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.
Incidentally, dogs can train other dogs by this same method. Our Isabella ignored litter boxes until we adopted Muggsy Malone. Muggsy adored cat poop and used to head for the box at a dead run whenever he saw a cat emerge. Izzy soon noticed his passion and scored a sample for herself. Muggsy has been gone for many years, but his legacy remains.
Why Do Dogs Eat Their Own Poop?
There are pretty well accepted behavioral explanations for dogs eating their own stool – not that I know of any research to back them up. Pet store puppies seem to eat their own poop more than the average dog. The reason would be the same one that makes crate training so successful: dogs avoid soiling their nests. Dogs forced to eliminate in their cages will often try to clean up. Let this happen a few times, and a habit is born. Finally, eating feces – whether or not it’s the dog’s own – may succeed in getting attention for an animal who’s lonely or bored.
Is It Bad for Dogs to Eat Poop?
Disgusting as it is to us, coprophagy seems to do most healthy, vaccinated dogs no harm,(3) apart from occasional digestive upset and sometimes a parasite or two.(4) I did round up a news story about a Pug who developed pancreatitis after way overdoing it at the all-you-can-eat dog poop buffet.(5)
How to Prevent Your Dog From Eating Poop
Yeah, okay, fine, a little poop won’t hurt your dog, but it rings the bell on your Gross-O-Meter, so let’s talk about prevention. Let me say right up front that if your dog has access to the kind of feces she likes, she will sometimes get some. Homeless people defecate in public parks; if your dog is off leash, your best defense is a solid recall or rock-solid response to a cue meaning “Leave that alone.” Even so, your dog is better at finding feces than you are and may well get a few bites in before you notice and intervene. If you live in the country, chances are you can’t control the availability of horse and cow and goose and deer droppings.
Prevent Access to Poop
Control the environment! Tidy the yard diligently and prevent access to poop.
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