Let’s talk for a few minutes about a dirty little secret.
In fact, it’s literally “dirty”. And chances are you probably try to keep it a secret, concerned something might be wrong with your beloved dog.
What is it?
Your dog eats poop.
It’s revolting, disgusting, and you have no idea why he’s doing it or how to make him stop. You don’t hear your friends talking about it and you don’t see other dogs doing it.
But what if I told you that stool-eating behavior, termed “coprophagia”, is actually more common than you think? Chances are, your friends just don’t want to talk about seeing their own dogs do it too.
In this article we’re going to answer the question “Why do dogs eat poop?” And of course, we’ll go over some tips to get them to stop.
What’s So Tasty About Poop?
What if I told you that about ¼ of dogs have been caught eating stool at least once in their lives? Does that make you feel a little bit better? And that figure doesn’t even include all of the times folks don’t catch their pooch’s dirty habit.
And at least 12% of dogs actually eat stool consistently, according to Dr. Benjamin Hart, a veterinary behaviorist who reported his findings on coprophagia at a symposium in 2012.
So why do dogs eat poop? After all, if you observed a person bend down, pick up a brown tasty morsel from the ground, and eat it, you would be completely revulsed. But while the human-animal bond has gotten stronger and stronger over the last few decades, dogs are still not just small humans.
In his research, Dr. Hart hypothesized several reasons for this behavior.
I Saw My Mom Do It
The first is developmental. When your dog was just a little newborn pup, his mom likely ingested his stool in order to keep him and the surrounding area tidy. After all, he wouldn’t have been developed enough to do this himself. So, in this way, puppies may actually learn this behavior from observing their elders do it.
Puppies also may commonly eat stool as a part of investigating and learning about their environment. Puppies love to put all kinds of things in their mouths to find out if they’re edible. Poop, unfortunately, is little different from the mulch in your front yard in this regard.
The Many and the Solitary
Dr. Hart also noted that coprophagia was more likely to be seen in certain social settings.
Dogs that lived in multiple-dog households with other pups were more likely to exhibit this behavior. The same is true for dogs that come from shelters. Researchers have suggested that the population pressure of being with a larger number of other animals in a smaller space could be a risk factor.
But interestingly, just the opposite type of scenario also presented an increased risk. Pups who were left in confinement for long periods of time and did not receive enough stimulation during the day also exhibited more poop-eating behavior. This suggests that the behavior could be the result of either separation anxiety or just from boredom.
It’s a Cover-Up!
The next cause seen by Dr. Hart’s group appeared to stem from poor training practices on the part of well-meaning but frustrated pup parents. Poop accidents in the home are pretty gross and raises the ire of more than a fair share of folks who enjoy clean hardwood floors and carpets.
But it’s important, especially with early training, to always try to stay patient and positive. Yelling and scolding a pup who has a poop accident and then rubbing her nose in it may actually lead to worse behaviors.
With this type of negative correction, a dog may actually feel shame after having an accident, leading her to “cover it up” by ingesting the stool. This of course leads to further punishment and shame and further confusion on the part of an impressionable puppy or new rescue.
If this type of cycle seems to be present in your home, it needs to be broken immediately with some positive reinforcement methods we’ll discuss soon.
Scavenging in the Wild
The last behavioral cause noted by Dr. Hart’s group may be the simplest to explain. It also tends to only occur with dogs that eat poop outside on walks, or that only eat the poop of other animals like wildlife.
Dogs are instinctual scavengers with an excellent sense of smell. NOVA of PBS states that dogs have a sense of smell about 40 times that of our own. If we get a hint of an odor, we might just think “hey, that’s a pretty bad smell”. But a dog processes even a bad odor much differently, because she can differentiate multiple smells within that main odor.
Thus, while poop may seem like something that just “smells bad” to us, a dog can glean far more interesting information from the leavings of another dog or animal. And sometimes this information is so fascinating that the source just has to be eaten…
And if your pup likes to search for “treats” in your kitty’s litterbox? It may be very likely just an extension of this behavior, especially if you have more than one cat and your pooch doesn’t seem to have a preference.
