We can all agree on how disgusting it is for dogs to eat poop, especially if they are big kissers! Besides being unpleasant, it poses a threat to both individual and public health. By eating each other’s feces, not only may dogs get infected with gastrointestinal parasites, they’re also likely to become parasite carriers and to spread them throughout other environments. So just why do dogs eat poop?
Coprophagia is not always abnormal
Coprophagia is the act of eating feces, and it can be divided into two kinds. Autocoprophagia, which is to eat their own poop, and allocoprophagia, which is eating poop from other animals like dogs or cats.
It’s possible to single out two stages in a dog’s life where eating stool is expected:
- Newborn puppies rely on their mothers to defecate and urinate. For the first three weeks after giving birth, female dogs lick the puppies’ anus to urge them to eliminate their feces. Afterwards, they commonly eat them, presumably to make sure the nest stays clean.
- While growing, puppies discover their surroundings by mouthing on pretty much everything… And having a taste of poop is not an exception. Almost all pups grow out of this habit by the time they are 9 months old, but some like to stick to it for a bit longer.
Generally speaking, as long as the dog is well-nourished, properly taught and supervised, this behavior usually goes away by adulthood.
Medical issues can lead to stool eating
Whenever an adult dog doesn’t lose the habit of eating feces or starts doing it out of the blue, some concern should be raised. There are several health problems that cause coprophagia, and some behavioral issues that should be taken into account. However, first we must rule out anything that might be causing malabsorption of nutrients, gastrointestinal upsets or an increase in the appeal of stools:
- Malabsorption due to gastrointestinal parasites
- Dietary nutritional deficiencies
- Dietary caloric restriction
- Malabsorption syndromes linked to enzyme deficientes
- Health conditions that increase appetite like diabetes, hyperthyroidism or Cushing’s disease
- Drugs such as steroids
Coprophagia may also be a sign that something is wrong with another dog that lives in the same household. When a dog suddenly starts eating the other dog’s feces, attention should be paid to the pup who is not engaging in this behavior. Their stool might have become more appealing due to an underlying medical condition.
Behavioral triggers have to be weighed in
Once gastrointestinal ailments are ruled out, it’s time to include behavioral triggers and environmental stressors in the equation.
As mentioned before, puppies will likely have a taste of poop while growing up. This is due to their natural drive to play, investigate and scavenge, and this behaviour doesn’t usually go unnoticed by their owners. In fact, it attracts a lot of attention and fuss, which may unintentionally reinforce the habit of eating stool. Less likely but still possible is that puppies learn to mimic their mother and other playmates that perform coprophagia.
More problematic causes for stool eating might require further assessment at some point:
- Lack of human contact, or being kept in a kennel or isolated space.
- Being restricted to small spaces for long periods of time.
- Negative reinforcement methods while house-training might make the dog believe that it is better to eat or hide the poop, in order to avoid being punished.
- Attention-seeking, as previously mentioned for puppies.
- Bad feeding habits that may lead to an inappropriate link between food and stools. It may happen if dogs are fed near their feces.
- Lack of a stimulating environment, even if there is no isolation or space restrictions.
What can be done to stop coprophagia?
The first step is to diagnose what’s causing the coprophagia, so that it can be properly addressed. Fixing it might require rather simple medical approaches, like deworming treatments or improvement of the dog’s diet… Or something a bit more complex, such as identifying and supplementing enzyme deficiencies, or diagnosing and treating diabetes.
After medical issues are ruled out or treated, some behavioural maneuvers such as training and environmental management methods might need to be applied:
- Removing the temptation, meaning, keeping the dog’s living area – including the backyard – clear of poop.
- If the household is shared with a cat, keeping the litter box clean and out of the dog’s reach.
- Training the commands “leave it” and “come” until perfection. They will be helpful to keep the dog away from stool.
- Walking your dog with your eyes wide open, so you can pick up after him immediately and also prevent your buddy from eating other animals’ feces.
- Enriching the environment with puzzle games and interactive toys. Giving your dog things to do will decrease the likelihood of playing with what they aren’t supposed to.
- Planning an exercise routine and engaging in several fun games as a means to waste your dog’s physical and mental energy. A tired body and brain will stay out of trouble!
- Avoiding punishing your dog in case they eat poop.
So why do dogs eat poop? The answer isn’t that simple, and a number of different reasons can cause this behavior. Understanding the role that coprofaphia plays in a dog’s life is the starting point to properly addressing it. If you have any doubts or need further assistance on the subject, feel free to contact our vet team!
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