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Yuck! My Dog Is Eating POOP How Can I Fix Her...
YUCK! My Dog Is Eating POOP How Can I fix Her…

“Something is wrong with my dog!”  The voice on the other end of the line truly sounded distressed and because the voice belonged to one of my oldest pet sitting clients my adrenaline and mind started to race.  What could it be?  Why hadn’t she called the vet?  How fast could I get to the house?  Caroline had just adopted a beautiful young border collie rescued from an abusive situation, what could have happened so quickly?  What happened it turned out was Maggie dog  had just feasted on a steaming fresh pile of dung deposited by one of Caroline’s other dogs. It turns out Caroline had adopted herself a “poop eater” and she was certain Maggie was “not right”.  While poop eating ranks right at the top of the list of disgusting things dogs do, like licking their butts, rolling in smelly dead things and drinking from the toilet, it is not uncommon nor in most situations is it fatal.  According to a 2012 study at the University of California Davis coprophagia, the scientific term for poop eating, is a behavior about 24% of our canine friends share.

Unfortunately, I too am the not so proud owner of two opportunistic poop eaters, each with their own discriminating palate.  When left unsupervised, my older beagle thoroughly enjoys a quick snack of fresh poop (must be fresh) while my younger shitzu mix prefers a good cat poop nugget deposited by an outdoor cat who uses my yard as an outhouse.  It seems that rather like categorizing humans according to their food preferences, like vegetarian, carnivore, pescatarian, poop eaters also fall into their own categories according to preferences – who knew.  Autocoprophagists are those eating their own waste, while an Intraspecific coprophagist chooses to eat only the poop of others in their species and finally, the least discriminating group, Interspecific coprophagists choose to eat feces from another species.  Somehow, I believe Caroline would have taken far more comfort if her new pup were a pescatarian rather than an Intraspecific coprophagist.

Why Do Dogs eat Poop?   

The answer generally falls into one of two categories: medical or behavioral.  While most of the cases can be attributed to behavioral reasons, there are some medical conditions which can cause a dog to adopt this behavior.  Any medical condition that impedes the absorption of nutrients or increases the dog’s appetite can lead to stool eating.  Parasites and digestive enzyme deficiencies can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies.  Diseases such as Cushing’s, diabetes and thyroid disease can lead to a significant increase in the dog’s appetite and make stools suddenly more attractive.  In addition, the long-term use of some drugs like steroids can trigger an increase in appetite.

What we are feeding our pups can also contribute to a liking for poop and should be considered when trying to determine cause.  Often when placing a dog on a calorie restricted diet the owner may be pointing the dog toward supplementing their diet with the undesirable backyard waste.  This can also happen when feeding nutrient deficient and poor-quality foods or simply underfeeding.  If one of your pups suddenly develops a hankering for another specific dogs stool, the other dog may need to be examined to see if they may have a malabsorption problem that could be resulting in producing nutrient rich (obviously appealing) stools.

In any case of sudden or continued poop consumption, a visit to the vet should be first on the list of “What do I dos”.  This should precede asking the neighbor for a home remedy.  A vet will give your pup a thorough exam which will include stool testing which may lead to further blood and stool tests to determine possible underlying health issues. Fecal exams can detect the presence of parasites which are often present if the dog is sampling from the buffet of neighborhood waste. 

If your dog’s behavior is determined to have an underlying medical cause, the treatment will be geared to the cause.  If parasites are found to be the root cause, deworming can generally take care of the problem. This worming should be accompanied by a thorough cleaning of the dogs bedding, toys and flooring areas the dog frequents to remove any eggs that might remain.  A recheck or fecal exam should be conducted to determine if the treatment has been effective or if repeating the treatment is necessary.

Enzyme deficiency and pancreatic insufficiency can also be issues causing dogs to seek out supplementation of the disgusting kind.  The pancreas secretes enzymes which aid in the digestion of food.  When the pancreas does not produce enough of these enzymes a deficiency develops and poop rich in these enzymes can be a source the dog is attracted to.  These dogs are treated with dietary supplementation often including freeze dried pancreatic extracts from pigs and cattle.  Additional dietary supplements and vitamins may also be part of the treatment regimen.

Vets have also found that some dogs fed poorer quality dry food diets will begin eating poop to make up for enzyme deficiencies created by these foods.   In these cases feeding a better quality commercial food which is protein rich can help.  It is important when looking for a quality food to read the labels on the packaging to determine which foods are truly better.  Labels which list “by products” and not a protein source as first on the list of ingredients is not a better-quality food.

So, there is nothing medical causing your pups less than discriminating palate – what then?  First it is important to realize your snuggle buddy evolved from ancestors that made their way in the world scavenging trash piles and many of the world’s less fortunate canines continue to scavenge dumpsters and live off feces of many types – when the pickings are slim everything is a meal.  Your buddy is living with an ancestral pull that is still strong.  If you have a dog that loves to knock over the trash can, counter surf or inhale their food or that of others, you are more likely to have a poop eater.  In the study mentioned earlier, the biggest commonality among the dogs who dined on dung was the fact they were greedy eaters – so glad that is not true of people.

