What is Coprophagia?
Coprophagia is the name given to the habit of dog eating eating feces, commonly referred to as “poop-eating.” Pica is a similar disorder and is defined as the craving for unnatural articles of food. Both coprophagia and pica are quite common in domestic dogs, as well as in other species. Coprophagic dogs can be divided into two groups: those that eat their own stools, and those that eat the feces of other animals. Cat stool seems to be particularly tempting to dogs – especially the kitty-litter coated “tootsie rolls” that come from the indoor litter box. Knowing which category a dog fits into will help determine the most suitable course of corrective action. For example, dogs that primarily eat the feces of other animals are unlikely to be cured of that habit by adding dietary supplements to their own food that are designed to make their own feces unpalatable.
Causes of Copraphagia
There is no established medical reason why some dogs eat their own feces or the feces of other animals. Most coprophagic dogs do not have an identifiable physiological or gastrointestinal basis for their behavior. To the contrary, they tend to be well-nourished, fed a high-quality diet and show no evidence of any nutritional, vitamin or mineral deficiency that would account for their propensity to eat fecal material. They also typically do not have a pancreatic enzyme disorder that might account for their atypical behavior. Accordingly, owners of dogs that eat poop should not blame themselves for causing the problem by feeding a poor diet, or for any other reason. Only a small minority of dogs with this disorder have a medical reason for their compulsion.
Possible Extension of Oral Phase
It seems that some dogs simply develop a taste for poop, often starting when they are puppies. One of the most common causes of coprophagia is thought to be an extension of the oral phase that all puppies go through. When a puppy enters the teething and mouthy phase, they will eat and chew on almost anything, poop included. Most dogs eventually lose interest in eating stool as they mature, but for some reason other dogs continue to have a compulsion to eat poop, even when they grow up.
Eating Stool of Other Animals
Although there are no reported scientific studies examining the role that texture and odor play in corpophagia, there are many anecdotal reports of dogs eating the feces of cats, horses, cows, deer, rabbits, and other animals. Scent and texture certainly may play a role in this behavior; many dogs find the feces of other animals appealing to roll in, as well. Corpophagia is entirely normal in lactating bitches with young puppies, at least until the pups start eating solid food.
Other possible causes of coprophagia are confinement in excessively close quarters and confinement in a crate or kennel for prolonged periods of time. Scolding for housetraining accidents may cause a dog to eat the evidence of his or her accidental indiscretion in order to avoid punishment. As distasteful as it may sound, chewing and digesting ones own stool may be just another way of passing time for a bored or unengaged dog. Some dogs may have a genetic susceptibility to coprophagia, although no particular heritable connection has been established.
Although uncommon, there are some medical conditions that can cause or contribute to coprophagia. Dogs on long-term corticosteroid therapy have been reported to be predisposed to eating feces, as have those with diabetes mellitus, heavy intestinal parasite loads, Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) and/or hyperthyroidism. Dogs may eat their own stool if they are unable to properly digest their food, a condition called malabsorption syndrome. This can be caused by a nutritional deficiency in the amount of fiber, bulk or specific nutrients in the dog’s diet. Eating feces in those cases is thought to be an instinctive way of trying to pass food once more through the digestive tract, in an attempt to squeeze out additional calories.
Some dogs have a psychological reason for compulsive disorders. Coprophagia may be one manifestation of this condition, whether it involves eating one’s own feces or that of other animals.
What Can Be Done to Stop Dogs from Eating Poop?
It is important for owners to know that coprophagia is not an abnormality in the canine world. Many dogs eat their own stool and/or the stool of other animals in the wild. Domesticated dogs have no idea that this behavior is considered to be somewhat revolting by most people. Trying to communicate to a dog that eating poop is inappropriate is almost impossible. Owners of dogs with this habit should have their pets thoroughly evaluated by a veterinarian. Internal parasites and some other medical conditions can cause or contribute to coprophagia. If an underlying medical condition can be identified and corrected, the problem may go away.
If there is no identifiable medical reason for the dog’s behavior, the most effective way to discourage it from eating its own stool or that of other animals is to remove all fecal matter from the dog’s environment as quickly as possible. It is best if the dog can be closely supervised while out in the yard or on walks. Any poop in the yard should be scooped up and securely disposed of well out of the dog’s reach. Keeping dogs away from kitty litter boxes is also important, if they have a propensity to rummage around in and eat the contents of those containers. Keeping the immediate environment free of feces not only removes the source of the problem, but it also may help the dog forget about eating fecal matter and instead focus its attention on other, more acceptable diversions. Providing plenty of exercise, attention, toys, treats, bones, chewies and other diversions can distract a dog from eating stool simply to occupy time and relieve boredom. Some authorities suggest that feeding wet/canned food as part of a dog’s diet may simulate the texture of stool and thereby reduce the dog’s desire to eat fecal matter.
Obviously, many owners are away from home during the day (or at night), whether for work or for any number of other reasons. It is not practical for them to promptly “scoop the poop” every time it is deposited. An owner may or may not have some degree of success in stopping his dog from eating its own stool by using food additives to render its feces distasteful. A number of dietary supplements have been reported anecdotally to either improve a dog’s digestion or make its stool unpalatable. Some of these are crushed pineapple, sauerkraut, canned pumpkin, sulfur, meat tenderizers, B-complex vitamins, glutamic acid and monosodium glutamate. No reproducible scientific studies have yet established the efficacy of these various additives to prevent or correct copraphagia.
There are a number of products on the market that were developed specifically to stop a dog from eating poop. They usually come in a powder form that is designed to be mixed with the dog’s regular food on a daily basis. These products are marketed as being harmless to dogs and as having the effect of making the dog’s stool particularly unappetizing. According to marketing materials, owners should only need to use these products for a relatively short period of time.
A similar strategy used by some owners is to apply an emetic agent to fecal matter just before the dog eats it. Emetic agents are substances that induce vomiting. The rationale for this “treatment” method is that the dog hopefully will develop a negative association between eating poop and vomiting, which in turn will prevent or at least reduce its desire to ingest fecal matter.
No dietary supplements, additives or emetic agents have been proven to be reliably effective in stopping a dog from eating poop. However, anecdotal reports suggest that many of these techniques may help in some situations. Of course, the first step is to get the dog to eat the additive, which in the case of items like sauerkraut and canned pineapple may be difficult, at best. Moreover, dogs with the habit of eating other animals’ stool will not be helped by adding distasteful supplements to their own food.
In extreme cases, dogs may actually stimulate themselves to defecate more frequently than normal (by licking), and then will eat their stool directly as it comes out of their rectum. This is rare and is probably related to some sort of anxiety disorder or condition. Dogs that are so driven to eat their own feces may need to be muzzled to prevent the behavior. Finally, drug therapy may help dogs with a propensity to eat stool. Owners should discuss any dietary additives or other treatment techniques with their veterinarian, to be sure that they are appropriate and safe.
If an owner notices that his dog is eating fecal matter, he should have her checked out by a veterinarian, to make sure that the behavior is not caused by some underlying medical condition. Coprophagic dogs have an increased risk of developing internal parasite infections, by ingesting parasite eggs or larva passed in the fecal material of other animals.