But if it’s one particular cat’s stool, make sure to bring it up with your vet, to consider and rule out any medical conditions like we'll be discussing next, that might be making your kitty’s poop more attractive.
So we’ve addressed behavioral theories behind coprophagia, but what about medical causes? I can tell you first hand that an initial thought and fear for many parents is that their pup has some kind of nutritional deficiency that’s contributing to this gross habit.
Well, there is truth in this. As further gross and distasteful as it may seem, feces can have residual nutrients in it, if they weren’t digested appropriately. Thus, malabsorptive disorders, like inflammatory bowel disease or pancreatic insufficiency could be a reason for a dog to seek out additional nutrients.
At the other end, it can also be a reason for a healthy dog to find an interest in a housemate’s stool (including kitties)--because she can sense there is still nutritional value in it.
The first and easiest medical disorder to rule out as a problem is intestinal parasitism. Intestinal parasites can cause poor nutrient absorption. And not all dogs have obvious signs of digestive upset. Some may just slowly lose weight or seem more hungry.
A simple fecal sample brought into your vet can detect most intestinal parasites. The good news is that a majority are easy to treat and most can also be prevented with your monthly heartworm preventative. Some folks may not think about it and some vets may not mention it every time, but all heartworm preventatives have at least some degree of intestinal parasite prevention.
If you’re not sure what types of intestinal parasites your pup’s heartworm preventative additionally protects against, make sure to give your vet clinic a call and ask, or go to the manufacturer’s website.
Any disorder that causes change in appetite, like diabetes or Cushing’s disease, can lead to stool-eating behavior. The ones listed here are both common endocrine diseases involving hormone changes that can affect weight and appetite. Many medical conditions like these can be looked into utilizing bloodwork sent out by your veterinarian.
Some medications may cause increased appetite changes. Classically, this includes appetite stimulants like mirtazapine and capromorelin, and steroids like prednisone. While their use is well-indicated for certain medical situations, be aware that stool eating could be an uncommon effect you might see. Always make sure to report to your veterinarian any new and unexpected changes you observe in your pup after starting a new medication.
Lastly, the type of diet can be an underlying cause, so make sure to provide your vet details about everything you’re feeding your pup. If a dog’s diet is of poor quality or has low digestibility, a deficiency in nutrients could be to blame.
This may not just be a commercial diet, but a home-made diet too. While home-made diets may be perceived to be “healthier”, they are also the most common types of diets to contain nutrient deficiencies. Always make sure to consult your vet before considering a home-made diet.
Prescription diets, while extremely important when prescribed for certain medical conditions, can sometimes be less palatable than a regular food. This is especially true of kidney disease diets since they’re often low in protein, or low fat diets that are important for dogs with histories of pancreatitis.
While behavioral causes are indeed more common, always make sure to first discuss some of these possible medical causes with your vet. If the two of you decide that a medical cause seems unlikely, then it’s time to look at some modification techniques to address the behavior.
“Cope” with Coprophagia with These 5 Tips
Now let’s look at some ways we can try to modify this “distasteful dining” behavior.
Tip #1: Stool-Eating Deterrents
Taste-aversion products, like No Stool Eating essentially make a dog’s stool taste bad to them or to other dogs. Many of these products contain Yucca schidigera, garlic, or vegetable oil to confer a bad taste. While small amounts may not cause any problems, do be cautious of feeding any products containing garlic to dogs (or cats), as larger amounts can actually be toxic.
Some products also contain digestive enzymes that may help in situations where poor digestion is leading to malabsorption of nutrients. While these will not correct any serious medical disorders, they certainly can be of benefit.
Have an issue with your pup finding “treats” in your kitty’s litter box? A product like Outta My Box can help both make kitty’s poop smell less interesting and taste bad as well.
The only catch with these products are that they only work when fed to the pet’s whose stool is being ingested. This means that if you have multiple dogs or cats in the home and one pup who has the feces fascination, these products would need to be fed to all pets in the home other than your poop eater.
