Why do dogs eat feces? How can you stop them?
One of my favorite training lists had a thread a few years back about poop-flavored dog treats and the guaranteed training success they would offer. If only they existed. And if only we could bring ourselves to touch them. Unlike humans, plenty of dogs just love feces, whether from cats, horses, or geese, or, most disgustingly to many people, their own feces and human feces. This week, everything dog behavior nerds know about coprophagy.
Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?
The likelihood is that different dogs eat different kinds of feces for different reasons. First, some coprophagy is probably completely normal. As everybody knows, dogs evolved from wolves – probably, current thinking goes, from wolves that spooked less easily than average.(1) Those not-so-spooky wolves got closer than others did to human bands and, later, human settlements. Finding human garbage and human excrement, the wolves chowed down. Eventually, there evolved an animal like the wolf, except that it was smaller, it hung around people, and it mostly scavenged instead of mostly hunted. Hey presto, the domestic dog, for whom it is normal to eat anything lying around that might have some nutritional value, including human poop.
Why Do Dogs Eat Other Animals' Poop?
Cat feces probably attracts dogs because cat food is higher in fat and protein than dog food, and consequently cat feces is too. As for why dogs like horse and cow manure and goose droppings, your guess is as good as mine. Dogs like plenty of things we humans don’t – when was the last time you rolled in a dead squirrel, grinning your fool head off the whole time? My best guess is that dogs just plain find feces tasty.
Eating Feces Can Be a Sign of Illness
Not all coprophagy is normal or harmless. Dogs who suffer from malabsorption syndromes, such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, sometimes eat stool, including their own. They may be trying recover the nutrients they can’t absorb in normal digestion.
Some horrible nutrition studies have been done on dogs; I’ll skip the details. Let’s just say that coprophagy might develop in a dog with a history of severe nutritional deficiency.(2) “She’s eating a low-quality diet” is often thrown around as an explanation for a pet dog’s coprophagy, and maybe these studies are the ultimate source of that idea. I have to admit I’m a bit obsessive about my dogs’ food, but leery though I am of most commercial diets I sincerely doubt they’re anything like what the dogs in these studies got. All the same, if your dog eats her own and other dogs’ poop, and you’re buying the 50-pound sacks of whatever chow is cheapest at your local warehouse store, food of better quality might be worth a try.
If You Get Excited About Poop, Your Dog Might Get Excited, Too
You can often get a dog hot and bothered about a particular toy by taking it out, playing with it excitedly by yourself, then putting it away again. Same goes for shoe-nabbing. Guess what Zippy learns when he streaks past with your Manolo in his mouth and you start yelping? Poop, too, may suddenly increase in value to your dog when the result of his tentative sniff and lick is that you shriek, drag him away, and stash the experimental material in a bag. Hmm, he thinks, there must be something to that stuff. And the next time he spots some feces, he speeds up the snatch-and-grab.