The same study found there were some other fun facts about poop eating pups which you can share at you next potluck:
  • Females area more likely to be poop eaters than males while intact males were the least likely (probably because they are more likely to be seeking a good time rather than a good meal).
  • 85% of poop eaters do not eat their own feces.  This also plays into the fact that poop eaters are more probable in multi-dog households.  The more pups, the more likely you will have at least one among them who will sneak a snack in the backyard.
  • 92% of poop eaters want fresh stuff – beyond one to two days the pile loses its appeal.
  • Some breeds are more likely to be poop eaters – hounds and terriers are more likely to find dung delicious, but shelties are the most likely and doesn’t it figure poodles are the least likely.
In many cases dogs also begin eating poop because of some environmental stressor or behavioral issue.  These can include pups that are kept insolated in basements or kennels away from their folks.  Dogs want to be with their pack.  The sheer boredom of being alone may be a contributing factor.  Small space confinement can also lead to poop eating which is why dogs rescued from overcrowded shelters or puppy mills are prone to this behavior. 

Closely related to these elements, dogs that are fed near their feces in yards or pens may begin to eat poop as they make inappropriate connections between the smell of food and that of feces.  It is important to separate where dogs are fed and where they eliminate.

Other stressors that can result in coprophagia may include:
  • A fear of being punished.  Dogs that are yelled at or punished for pooping in the wrong place may begin to eat the evidence which can then lead to the owner over reacting to the poop eating behavior – a vicious cycle emerges.  The myth of sticking a dog’s nose in an accident as a housebreaking method can also lend itself to this behavior.  Related to this is dogs rescued from abusive situations can be poop eaters.  This is the case with one of my offenders, her two years of abuse is still causing her to exhibit behaviors she developed during her confinement and abuse. 
  • Owners that make a big deal out of the behavior may be creating a scenario that perpetuates the behavior as an attention seeking mechanism.  For some pups any attention is better than none.

One other situation where poop eating is natural involves dog moms.  When pups are first born, their mothers will stimulate their babies to poop by licking them.  She will then eat the feces to keep their bedding clean.  Like all good moms, many females will continue to clean up after their kids for three weeks or beyond.  It is even possible the puppies, as they grow, will mimic the behavior and while most outgrow the nastiness some may even have started down the pathway to becoming a poop predator.

Your dog eats poop – what now?

Some folks will recommend a commercial deterrent you can add to your dog’s food.  It is possible this may work for your dog, but in a study cited by Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and behaviorist, of the 12 products on the market at the time of the study, For-BidTM, Nasty-habitTM, CoprabanTM, DeterTM, Potty MouthTM(love the name I think my mother called me that once in my youth) and others none of the products worked in more than 2% of the dogs, some not at all.  Some home remedies include spraying your pups piles of pleasure with aversive substances containing chamomile, pepper-plant, yucca, garlic and parsley to render the piles less attractive.  For some this may work, but dogs that find poop attractive in the first place are often not deterred by adding an additional smelly substance. 

Begin by feeding your dog a quality food and make sure you are feeding the appropriate amount – you may want to consult with your vet on what that might be.  Secondly, keep your pup’s yard a feces free zone.  In my case, with five pups, this involves supervised yard time, rapid pick-up and quick disposal – my neighbors thoroughly enjoy waving to me as I drag my pajama clad self around the yard at 6:00 in the morning.  Also restrict access to any indoor litter boxes and cat snacks as these can be even worse than dog feces.

On walks, it is important you pay attention to what the dog is sniffing.  With our ongoing love affair with technology, losing yourself in text messages, leaves Fido free to find feces.  Leash management is crucial to helping set up appropriate behaviors.  In some instances, a basket muzzle can be used to restrict your pup’s access to the neighborhood buffet of feces.

Spending time training your pup and reinforcing desired behaviors goes a long way toward ridding your pup of the nasty habit.  Training that includes reinforcing desired behaviors takes some time and effort on both your parts.  Just as in housetraining, praising and giving treats to you dog can go a long way.  The key is to give praise and high value treats immediately after your dog goes so that he does not even think about the poop.  Using clicker training can be a technique useful in changing behavior. Using the clicker mark when your pup identifies a tasty pile and reward with a treat before he eats.  This can be done on walks or even in your yard, but consistency and persistence is a key to how successful you will be with this training.

Teaching commands like “come” and “leave it” can be invaluable.  Having your dog come immediately after eliminating and giving treats can ingrain the positive behavior and go a long way toward discouraging and extinguishing the bad.  A dog that is trained to the command “leave it” can be especially important if you do a great deal walking and hiking with your pup.  This behavior needs to be reinforced and the time it takes to work on these commands can be time well spent especially with a pup who enjoys dining on dung.  Punishment should not be used to fix this behavior and can often do the opposite as mentioned earlier.

Someone once said ”We love our dogs until they act like dogs” and poop eating is one of those dirty little secrets we don’t like to mention when we talk about our cute little buddies. Undeniably, poop eating pups are not the ones we want to snuggle up to and kiss, but we need to remember there is almost always a reason for the behavior.  Unfortunately, too many dogs are surrendered to shelters because owners don’t want to take the time to figure out the problem and work to correct it.  These are the same folks that will turn around and get another puppy who could easily be another poop eater.

Fortunately, once Caroline understood the problem, she and Maggie started to work on it.  Me, I am still trotting around in my pjs and working to reinforce positive behaviors, but the green bean treats are getting expensive.