The pup goes to the garden… He does his business nicely… You feel so proud of having such a brilliant clever dog. You victoriously pull out a poop bag like a flag celebrating your success in house training… Then, to your shock and horror, the pup grabs his own poop and swallows it, often with a grin on his little face. And you feel like dying inside…
Sounds familiar? Too embarrassing to admit?
The thing you need to know about canine coprophagy, the proper scientific term that describes the act of dogs eating their own faeces, is that it is a lot more common than you think. If we talk numbers, between 16 to 49% (according to 2008 & 2018 studies) of dogs would eat their own poop. Quite a big number, isn’t it?
But do the numbers make it feel better, normal or acceptable? Or be a sign of concern and call for action?
After talking to many pup parents all over the world, I felt that we really need to address this subject here for both your sanity and the health of the dogs. Especially because the information available to us from both the internet and literature can not only be confusing, but often conflicting.
Is coprophagia a normal behaviour?
No, it’s not. With an exception for bitches who care for their new born pups, dogs are not meant to eat their own excrements. The mum does it because the dogs are very clean animals and would not mess inside their nest. The puppies are not able to do much about it during their first month of life, so their mum comes to the rescue. However, as studies show, come day 32 and the puppies will try to get away from their immediate sleeping den to avoid soiling it.
Whenever you hear people (even some experts!) say that it is absolutely normal for dogs of all ages to eat their own faeces, they often base their statement on wolves behaviour, which is very different from the canine. The normal behaviour for dogs is to be interested in faeces of other species both for eating purposes or rolling in them…
What factors can lead to the development of this habit?
Behavioural environment: the dogs that share their home with other dogs seem to show the tendency of poop eating more often than the single-household pooches. The younger dogs (not necessarily puppies!) can learn this habit by watching older dogs in the same household (note that puppies do not learn poop eating from their mum simply because she looked after them as newborns). Kennelled dogs who may be anxious and dogs that were either born or spent their lives in puppy farms can also develop this habit.
Eating habits: greedy eaters (including the ones who beg for table scraps and tend to steal food off the table) are more likely to have tendency for coprophagy.
Gender: female dogs seem to be more into this habit than males. Additionally, all neutered dogs (both males and females) were more likely to be attracted to their own poop than intact dogs (42% of neutered males vs 6% of intact males and 41% of neutered females vs 7% of intact females)
Medical reasons: even though this does not get mentioned a lot, as a nutritionist I strongly suggest a thorough vet check for all dogs who develop a taste for their own faeces. First of all, the most obvious reasons would be the gut issues including bacterial imbalance, enzyme deficiencies, parasites and digestive problems. Dogs that have been on prescribed medication, antibiotics, suffer from pancreatitis, thyroid problems and diabetes, can turn to poop eating to either replenish gut bacteria or rebalance enzyme levels, address nutritional imbalances caused by medication or illness, or in response to appetite changes.
Nutrition: poor quality diet can be one of the biggest reasons because the dog will simply seek ways to get the missing nutrients elsewhere. It does not necessarily mean that all dogs fed kibble will be malnourished and dogs fed home-made diet will get everything they need. This is all about complete and balanced recipe. From a nutritionist’s point of view I can assure you that a complete commercial dog diet is much more reliable than anything you’d make yourself.
What you can do…
Ask your vet for a thorough examination and, if possible, tests.
Be very particular about worming schedule and medicine for your dog to prevent any issues and even spread of some bacteria and parasites from the dog to the family. Stool test every 6 months would be an advantage.
Look into your dogs diet including main diet, all treats, table scraps, anything he tends to scavenge on walks, as well as his feeding schedule. Many scavengers would benefit from having 2-3 meals per day, not one.
Clean after the dog as soon as he is done. If you are worried that he may reach down for the fresh poop straight away, toss a treat in an opposite direction to encourage him to run away, giving you a chance to scoop everything up.
Teach a reliable “Leave It”.
Walk your dog on a lead for a few weeks to put you in control over the situation until you get to the bottom of it.
Ensure that your dog get enough mental stimulation and exercise through walks, puzzle games and training, and is given an opportunity to relax and rest.
What you should not do…
Experiment with various diet supplements design to put your dog off eating his poop. I am not a fan of using unproven methods that end up in dog’s body and may cause a variety of issues.
Use digestive enzymes without prior vet check and consulting your veterinarian about the choice. Digestive supplements are often recommended by holistic practitioners, however, so far the studies have shown no positive effects of such supplements on dog’s ability to digest nutritients.
Use pineapple remedy. If you choose to try it, be cautious. Adding fresh pineapple to dog’s diet is a trick many dog owners rely on. However, it has not been scientifically proven, and it can affect your dog’s digestive system due to high levels of enzyme called bromelain. On the other hand, pineapple does contain vitamins and minerals that the dog may be seeking when eating poop, so the best way is to a) have a vet check and b) try feeding your dog a very small, about a cube, amount of fresh pineapple flesh to begin with and see if it makes any difference.
Add chilli pepper to your dog’s diet, inject chilli extra into dog poop, or use any diet solutions with added capsaicin extract, an active substance found in chilli peppers.
Use physical punishment, yelling, electric collars, jars with stones, or training disks if you catch your dog in the act. Negative punishment never works! It may stop your dog from eating the poop out of fear – but it can also encourage him to seek every opportunity to indulge in this habit when and if you are not there to punish him. If a dog suffers from coprophagia due to anxiety issues, any form of negative punishment will add to this anxiety until the dog can’t take it anymore – and find some way to express it.
Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay