Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?
Dogs will eat the strangest things. This leads many pet parents to ask their veterinarian the following embarrassing question: “Why do dogs eat poop?” Sure, we expect dogs to have weird eating habits outside of their food and favorite treats, things like eating cardboard, chomping on pillowing stuffing, or nibbling on grass. However, one of the grossest habits, eating poop, is a bit harder to understand. Whether it’s their own or another animal’s feces, the thought of your dog eating it (and then giving you a big smooch) can make your stomach turn.
While you’re gagging, you also might be wondering if this practice can make your dog sick. It’s not necessarily harmful, but it could be. It’s also more common than you think, according to the American Kennel Club. In fact, some dog owners get rid of their pets because of this disgusting behavior. Although you love your pup, you probably want to know how to help them kick the habit. Here’s some insight into why dogs eat poop and how to get them to stop.
When Eating Poop Is Normal for Dogs
Did you know that there’s a technical term for poop-eating? Coprophagia is the scientific word for eating feces. This can be one’s own feces, known as “autocoprophagy,” or ingestion of other animals feces, referred to as “allocoprophagy.” Although it sounds like a medical condition, coprophagia is almost always done by healthy dogs that don’t have any nutritional deficiencies. About 25% of dogs have been observed eating poop at some point in their lives. Up to 14% may have a serious waste-gobbling problem.
Normal causes of a dog eating poop include:
- Survival. There are different theories as to why dogs eat poop. Some experts believe that coprophagia is a survival mechanism that helped wild dogs get nutrients even when they couldn’t find real food. Others believe that it’s a way for dogs to consume digestive enzymes that help them break down the foods they eat. Some animals, like rabbits, produce poop that’s rich in enzymes and nutrients. This helps explain why your dog goes crazy for those little pellets.
- Nurturing of Puppies. Newborn and young puppies require stimulation to urinate and defecate. Mothers of puppies lick their babies’ bottoms to clean them and encourage them to go to the bathroom and, as she does, she eats their poop. Another reason the mother eats her puppies’ poop is due to her instinctual desire to keep the nest clean to minimize odors that could attract predators.
- Exploration. Just like babies, puppies explore the world with their mouths. They may eat poop because it happens to be there and it smells somewhat like food. They may also see this behavior from their mothers and mimic her behavior. This is normal. Eventually, most animals learn that there are better options for appropriate nutrition.
- Scavenging. For some, dogs eat poop as a way of scavenging. Some dogs will steal food, get into garbage bins, seek out “treats” in the litter box, or dig into the compost piles as part of their normal behavior. Many dogs will eat or chew on many foods and non-food items we find disgusting or strange, such as dead rodents, other pets’ vomit, and even dog feces.
- Investigating. Dogs commonly investigate where another dog has urinated or defecated as part of their world and methods of communication. Fecal piles and urination spots are “interesting” and can even be attractive to dogs. High protein diets can produce stool that is tempting to some dogs due to the odor, taste, and/or texture.
- Competition. Some dogs in group settings can be competitive in their behavior. This competition can involve eating food, treats, and even feces.
Coprophagia can affect any age or breed of dog, but appears to be more common in Golden retrievers. It can also occur any time of year, but cold weather that creates frozen stool can have an increased appeal to some dogs.
When Eating Poop Signals A Behavioral Problem
Some dogs eat poop because they’re anxious, frustrated, bored, stressed, seeking attention, or avoiding punishment.
According to Mercola Healthy Pets, dogs that have been punished for elimination behaviors, like having an accident in the house, may start to eat their own feces to hide the evidence even when they’re outside. Pups that aren’t fed well may resort to eating feces. Puppies that are weaned early or confined to crates for the majority of their lives also have a tendency to eat excrement. Younger dogs that don’t have behavior problems can even pick up the habit from other, more anxious, canines in the family.
Stressed dogs may eat non-food objects besides animal waste. Some nontoxic items commonly eaten by dogs are crayons, chalk, glue, beauty products, cosmetics, candles, and toothpaste. It is important to consider your dog’s stress level, exercise routine, and overall environment if your dog shreds anything they can get their teeth on. Your dog might be telling you that they need more play time.
Some dogs seek out and eat poop as part of an attention-seeking behavior. While some attention-seeking behavior is normal, anything extreme or potentially harmful can be abnormal. Attention seeking dogs consider any attention to be good attention, so it’s common for a dog to eat poop in order to receive a response from their owner. Telling your dog “No,” can be a reward of attention, despite its negative connotations.
It is hard to deal with eating poop as an attention-seeking behavior, because the solution should be to ignore the behavior and, if they don’t get attention from it, they eventually will learn not to do it. On the other hand, good behavior, like chewing on an appropriate toy or resting quietly, should be rewarded appropriately.
Medical Reasons that Explain Why Dogs Eat Poop
Medical reasons for coprophagia are uncommon.
- Malabsorption. Malabsorption is a general term used to describe the inability of the body to properly absorb nutrients. This can be caused by many different diseases, such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and cancer. Click here to learn more about Malabsorption in Dogs.
- Poor Quality Diet with Nutritional Deficiencies. A poor quality diet can result in malnutrition with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This can cause dogs to seek out alternative sources of nutrition and cause them to eat poop.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal disease that causes diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Some dogs with this disease will eat feces. The cause is unknown. Stress may play a role in the disease. Learn more about IBS here.
- Parasites. Parasites that interfere with digestion can make some dogs more likely to eat feces.
- Enzyme deficiency. In rare cases, dogs have a deficiency that makes them unable to produce enzymes to process food. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a disorder that results in the pancreas not producing adequate amounts of digestive enzymes. This results in maldigestion (poor digestion) and malabsorption (poor absorption). It is most commonly seen in German shepherds, but can occur in any breed. It can be diagnosed with a blood test called the Serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI), which evaluates for the presence of the pancreatic enzyme known as trypsin.
- Diseases that Increase Appetite. Some diseases can make dogs feel hungry, such as diabetes or Cushing’s disease.
- Medications that Increase Appetite. Some medications, such as steroids, can increase a dog’s appetite and lead them to eat stool.
- Weight Control Diets. Some dogs on weight-loss diets will seek other items, such as stool, to fulfill their desire to eat.
Taking Your Dog to the Vet for Poop Eating
If you take your dog to the veterinarian, they will likely diagnose the problem based on your pet’s history. It might be helpful to take a label from the dog food you are feeding them, as well as a fecal sample with you to your appointment.
Your veterinarian may request the following:
- Medical, Diet, and Social History. Your vet will likely ask you several questions that may include:
- The history of your pet’s diet, since it is important to identify nutrient deficiencies.
- The history of medical problems and medications, which is critical to understanding your dog’s overall health.
- Your dog’s environment, exercise routine, and daily schedule, which can provide an understanding of your dog’s day-to-day life.
- Symptom History. A history of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, itching, ingestion of other objects, such as rocks, and behavioral problems provides a general overview of your dog’s physical and mental health.
- Physical Examination. A complete physical examination that includes a dental exam, eye and ear exam, review of overall muscle tone and strength, hair and skin exam, heart and lung auscultation, and observation of overall behavior is important to evaluate health.
- Fecal Examination. This is recommended to determine the presence of parasite infections, such as roundworms, tapeworms, and hookworms.
- Blood Work. Routine blood work that includes a complete blood count (CBC) and biochemical profile can be helpful to look for underlying health problems, such as diabetes, kidney disease, infections, and much more.
- Urinalysis. Urinalysis can help evaluate for infections and kidney function.
- Additional testing, such as adrenal function tests, may be needed to diagnose hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease). A trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI) may also be recommended to look for enzyme deficiencies, such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).
Once the underlying cause has been diagnosed, it is important to continue to monitor the patient for any physical changes or symptoms. Be alert for weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or decreased interest in food. Alert your veterinarian to any new abnormalities.
How to Treat Coprophagia
Treatment varies for coprophagia depending on whether the problem is medical or behavioral. Medical problems should be treated appropriately, and dietary deficiencies should be corrected with a balanced diet.
Stool eating caused by a behavioral issue is hard to treat, and there are no proven methods to stop dogs from eating feces 100% of the time. What works for one dog may not work for another.
