Coprophagia: Why Does Your Dog Eat Poop?

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Ah, poop. We humans think it’s disgusting… but many of our dogs seem to love the stuff. If you’re wondering why your canine companion tries to eat feces (either his own or that of other animals) you’re not alone!

The technical terms for eating poop are “coprophagia” or “coprophagy”. It’s not always a cause for concern — some level of this behavior is natural in our pets and can usually be easily managed — but it can also be a sign of a larger underlying problem.

Here’s everything you need to know about coprophagia. How can you tell if your dog’s interest in poop is normal? Most importantly, how can you stop your poop eater from eating feces? Let’s dive in!

Eating poop can sometimes be a natural dog behavior

Why might adult dogs eat poop?

Mother dogs groom and clean their newborn puppies, including actually consuming their offsprings’ waste in their first few weeks of life. We know it sounds gross, but this is an important task — eating their babies feces helps keep the nest sanitary. It also encourages the puppies to grow up with healthy hygiene habits of their own. (In fact, dogs who are raised in unclean nests can sometimes struggle with potty training in adolescence because they’ve never developed an aversion to using the bathroom where they eat or sleep. This is often referred to as “dirty dog syndrome”.)

In the above context, coprophagy is functional. It has other natural roots, too — some say that the biological drive to eat poop is implanted as a survival instinct in certain circumstances. It also fits with what we know about how canines interact with each other in groups. Dogs are often able to sense infections in fellow animals and can commonly be seen sniffing or even licking any unusual discharges (presumably to gather more information about what’s going on with their family member). Detecting weaknesses can reflect on the overall safety of their pack or group.

Why might puppies eat poop?

Coprophagia is a pretty common problem in puppies. Good news, though. They usually grow out of it so long as they have a healthy environment and proper nutrition! What that means for you as an owner: If you recently brought your young dog home and they’re trying to eat feces, you don’t need to be too concerned.

Puppies are likely attracted to poop because of a few factors:

  • Young dogs love to investigate and study the world around them. They’re incredibly playful — indeed, play is a key way juvenile animals learn important life skills! This means that if they’re left unattended near their own poop (or that of another dog in the house) that hasn’t been cleaned up by their carer, there’s a good chance that what looks like gross waste to us will actually be an interesting toy to them.
  • What’s more? Puppies go through an oral stage where they primarily interact with the environment by licking, mouthing, and grabbing objects. These items can include, of course, poop.
  • Some puppies raised in the dirty environments mentioned in the previous section might be even more comfortable playing around with their feces.
  • Dogs are also natural scavengers. Most puppies grow into adults who only scavenge for things that are actually food (think about the dog at the local park who eagerly tries to pick up a discarded bone or piece of bread but only casually sniffs at a pile of poop left behind). When they’re young, though, dogs might naturally investigate dried or fresh stools.
  • Playing with or consuming poop can also draw a lot of attention from owners. To many puppies, any sort of interaction is reinforcing — that means that we might inadvertently teach our dogs that grabbing poop starts a fun game. Oops. (This is one reason it’s very important to be clear about the messages we send — you can read more about basic dog training in our guide here!)
  • Finally, there might be a product of observational learning here. Puppies might mimic the behavior of their mother or other playmates who perform coprophagy behavior.
A puppy sits next to its bathroom waste on a pee pad

Why do dogs like the poop of other animals?

Like we said before, dogs are scavengers! It’s common for our canine companions to steal food, tear through garbage cans, and chew on plenty of things that we owners find disgusting ourselves. With proper training and other mental exercise outlets this behavior can be reduced or eliminated entirely, but it’s important to remember that scavenging is a deeply rooted instinct in our dogs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the tendency — it’s not a disorder in itself — so long as we manage it properly.

Some animal feces has particularly “appetizing” attributes (like taste, texture, and odor) that can override our dogs’ understanding that it’s waste and probably shouldn’t be consumed. Cat feces is a common culprit, as is that of deer, rabbits, or other small herbivores.

Coprophagia can also be an abnormal behavioral issue

Behavioral causes of your dog eating poop

Most dogs who eat feces do it because of learned behavior — that is, it’s simply something they’ve learned to enjoy and doesn’t have an underlying medical cause.

Coprophagy can be caused by the instincts we talked about in the above section, especially if they’re coupled with an understimulating environment (a bored dog will find entertainment of their own) or a constant opportunity to eat poop (repeated ingestion can lead to a long-term habit).

