What is Coprophagy?
Coprophagy is a strange word, but it basically means “to eat poop”! While it is a very disgusting habit to our eyes, there are various reasons for coprophagy in dogs, and some of them are even natural and instinctive!
This is a common behavior among wild canides, such as wolves and coyotes, and is usually related to survival or as a territorial display. In domestic dogs there are still many questions about what motivates this behavior. It may be caused by nutritional deficiencies, psychological problems, attraction to different tastes, or even intestinal parasites.
When a dog ingests only his own stool, this is called autocoprophagy. When he consumes feces from a member of the same species, it’s called allocoprophagy. There are also situations where a dog may occasionally eat poop. The feces of non-canine animals, like cats, horses and even of humans can be attractive because of the different smells and taste related to their diets. For example, horse’s stools have partially digested matter that may provide some nutrients, while those of cats are high in proteins.
I have seen my dog, Dexter, having this behavior recently. When I take him for a walk I usually let him smell everything that I know it’s not hazardous to him, because smelling things like urine and feces is normal for a dog to obtain information from its surroundings. So I wasn’t expecting him to do that! I observed the shape, consistency and color of what he ate, and that definitely wasn’t dog poop!
Smelling things is important for a dog to know his surroundings. (Photo: João Papa)
When is this considered a natural behavior in dogs?
Female dogs eating their pups feces is a natural survival behavior. By doing this they keep their nest clean and also avoid predators that may be attracted by the smell. Although there is no danger of predatory type in household nursing bitches, this primitive behavior hasn’t been extinguished.
Puppies are very curious and like to explore everything. By watching their mother perform this behavior they may learn to do the same. So it’s not unusual that they engage in stool eating. It is also believed that by doing so they can regulate the intestinal microflora.
The dangers of eating poop
There are several diseases that can be transmitted by fecal matter, especially when your dog eats other animals stool. Hepatitis and Parvovirus are highly contagious diseases that can be very dangerous and even fatal to puppies and dogs that weren’t vaccinated.
Parasites like giardia, whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, coccidia, and salmonella are excreted in feces and are passed onto the next host who eats them.
So it is very important to regularly deworm your pet and respect the vaccination program, according to the veterinary indications.
Some of the causes of coprophagy
- Medical conditions
The first thing you should do is to go to the veterinary and make sure that there are no medical problems associated with this behavior. Intestinal parasites, brain lesions, Endocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency and even a poor quality diet can cause malnutrition. So eating stool may be a way to try to compensate the nutritional deficiencies.
- Stress and anxiety
Some signs of stress and anxiety include destructive chewing, inappropriate urination and defecation, excessive grooming that may lead to skin injuries,constant barking and extreme attachment to the owner. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety, kenneled and puppy mill dogs are more prone to be coprophagic.
- Greedy eating
Puppies tend to be greedy eaters when they have competition from their siblings, by trying to eat the most amount of food as quickly as possible. While this is a normal behavior at this stage, it should be corrected (not punished!) when the puppy goes to a new home, since it could also lead to food-protective aggression. According to the study ”“The paradox of canine conspecific coprophagy” , about 52% of greedy eaters engage in coprophagy.
Puppies are greedy-eaters because they have to compete with their siblings.
Pica is a disorder that can be caused by several factors. The dog craves for non-food items, like for example socks, garbage, rocks and also feces.Brain lesions, cognitive deficits and nutritional deficiencies are some medical conditions that can lead to this problem. Emotional issues like anxiety, stress and boredom, particularly in high energy dogs that don’t have enough stimuli, may also trigger this behavior. If not diagnosed and treated early, Pica can become an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The appealing taste, smell and consistency of stool from another animal (canine or not), due to a different diet or partially digested matter makes it irresistible for some dogs.
What can you do to stop it?
After ruling out any medical problem, the next step is to try to understand what is causing the problem. If your dog suffers from stress, anxiety or Pica, these conditions need to be treated as well.
You should never use negative punishment! Beating or rubbing the dog’s nose on the feces only creates more stress and fear, and may even aggravate the behavior you want to remove. When the “damage is done” the best thing you should is to ignore your dog for a while and act as if nothing happened. You will need to have patience, persistence and to remain calm throughout this process of behavior modification. If one method doesn’t result for your dog, don’t give up! Dogs can react differently to different stimuli, so you may need to try other approaches.
A dog with Pica eats non-food items, including feces. (Photo: João Papa)
Here are some methods you can try to suppress this craving:
- Make the feces undesirable
You can spray the poop with some unpleasant taste or smell, like lemon or orange juice or even pepper, before the dog can access it. After “doing its business” , you gently pull the leash close to you with one hand, firmly and calmly say “No”, and with the other hand immediately spray the pile. Then allow him to approach the poop. If it works, give him a treat and a praise. Maintain this routine for as long as needed. The dog will associate the “no” with the aversive stool and the treat after as a reward for his good behavior. After the success of this first part, where your dog should ignore his poop and only think of the reward, remove the “no” part. Later on, stop the spraying but always continue with the rewards. It is possible that this method only works for a certain amount of time, so it may be necessary to repeat it occasionally.
- Avoid access to the fecal matter
The best way to prevent this habit is to eliminate the “object of desire”! It can be easy when your dog just defecates while being walked and you immediately catch the poop, but if he does it indoors or in the yard without supervision, it is almost impossible to control it.
Muzzle using eliminates the access but it can create stress and frustration, so I don’t recommend it, especially in dogs with emotional problems, as it can make the situation worse.
- Change the diet
Talk to the vet about the food you give to your dog because it may lack the adequate nutrients to his needs. Eating feces can be the consequence of a poor diet, leading your dog to compensate the lack of nutrients this way. A specialist will advise you about the right diet for your best friend!
There are in the market some oral supplements intended to change the color, consistency and smell of poop. This is supposed to make them undesirable, but according to a study the success rate of these supplements ranged from 0 to 2%. But since it was unknown if the owners that participated in the study followed the instructions of the products, why not give it a try? But first you should get some medical advice before trying this method.
- Stimulate your dog
Under-stimulated dogs are more prone to engage in unwanted behaviors and to develop psychological problems. How can you solve this?
There are so many different and exciting toys in the market to keep them occupied and distracted from other temptation. First you should give your dog a few toys and as soon as he starts to lose interest in them, switch to other toys. Keep rotating them and occasionally add a new toy.
Going out for long walks, swimming, jogging with your dog or playing fetch will get him tired and happy. This way he won’t feel the need to spend the accumulated energy doing “bad things”.
Both mental and physical activities are important to keep your dog balanced. (Photo: João Papa)
Keep in mind
An occasional stool eating can happen with any dog, if he feels attracted by it for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned before. That is not considered a behavior problem.
A good understanding of your dog’s needs is important to deal with any sort of problems that may happen. The strong bond you have with him is the key to raise a well balanced pet. Remember that he is an individual and try to interpret his attitudes as the animal he is and not in the human behavior perspective.
It is possible that your dog´s coprophagy may not be cured, but don’t make a big deal out of it! As long as your best friend is healthy, vaccinated and regularly dewormed, the worst thing that can happen is for him to have a terribly stinky breath!