Behavioral causes can be treated in different ways, including:
- Preventing Access to Poop. One of the best ways to stop your dog from eating poop is to make sure they don’t have access. Pick up all poop from your yard immediately. Ensure your cat’s litter box is inaccessible to your canine. You can prevent litter box access by using a baby gate or placing the box in an area with a cat door. Also, keep your dog on a leash when out for walks, so you control where they sniff around and what they eat. You can also use a basket muzzle to prevent your dog from eating poop.
- Rewards. A reward can be introduced when your dog has a bowel movement (this way your dog is looking for a reward instead of feces).
- Taste Changers. Theoretically, you can make poop taste bad by using commercial coprophagia pet products or home remedies. Most of these products are food additives that are supposed to make the taste of the feces unappetizing. Common “home remedies” include adding Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer®, various seasoning salts, and Certs® breath mints to the food. Some commercial products, such as “Forbid,” contain pancreatic enzymes that work to alter the character of the bowel movement in hopes of making them less appealing. Another recommended method is to taint the feces with various products such as Tabasco® sauce or pepper juice. This requires that you go out, find, and lace each stool sample with the sauce or juice before your dog finds it. A more aggressive treatment for coprophagia includes injecting feces with a drug that causes vomiting when ingested. After some repeated incidences, some dogs will learn not to eat feces. These methods are rarely successful for most dogs. Many dogs actually like the taste of some products or learn to eat the “untreated” feces while avoiding the treated feces. None of these strategies deter your dog from eating feces from other animals.
- Exercise & Play. Give your dog enough attention and mental stimulation and they’ll be more inclined to avoid feces. A frustrated or bored dog can quickly become an anxious dog with a poop-eating problem. Give your dog at least 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous daily exercise and play time. Taking a dog for a walk employs their sensory processing system, nervous system, and brain. Even just taking the time to train your dog can give them something to occupy their time. Walking, fetching, chasing, playing fly ball, and starting agility training are all great ways to exercise your dog. Dogs like to please their owners. The combination of intellectual processing and rewards can help curb a dog’s anxious behavior. If your dog is motivated by food, turn mealtimes into training sessions by offering pieces of food in exchange for carrying out commands like “sit” and “stay.”
- Quality Time. Spend quality time with your dog every day. This can enrich a dog’s life and help minimize boredom.
- Dietary Supplements. Some believe that dietary supplements can help curb this behavior. Results are unreliable.
- Behavioral Modification. Because eating feces can be a part of a dog’s normal behavior, it can be difficult to modify. Redirect inappropriate behavior with play time, a toy, or treat. Rewarding acceptable behavior is key, but is not consistently successful. Avoid reinforcing attention-seeking behavior.
- Quality Diet. Ensure your dog is eating a high-quality diet based on their life stage, activity level, and body condition. Maintain your dog at an ideal weight by feeding the appropriate amount relative to their calorie burn. Changing diet can alter the taste of the feces and stop some dogs from eating their own fecal matter. Switching your dog to a high-fiber diet, such as Hill’s RD Prescription Diet (which contains 10% fiber), can help some dogs. Dry food may be more effective in curtailing coprophagia than wet food.
- Gentle Scolding. A punishment (gentle scolding) system can be employed if you see your dog approaching feces. A reward can be given when your dog ignores feces. In general, if you can’t restrict or supervise your dog’s access to feces, it is recommended to refrain from scolding your dog. In most cases, the punishment doesn’t occur at the same time that your dog committed the offensive act. Therefore, your dog doesn’t understand why they’re being punished. In other instances, punishment can be interpreted as attention by a dog. Therefore, they might keep up this response-seeking behavior.
- Drug Therapy. Some dogs have a compulsive disorder that leads them to this annoying habit. In these cases, behaviorists may recommend the use of antiobsessional medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac).
Keeping Your Dog Healthy
Keeping your dog healthy involves more than just taking them for regular veterinary visits and feeding them a few times a day. It also entails providing opportunities to exercise the body and intellect. Consistency is key. Dogs are great at following routines. Fewer surprises can mean a more predictable, less stressed dog. Put the time in to ensure your dog gets regular activity and limit their exposure to feces, which will help them avoid eating things that are unhealthy or undesirable. Dogs that consistently eat feces regardless of what you do should be on routine parasite-control medication.