Medical causes of coprophagia

Some coprophagy is a symptom of underlying medical problems. Any disorder or condition that decreases your dogs’ absorption of nutrients or causes gastrointestinal upset has the potential to lead your pet to consume feces. These include:

  • Cushing’s disease
  • Thyroid disease
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Digestive enzyme deficiencies
  • Anything being treated with steroids
  • Anything resulting in a vitamin or mineral deficiency

If your dog is on a calorie restriction diet in order to lose weight, this can also increase their odds of developing a coprophagia habit. It’s important to always work with your veterinarian before making drastic changes to your pet’s food and treat intake!

If your dog takes a sudden interest in another dog’s stool — say your Labrador starts eating your Poodle’s poop every chance he gets — that other dog's fecal matter should be screened for a range of digestive conditions or disorders, too. This is because poor digestion of their own food might lead more nutrients to remain in their waste, thus increasing its appeal to other dogs.

How do you know if your dog’s habits are cause for concern?

Adult dogs

Occasional interest in poop — especially that of another animal, like a stray cat or deer who wanders through your backyard — is usually not a big deal. It should be fairly simple to manage with a well-timed leave it cue and some basic impulse control training.

If your dog’s poop eating becomes a habit, though? You’ll want to address it more specifically. This is especially true if coprophagy starts affecting what you feel like you can do with your dog. Consuming feces can become a quality of life concern if you’re afraid to walk your dog in public areas or always feel like you have to be on the lookout.

Puppies

Most puppies learn that food tastes better than poop pretty quickly. If your dog is more than a year old and still trying to regularly eat their own (or their housemate’s) poop, that’s no longer normal.

Behavioral training to stop your dog from eating poop

Do:

  • Intervene early, as soon as you notice coprophagy becoming a habit. While some degree of poop consumption is normal in puppies, you should still take steps to reduce its occurrence as your dog grows up.
  • Prevent your dog from having access to stools to eat. We know this is easier said than done — but a few simple steps can make a big difference.
  • Feed your dog on a consistent schedule and do not free feed them. This will help you accurately guess when they’ll need to use the bathroom, enabling you to go outside with them and immediately pick up any fresh stools before they can reach them.
  • Creating a food and bathroom break diary or log can help you keep track of your dog’s habits. It has the added bonus of making sure everyone in your home stays on the same page, too! 
  • If you have multiple dogs, consider taking them outside at different times so you’re able to pick up their waste without interference.
  • Take note of the form of your dog’s poop to help identify potential health problems. Healthy poop should be firm yet slightly soft to the touch.
  • Practice your dog’s leave it and recall training. You can replace old, undesirable habits (like eating poop) with new, better ones (like coming to sit in front of you for a high value treat) through proper positive reinforcement training.

Don’t:

  • Never stick your dog’s nose in their urine or stool if they have an accident inside your home. This could actually encourage coprophagy if they’re already prone to it.
  • Don’t try only one thing at a time or give up too early. It’s best to include multiple of the above strategies into a long-term prevention program for at least a few months to make sure your dog has really broken the coprophagy habit.

Veterinary treatment of coprophagia

If you think your dog is eating poop because of an underlying medical condition (or if you just aren’t sure) it’s a good idea to take them in for a full physical examination. Your veterinary team will be able to help you determine any problems from medical history and current environment and treat them accordingly.

The first step is to identify the problem. Is it intestinal parasites? A nutritional deficiency? A problem with digestive enzymes? Then you can move into a treatment plan.

A few common options include treating any parasites present, changing your dog’s diet to one that’s more nutritious with different protein sources, avoiding byproducts in their food and treats, or adding extra fiber. Some dogs see improved digestion and nutrient absorption with certain enzyme supplements. Your vet will work with you and your individual dog!

When in doubt, get in touch with a professional trainer

Most of the time, you can treat coprophagy by yourself at home. As long as you stay consistent and patient, your dog will grow out of their gross habit or develop healthiest responses through training in no time!On occasion, though, some dogs require more help even if they’ve been given a clean bill of health by their veterinarian. In these cases, it’s a good idea to reach out to a professional force free trainer. They’ll be able to use their education and years of experience to develop a plan uniquely tailored to you, your dog, and your shared lifestyle.

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Penny Locke
Proudly offering Positive Reinforcement & Force-free Dog Training
www.allabout-canines.com