Tip #2: Highly Digestible Diet
If your pup isn’t on a special diet and you think poor nutrient absorption could be part of the issue, consider a diet with highly digestible nutrients. Your veterinarian can help you look into prescription diet options or even some over the counter options that may work too.
B Vitamin supplementation as well as adding in digestive enzymes may also be of benefit to help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. Make sure to chat with your vet about these options too.
Tip #3: Environmental Stimulation
Work long hours and have little time to let your pup out? If you think it’s possible your pooch could fall into the “I’m a loner and eat poop from anxiety or boredom” category, she might need a change in daily routine.
Fortunately, there are many options out there nowadays for busy pup parents to keep their dogs stimulated and active while they’re at work. Many localities have doggie daycare facilities nearby and some vet clinics may offer either daycare or at least day boarding, where your pup can be let out a few times during the day to stretch his legs.
Alternatively, you can also consider having a dog walker or pet sitter come to your home to let your pooch out and get a little playtime. If you don’t know someone locally, there are many services you can look into by doing some online searches.
Tip #4: Close Supervision
Regardless of whether or not your pup eats stool inside the home or outside on walks, close supervision can be key to breaking this behavior.
If this occurs inside the home, especially where your pup will have a bowel movement in another room of the house when you’re home, it can help to utilize in-home leash training. The concept of this is to use a leash that’s long enough for your dog to be able to move around a room freely, but not so long that you lose sight of her.
This way, she won’t be able to have a bowel movement in the house without your knowledge. This will also enable you to correct this behavior with a quick tug on the leash, a firm “leave it” right when it happens, and immediately taking her outside. It may take a few weeks of this consistent reconditioning to see results. You can also modify this technique by incorporating Tip #5, which is next.
If your pooch eats the stool of other random dogs or animals when outside, you can use a similar technique, with a firm tug on the leash and a command like “leave it”. If your pup is often too overstimulated when outside to listen and you have difficulty utilizing verbal commands, you can incorporate a tool like a citronella collar. When he gets too close to something questionable and won’t obey a verbal command, you can activate the collar and he’ll be sprayed in the face by a harmless but startling puff of citronella.
But always make sure to provide a treat reward as a positive perk and constantly work on verbal commands so you can hopefully wean your pup off the collar. Also, avoid use of electronic shock collars. Most trainers and veterinarians no longer support their use.
Tip #5: Positive Training and Reinforcement
In addition to constant supervision and a firm reprimand or tug on the leash, it also helps to redirect your pup’s attention away from his foul-smelling target and use positive rewards in the form of praise or treats.
If your dog has a habit of eating his own stools when outside on walks, use the following technique. After he has a bowel movement, call for him to “sit” and use a small training treat to hold his attention. Keep him sitting and stationary using the treat, while you clean up his leavings. If he remains still and at attention through the process, give him the treat. This may take some gradual work.
If outside on walks, resist the urge to stare at your phone during the whole walk. This allows you to keep a close eye and pull your pup away from anything questionable that’s on the ground before he can get to it.
If he does get fixated on something, poo or otherwise, you can use the same technique by redirecting his attention with a “sit” or “stay” command and a treat reward. And while likely pretty gross, make sure to remove the offending item from the ground so your pup or someone else’s won’t be able to find it on a later walk.
Make Sure to Scoop that Poop
The best way to prevent stool eating opportunities when outside is for everyone to clean up after their own pups. This unfortunately doesn’t always happen. Try to be the extra good and responsible pet parent by removing any other fecal leavings you find when out on a walk.
This not only makes for less coprophagia opportunities, but also lessens the environmental burden and spread of intestinal parasites.
What if you have rabbits, deer, or other wildlife that leave presents? If it’s on your own property, the best suggestion is really just to expect it and make some regular rounds to pick up their poop too, if you know your pup seeks it out. It can be tough if you have a lot of property for your dog to run around on, but the effort could be worth it.
Hopefully, empowered with this knowledge and these tips, you can go back to once again enjoying those sloppy wet kisses we all love, without wondering what gross thing your pup might be sharing with you. And remember to always check with your veterinarian first anytime you notice some concerning medical or behavioral changes with your pooch.