You may have seen your pet do some quirky, funny things and thought “ I wonder why he does that?” Most likely you’ve caught them in the act of some not so desirable acts like drinking out of the toilet bowl or sniffing each other’s behinds, but you’ve chalked it up to “dogs will be dogs”. Instinctual or not, many undesirable dog behaviours need to be curbed with proper training such as aggressive behaviour, humping and biting. But, for any behaviour, it’s good to know why the dog is behaving as he is in order to know how best to deal with it. One of the most repelling behaviours dogs engage in is coprophagia, or stool eating. Gross! You really don’t believe it even if you see it. Dogs may eat their own stool (autocoprophagia), that of other dogs (allocoprophagia), or even other animals. Now, as I say, there’s always a reason for everything. After doing a little research I discovered two things; first, there is a logical and scientific reason for which dogs delight in their own poop, and second, knowing all these facts didn’t make it any less disgusting.
Why Dogs Eat Poop
Let’s tackle this logically. As it turns out, dung dining, albeit nobody’s top ten delicacy choices, is not actually harmful to the dog. This is an evolutionary behaviour that wild dogs partake and was studied by Dr. Benjamin Hart from the University of California. He concluded that “…eating of fresh stools is a reflection of an innate predisposition of ancestral canids living in nature that protects pack members from intestinal parasites present in feces that could occasionally be dropped in the den/rest area.” (Hart, 2012). Another totally natural, and expected time, this behaviour occurs is with parenting. When a new litter is born, the mum will eat the feces of her pups to hide their scent from predators when litters are vulnerable in the den.
We’ve now run out of evolutionary reasons for accepting that our dogs feast on feces. Problematic roots to this issue could either be medical or behavioural. Both are serious and should be dealt with appropriately.
We all know it’s important to keep a balanced diet. Humans will pop a vitamin or change the foods they consume to gain all the nutrients they need. And, before you get too comfortable in your civility at the top of the food chain, know that for those people who lack in digestive enzymes, human fecal transplants are all the rage. (Oh yeah, it’s a thing – Google it!) However, if a dog doesn’t get all the nutrients or enzymes it needs from the food you provide, they may start looking for the digested goodies of other animals. Intestinal malabsorption will also cause your furry friend to seek out other sources of food simply because what they are taking in is not being absorbed and therefore they are not getting what they need. So where are they going to find alternate sources of food? Most likely in your backyard or on your walks. Rabbit droppings are a particular favorite amongst our furry friends because they contain vitamin B and digestive enzymes.
Dogs secrete pancreatic enzymes to digest food. If they suffer from pancreatic insufficiency they may be enzyme deficient causing them to seek out a rabbit’s leftovers. While this kind of survival poop eating seems to be correcting a problem, poop eating can cause problems as well such as GI parasites. Also, if you’ve noticed your dog having an insatiable appetite for everything and anything, you may want to take him to the vet to rule out diabetes, Cushing’s, or thyroid disease.
Now here’s where we are not so different from our K9 buddy. Dogs will eat their poop if they are anxious or in a stressful environment. (Okay, we would reach for a bucket of rocky road instead, but the concept is the same.) This seems to be more common with kennel dogs. If you didn’t do your house training properly, you may have sent mixed messages to your pup. Research has shown that owners who punished their pups for “inappropriate” defecation, believe that pooping is bad will try to eat the evidence. (Insert deep breath here; we are still trying to house train Titan…patience…OM). However, attention seeking is another reason why they do it so try your best to ignore it.
Isolation and restrictive environments can also cause coprophagia. Being alone, in kennels and basements or confined to tight spaces bring on this dining habit and is seen with rescued dogs from crowded shelters. And, as you all know, boredom is a great trigger for eating. Keeping your pup active physically and mentally may stave off this gross habit.
Associating food with feces. This root cause is totally avoidable! Don’t feed your dog where it poops or he may not be able to tell the difference between the scents! You don’t eat in your bathroom, so try to keep a safe distance between your dog’s food bowl and where it conducts its other business.
Looping back to instinctual behaviour, which psychologically helps make all this a bit more acceptable to us, is the instinct to protect the pack from predators. This is seen when a healthy dog is living with an elderly/sickly dog. The healthy pup will eat the stool of the elderly dog.
We try so hard to be good parents, but sometimes the messages we send to our kids gets a little garbled. Mothers will clean their pups bums by licking and the pup will pick up the stool odour on their breath confusing what is meant to be a thorough cleaning with “its okay to eat poop”. Ooops! Ah well, at least bad habits can be relearned.
Be warned though that poop eating can be a hard habit to break if your dog has been in situations or conditions where food has been scarce. They will resort to poo eating for food. This is a survival mechanism in the wild but can be seen in dogs who have had to fight for a space at a shared food bowl, were weaned too young or have gone hungry for whatever reason.
How to Fix It
Now that we are a little more enlightened, lets move on to the “how to” portion. First and foremost, rule out any medical root causes. Take your pet to the vet to make sure he’s nice and healthy. For behavioural root causes, remove all temptation by pick up after your dog. This means in the backyard and out on walks. Next, train, train, train! Use commands such as “leave it” and “come”. Get them to move away from their poop by offering them a tastier alternative. Lastly, you can use taste aversion products which are usually comprised of MSG, chamomile, pepper-plant derivatives, parsley, yucca and garlic.
If ever in doubt, consult your veterinarian for advice!
Thank you to the American Kennel Club, Cesarsway.com and Dr. Karen Becker from Mercola Health Pets for all the great info and advice!