Why do dogs eat feces? How can you stop them?
When you can control the environment, do it. If your dog’s cleaning up after herself or your other dogs, tidy the yard diligently. If she’s diving for her own feces as soon as she produces it, keep her on leash till she’s done her business. Then lure her away with something super tasty before she has a chance to start. Or gently pull her if a lure doesn’t work. Try a play invitation to distract her. If she’s a junkie for fetch, toss a ball the nanosecond she begins to rise from her squat, then clean up during the chase.
Keep Litterboxes Out of Reach and Clean Them Often
If possible, keep litterboxes where the dog can’t reach them. I say “if possible” because your cat’s behavioral needs may conflict. Many cats resist using a covered box or one that’s in a small, confined space, especially if a feline housemate likes to pounce on them when they come out. Train yourself to hear those little cat feet going scritch scritch scritch, and scoop the poop as soon as kitty’s done. Even the slickest litter snacker can’t eat what isn’t there. Besides, a scrupulously clean box is nicer for your cat.
Some people muzzle their dogs to prevent coprophagy, but the commonest upshot is a filthy muzzle, which – well, yuck. If the poop-snack habit isn’t well established, it may die away on its own, provided your dog has no further opportunities to practice it. Many puppies also seem to abandon stool-eating as they mature. If your puppy isn’t one of those, prevent, prevent, prevent, and do teach that rock-solid “Leave it.”
What About Taste Deterrents?
You’ll notice I’m not touting hot sauce or commercial taste deterrents. Honestly, I don’t see the point. The commercial taste deterrents you feed your dog have no effect on any feces but hers. Plenty of dogs feel perfectly fine about a dash of hot sauce on poop. And no matter which kind of deterrent you use, and how much your dog hates it, sooner or later he will find an untreated stash. Result: poop snacking is on what’s technically called a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule, which is what trainers use when they want to create an extremely persistent, durable behavior. Just what you were looking for in stool eating.
Last word on poop eating? Almost no behavior makes it clearer that dogs are different from us. Feces disgusts us. Not so for dogs. Eating feces is dangerous to humans, mostly not to dogs. Prevent access as much as you can, teach your dog a strong “Leave it” cue, and bear in mind that dogs are dogs and sometimes we have to shrug and say “Oh well.”
1 Alexandra Horowitz, in her terrific book Inside of a Dog (Scribner: 2009), suggests that dogs didn’t evolve from present-day wolves, but rather that dogs and present-day wolves had a common ancestor.
2 Read, D. H., and D. D. Harrington. 1981. Experimentally induced thiamine deficiency in beagle dogs: clinical observations. American Journal of Veterinary Research 42(6):984-991; Street, Harold R., George R. Cowgill, and H. M. Zimmerman. 1941. Further observations of riboflavin deficiency in the dog. Journal of Nutrition 22:7-24.
3 McKeown, Donal, Andrew Luescher, and Mary Machum. 1988. Coprophagia: food for thought. Canadian Veterinary Journal 29:849-850. Can you believe somebody thought that was a clever title?
4 Hofmeister, Erik, Melinda Cumming, and Cheryl Dhein. “Coprophagia in the Canine.” A description of a preliminary study. Undated. Also see van der Borg, Joanne A.M., and Lisette Graat (2006). Pilot study to identify risk factors for coprophagic behavior in dogs. In Proceedings of the Vlaamse Diergeneeskundige Werkgroep Ethologie International Congress on Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare. A follow-up study is in the works (Joanne van der Borg, personal communication, Feb. 10, 2010).
5 Mccartney, Diane. “Dung Almost Deadly for Dog,” The Wichita Eagle, Sept. 20, 2008. Pugs have a reputation as gourmands. This one weighed 8 pounds and ate stool from a Labrador Retriever and a Basset Hound.
Sick Dog image from Shutterstock