‘Coprophagia’ is the medical term for eating stools. It’s from the Greek ‘copro’, meaning dung, filth or excrement, and the Greek ‘phage’ meaning ‘to eat’. Unfortunately, knowing what it is doesn’t make it any more palatable. It’s probably one of the grossest habits our dogs can have. While it’s not uncommon for our dogs to eat grass or other things they shouldn’t like chocolate, this is still a habit that should be corrected rather quickly if behavioral and not health induced.
Dogs from all ages can suffer from this syndrome, and it’s actually quite common in puppies. It can be so frustrating as an owner to deal with this issue though, no matter the age of your pup. One second, they’ve pooped the next second it’s gone.
Ultimately the question is, why do dogs eat poop, and what can we do to stop it? Below you’ll find out the best ways to handle Coprophagia and common reasons it happens.
So Why is My Dog Eating Poop?
It’s quite common for dogs to eat their own poop (it affects around 16% of dogs), and there are lots of possible causes. While most are behavioral and can be fixed with time and patience, there are a few medical causes you might want to consider, too. Let’s look at the reasons that your dog may be eating their feces.
Any disease or condition that increases the palatability of a dog’s stool could increase coprophagia. This includes digestive tract disturbances and nutrient absorption difficulties. Common conditions that cause coprophagia are exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (the body struggles to digest fat, meaning that dogs are left hungry and with fat in their faeces- they’ll often try to eat it to have a ‘second go’ at the fat) and bacterial overgrowth in the gut.
Conditions that cause excessive hunger can also cause an increase in stool consumption. This can include diabetes and Cushing’s disease. Excessive calorie restriction can also cause an increase in coprophagia in dogs, so make sure it’s not because your dog is on a lower calorie dog food.
Conditions that cause a nutrient deficiency, including a poor diet, can also cause pica- the eating of non-food items- and this can include stool.
Because so many conditions can cause coprophagy, it can be frustrating to diagnose. It’s a good idea to talk over a diagnostic plan with your vet. Depending on your dog’s age and other symptoms, they may take blood samples or stool samples, or try a simple change of diet to see if that makes a difference. Once medical causes have been ruled out, you can start to look at behavioral causes.
Behavior and Habit
For the vast majority of cases, eating of stool is a behavior or habit– albeit a frustrating one to change. It is thought to have evolved from when dogs were wild and lived in dens that needed to be kept clean, tidy and free of parasites. Stool eating is more common in dogs that are kept with other dogs.
Dogs usually eat stools that are less than two days old- some people think this lends further weight to the theory that dogs eat poop to reduce the risk of parasites, as many parasites are not ‘ready’ to infect new dogs until they’ve spent a couple of days to weeks outside the body. Getting rid of the stool while fresh may have been a way to reduce the parasite burden in the den.
It’s not uncommon for puppies to eat stool when young, and exploring the world. This should be discouraged at first sign to ensure it doesn’t become a problem. It may be particularly prevalent in dogs that have been incorrectly housetrained (i.e those that have been told off for defecating indoors, or had their noses rubbed in their poop)- possibly because these dogs associate the feces with being told off and want to get rid of the evidence.
Unfortunately, while most dogs grow out of the habit with a little persuasion, others become obsessive, quickly scarfing down any poop they can find, even when out on a walk. A large proportion of the dogs with coprophagia in one study were described as ‘greedy’, but there were no similarities in age, gender or diet. It can be very hard to break this habit, and professional advice is often helpful. While most dogs practice coprophagia on their own poop, some will prefer the stool of other animals. Some feces may lend itself to be more attractive if the dog it came from has recently eaten something that made their stool smell differently, like fruit or seafood.
Is Coprophagy Ever Normal?
Yes! Dams of most mammals, dogs included, will eat the faeces of their babies in order to ensure that they’re kept clean and that the smell doesn’t attract predators. So, if your dog appears to be suddenly coprophagic, and they’ve just given birth- don’t worry!
