February 05, 2021 5 min read
I have a wonderful little golden retriever mix named Maple (you can see her on our Instagram pretty regularly). She is a sweet and endearing girl, and I love her to death. That doesn't make me any less irritated when she snatches a piece of poop off the ground, and I have to wrestle it out of her mouth before she can swallow (doubly so when we're on a walk and I have to walk a mile home with poop on my hand).
So why on earth does this sweet little creature do this? Why do dogs eat poop?
The technical term for poop eating is coprophagia, and it has been the nemesis of dog owners for as long as people have owned dogs. It's also much more common that most people think - studies have shown that somewhere between 15% and 25% of dogs eat poop with at least some frequency. That's not to say it isn't still gross, but you can rest assured that if your dog is eating feces, she's got plenty of company.
There are a few main reasons that dogs eat poop. First, it's possible that they're seeking nutrition. Some animals actually eat their own poop as a normal way to get all of the nutrients they need, and while this isn't necessary for dogs, they may try it anyway, particularly if their diet is deficient in something.
Other medical issues may also lead dogs to try to consume their feces. If they have worms, other parasites or any sort of malady that prevents them from absorbing the nutrients in their food, that may be the root cause of the nutritional deficiency that is causing the problem. Similarly, some maladies like diabetes and thyroid disease can cause an increase in appetite, leading dogs to find extra food to eat wherever they can.
More commonly, though, coprophagia is a behavioral issue, not a medical or a dietary one. It is sometimes a result of anxiety, linked to harsh training methods and negative punishments during house training. If dogs develop a fearful association with the act of going to the bathroom, they may eat their own waste in order to get rid of the evidence. It may also be a result of general anxiety from other causes - any big life changes, whether it's with the dog's household or their routine, can cause the sort of stress that could lead to this behavior.
Another possibility is attention seeking. Your dog may grab some poop for the same reason she grabs your socks - because when you see it happen, you start making loud noises and chasing after her. Now she's playing a fun game and getting lots of attention, which reinforces that taking poop is a great activity. That's why it's best not to make a huge deal out of your dog eating poop - try to slowly approach and keep your tone calm when taking it away.
Coprophagia is actually a more normal behavior in puppies than it is in adult dogs. It's important to remember that puppies are learning all about the world with all of their senses and body parts, including their mouths. They'll try to eat just about anything you put in front of them, so it's no surprise that when they see poop, they're open to giving it a try.
The main thing to bear in mind with puppies is that while eating their own feces isn't harmful, eating the feces of other animals can be a problem and should be stopped. They can get parasites or develop other health problems by eating foreign fecal matter.
For those of us who have had to content with our dogs' poop eating habits for as long as we've had them, it feels like an inconvenience. For owners whose dogs suddenly start to eat poop out of nowhere, though, it can be scary.
The reasons this can happen are related to the general reasons for poop eating - anxiety, medical issues and nutritional deficits. Any time your dog's behavior changes, you should consider whether there have been any changes in his environment that might be related. Did you move? Just have a baby? Get another dog? If you got your dog during the pandemic, did you suddenly return to work full time? Just like humans, dogs can get stressed out when big things happen unexpectedly.
If everything is normal at home, you may be dealing with a medical issue like a parasite. We definitely recommend taking your dog to the vet if he suddenly develops coprophagia.
Dogs eat cat poop (and horse poop, and just about any other kind of poop) for the same reasons they eat their own poop. That said, it's important to keep your dog away from the poop of other species. While a dog eating its own poop is unlikely to suffer health issues as a result, poop from other species can contain problematic parasites, so make sure not to let your dog have any poop snacks while you're out for a walk.
There are a few ways to stop your dog from eating poop, though they depend on the cause. If the poop eating stems from a parasite or medical condition, then you'll need to talk to your vet and follow her advice on what to do. Similarly, if you're dealing with a dietary issue, you should work with your vet to improve your dog's nutrition, so he doesn't have to seek nutrients outside of his food.
For other coprophagia, you have a few tools at your disposal. The most effective way to stop your dog from eating poop is not to allow him the chance. If he goes to the bathroom in your backyard, pick it up immediately. If there is a chance that nocturnal animals like possums and racoons are in your backyard at night, they may leave behind feces, so check the yard for poop in the morning before you let your dog out.
Similarly, keep an eye out when you're on walks. If you know your dog will lunge for poop, then you need to see it before he does and keep him away from it. You should pair this with training - teach your dog the command "leave it" and use that when your dog shows interest in feces. Over time, as he stops eating poop, he will lose the association between it and eating, and that may help to curb or eliminate the behavior even when he has the opportunity.
You can also try to eliminate your dog's desire to eat poop. There are supplements that you can give your dog to help with this, but we won't link to them here, as you should ask your vet about them before giving them to your pup. Some people also suggest that adding a little bit of pineapple to your dog's food can help to make the feces unappetizing, though there are no major studies to validate this.
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