal accidents in the past. This is one reason never to harshly punish a dog for having eliminated in the house.
- Other dogs may eat stool out of a perverse desire for attention, albeit negative attention. It’s important to recognize that the fuss you make when your dog misbehaves may actually be promoting the behavior. A firm correction and redirection is a much better strategy.
- Sometimes there’s just no obvious reason. Your veterinarian or an animal behavior specialist are critical resources in getting to the bottom of it. No pun intended.
If your dog is addicted to feces, consult your veterinarian first. A thorough history and physical may reveal medical or behavioral causes. He or she may recommend tests to rule out parasites or other digestive problems. Poop-eating is a surprisingly common vice among dogs, so most vets have practical, tried-and-true advice to offer. As with any bad habit, it’s best to treat early, before the behavior becomes ingrained.
Most experts agree that punishment is counterproductive. Dogs quickly learn to appreciate the negative attention and just scarf up the poop faster. Remote devices such as citronella collars work in certain situations, but require constant vigilance and quick reflexes on the part of the operator.
There are a variety of creative ways to alter the taste and smell of the feces in the hopes of making it unacceptable to the dog. See box for some popular examples. These methods can be effective in some cases. Many dogs manage to eat the tainted stool anyway. Others will cleverly get their fix elsewhere.
Counterconditioning has its proponents. For this strategy, the dog is taught a “leave-it” command using positive reinforcement such as a treat, exuberant petting and snuggles, or a fun play session.
An ounce of prevention
If your dog is addicted to feces, prevention is often the best strategy. One taste of the forbidden treat can be so highly rewarding that it can undo weeks of training. Promptly remove all feces from the dog’s environment. Segregate the animals involved. Create a physical barrier to the cat’s litter box. Baby gates with a cat-sized gap underneath can work. Indoor electric pet fences can be ideal for this purpose. Keep the litter impeccably clean or consider an automatic self-cleaning litter box so cat poop never accumulates.
In cases where removing all feces is impractical, such as in an open yard or the world at large, the dog may need to stay on leash and/or muzzled at all times. Head-halter leashes are a great alternative. They allow excellent control of a dog’s head and mouth and aren’t as drastic as a muzzle.
These measures can help, but none are failsafe. Remember that while it’s repugnant to humans, poop-eating has deep instinctual roots for dogs. It’s important to keep this in perspective. Dogs are gross, but we love them!
Deterrents for poop-eaters
There are two categories of deterrents, repellents that can be put directly on the feces, and dietary additives that can alter the taste of the feces. Always check with your veterinarian before instituting these measures.
Added to the feces itself:
- Tabasco Sauce
- Bitter Apple® Spray
- Capsicum Oleoresin, a non-toxic extract from the pepper plant
- Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer®
- Canned pumpkin
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