Some animals use coprophagy in order to get the most from their diet. Rabbits, for instance, produce soft, wet stools when they first eat grass- a result of bacterial digestion of the grass. They then eat these stools in order to get extra nutrition that they missed the first time around. It’s an essential part of digestion in the rabbit!
Why Shouldn’t My Dog Eat Poop?
Apart from simply being disgusting, there are some good reasons that you should discourage your dog from eating poop. The vast majority of intestinal worms are passed from pet to pet through the accidental or purposeful eating of poop.
Poop also contains lots of bacteria. While many of these are killed by stomach acid, some will survive and may make your dog ill. In addition, if your dog has wounds or sore teeth, these extra bacteria can cause a lot of damage. Don’t forget that many dogs, puppies especially, may lick faces– this is obviously not hygienic and can make some people, especially children, very ill.
How To Stop Coprophagia
Unfortunately, this can be a very hard habit to break. If the behaviour you notice is in a puppy, it’s a good idea to fix it as soon as possible to ensure it doesn’t become a bad habit.
Picking up Stools
One way to break the habit is by regularly removing stools from your dog’s presence. This usually involves toileting your dog on a lead, then walking them away as soon as they have toileted, and returning to remove the stool later.
If you’re out on a walk when your dog toilets, make sure you don’t leave the stool unattended– you should get a family member or friend to help walk the dog away or tie the dog up out of reach while you deal with the stool. If you have more than one dog, this can be difficult to do and it’s unlikely to work without a family member.
Positive Reinforcement of ‘Leave it Alone’
In one study, this was the most effective treatment for coprophagia. Owners trained a ‘Leave it Alone’ cue in the house, rewarding their dogs when they didn’t eat a piece of kibble or dropped food. They then applied the command to stool, giving their dog lots of rewards when they left the stool and walked away. This is a very welfare-friendly teaching method and highly recommended.
Please remember to make sure your dog can do this behaviour with standard kibble every time, both indoors and outdoors, before attempting to apply it to anything more tempting like a treat, and your dog should be able to ‘Leave’ something delicious 100% of the time, both indoors and outdoors, before you try to apply it to stool. Moving up the chain of teaching too quickly is a common reason for this to fail.
Bitterants for Stools
Some people apply aversive bitterants to the stool. The idea is that the dog eats the stool and the taste puts them off doing so again. This method is not generally thought to be effective, as dogs process taste differently to us- hardly a surprise, given all the disgusting things they seem happy to eat!
In addition, this means leaving the stool in place, which is non-hygienic for dogs, humans and other animals that may use the space. Since removing the stool from your dog’s reach is 100% guaranteed to stop them from eating it, it’s probably better to do that.
Most commercial treatments for coprophagia involve food additives. To use these, you apply a non-aversive powder, liquid or kibble to the food, and as it’s digested it turns into a bitterant. Within about 24-48 hours, all your dog’s poop will taste disgusting.
Like applying bitterant to the poop directly, this is not guaranteed to work. But it can be useful for animals that eat their poop so quickly that owners don’t have time to apply another method- for instance, animals that eat poop directly from their own bottom. Again, what is bitter to us may not be so to a dog, but some products may work for some dogs.
These methods only work if they’re fed to the dog with every meal, including large quantities of treats or with chews. This is because they need to coat every stool in order for them to work. Even if they appear to be working, they need to be continued for long enough that the habit is completely broken.
So, is coprophagy normal? Possibly. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to let your dog continue, as it poses health risks to both them and the humans they come into contact with. The most important thing to do is to get to a vet first, to rule out any potential medical issues.
Once you and your vet have ruled out medical causes of coprophagy it’s a good idea to consult a behaviorist to see if you can crack this nasty habit. Typically with positive reinforcement, patience, and the right training techniques, you’ll be able to have a healthy and well-behaved pup within a few weeks.