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!
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.
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:
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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