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. Many prefer their own. Some hunger for a certain frozen wintertime treat fondly known as poopsicles.
The technical term for poop-eating is coprophagia, from the Greek for feces, copros, and eat, phagein. But in any language, it's just plain gross! And if your dog is a connoisseur of this un-delectable treat, you may be struggling to understand the exasperating habit.
The Scoop on Canine Poop-Eating
Feces-eating is actually a healthy and natural practice for canine moms (dams) with young pups. Puppies are born with an immature digestive system. The dam must lick the perineal area (anus and genitals) of each puppy after feeding to stimulate urination and defecation. 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 begin to stimulate elimination themselves and then consume the feces. This behavior tends to decrease and disappear as the pup is weaned. It's also 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:
- Medical Causes: Some dogs may eat feces to make up for a nutritional deficiency. This can be the result of a poor diet, a digestive problem that interferes with nutrient uptake (such as parasites, food allergies, or pancreatitis), or not having access to enough food. If your dog is eating his own feces, your first step should be a visit to the veterinarian. Your vet may recommend tests such as bloodwork and a fecal examination to exclude possible medical causes.
- Super Motivation: Some dogs seem to become obsessed with "cleaning up" feces. These may be dogs that are highly-motivated workers such as those belonging to herding breeds.
- Evolution: As dogs were evolving to live with humans, they were often scavengers. They ate what they could find, including garbage and human feces. This made them very valuable as helpers to humans because they kept living spaces clean. For the dogs, even the foulest-smelling leftovers could be the makings of a nutritious meal. Some experts speculate that these instincts carry over to this day.
- Nostalgia: Some people 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.
- Boredom: Some dogs may eat feces simply because they are bored or neglected. If a dog spends a large amount of time chained or confined to a small area, he may eat feces to pass the time.
- Stress: Dogs may eat stool as a manifestation of stress. Puppy mill dogs are a common example of this.
- Fear: 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.
- Attention Seeking: Dogs may eat stool out of a desire for attention, even the negative kind. It's important to recognize that the fuss you make when your dog misbehaves may actually be promoting the behavior. A firm correction and a positive redirection is a much better strategy.
- Unknown: 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.
Treatment Strategies for Coprophagia in Dogs
- If your dog eats feces, consult your veterinarian first. A thorough history and physical may reveal medical or behavioral causes for the behavior. Your vet may recommend tests to rule out parasites or other digestive problems. If malnutrition or malabsorption is suspected, your veterinarian may make specific recommendations for high-quality, nutrient-dense foods to give him.
- Go outside with your dog when he goes out to defecate, and clean up all feces right away. Use a designated area in the yard for eliminating, and don't let your dog go in that area at other times.
- Create a physical barrier to your cat's litter box that the cat can get around but the dog can't. A baby gate with a cat-sized gap underneath can work as long as it's stable.
- Most experts agree that punishment for poop-eating is counterproductive. Dogs may appreciate the attention, or it may add to any stress that could be causing the problem in the first place. It may also lead to other unwanted behaviors.
- Remote devices such as citronella collars or air horns can work in certain situations, but they 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 the box below 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.
- If stress or boredom is suspected as the cause of the poop-eating, the best strategy is to remove the sources of stress and enrich the dog's environment with toys, more exercise, hide-and-seek games, and obedience training.
- Provide a "job" to working breed dogs that satisfies their high motivation level. Agility training is one idea that is a fun activity for dogs and people.
- Counter-conditioning is a great tool for using positive reinforcement to deter poop-eating. 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 as rewards.
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 can be gross, but we love them!
Deterrents for Poop-Eating Dogs
There are two categories of coprophagia 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 any of these measures.
Substances added to the feces itself (NON-TOXIC but repulsive to the dog):
These must be applied consistently to the feces for a sufficient period of time that your dog expects poop to taste terrible.
- Tabasco Sauce
- Ground Black Pepper
- Bitter Apple® Spray
- Capsicum Oleoresin, a non-toxic extract from the pepper plant
Dietary additives (Added to the dog's food):
- Adolph's Meat Tenderizer®
- Canned Pumpkin
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