by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.
Many dogs have the unpleasant habit of eating their feces. Disgusting to humans perhaps, but the eating of feces is common in dogs, many of whom do seem to enjoy it. Coprophagy refers to the eating of feces. In the animal kingdom, coprophagy can serve a purpose. For one example, some species eat the feces of their young so that predators cannot use the scent to locate a den or nest. This type of behavior in domestic dogs may have its roots in their wild ancestry but in the home environment, it is an unpleasant, bad habit.
Causes: The sudden onset of this behavior in an adult dog can have many causes. Hunger, boredom, need for attention and health issues like allergies or malabsorption problems are a few that are frequently cited. Sometimes dogs are said to learn this from other dogs in the family who engage in coprophagy. In most cases, it appears that the dogs just like the taste! With more than one possible cause, there are several different ways to try to stop the behavior and alleviate the problems that can be associated with coprophagy.
Problems: Although generally not harmful to the dogs, coprophagy can cause problems. Dogs not only eat their own feces, but are also attracted to the stools of other animals. People who have both dogs and cats, know that dogs view the litter box as a cookie jar. Manure morsels are a particularly appealing to dogs who live around horses. It is possible for dogs to pick up internal parasites from their own or the stools of other animals. They may contract illnesses associated with bacteria in decaying feces. The ingestion of large quantities of some moisture absorbing cat litters may cause health problems such as bloat. Dogs often vomit after ingesting feces, leaving a big, stinky stain on a carpet. Perhaps nothing is worse than the bad breath that comes from chowing down on a pile of poop. Beware of that big brown smile!
What to do: Identify the cause and take corrective measures. Start by looking for anything different in your dog’s diet, health or environment.
Have you put your dog on a diet lately? Hunger is one reason a dog may turn to eating feces. If your dog needs to loose weight, check with your vet about a diet regime, which will satisfy the dog’s hunger so it does not seek supplemental satisfaction through the eating of feces. Is your dog ill or taking medication regularly? Some illnesses and medicines have the side effect of increasing appetite. Check with you veterinarian to see if illness or medication could be a contributing factor. Have you changed your dogs’ brand of food recently? On one occasion, I changed to a different brand of dog food when the store was out of my usual food. The dogs devoured the brand that I used as a replacement. They loved it. Within one day, they all started eating their feces. This brand seemed to be so tasty to the dogs that they were willing to ingest it twice. When I changed back to my regular brand, the behavior stopped. Is your dog’s diet nutritionally complete? There is some speculation that malnutrition and the lack of certain enzymes in the dog’s diet can lead to coprophagy but the evidence for this is inconclusive.
Is your dog bored? I have known cases where the dog’s home life changed and the dog began eating its feces. The owner, who had previously worked at home, took a job outside the home. The dog reacted to being alone in many ways, one of which was eating his feces. Often when a new baby or pet comes into the family, a dog may act out his need for attention by ingesting his feces.
Over the years, I have noticed that I get this question more often in the late fall or winter. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Coprophagy seems to happen less in warm weather when Mother Nature starts the serious decomposition of the feces immediately, and it appears to be less palatable to dogs. But as the nights turn chilly and the temperatures dip below freezing, any fecal matter in the yard freezes. To our canine gourmands, the frozen feces, or “poopsicles,” seem to be a seasonal delight. I have known even finicky eaters to imbibe. I can only surmise that freezing renders the feces more palatable by masking unpleasant tastes and odors, and highlighting the flavor of the digested food – more evidence that dogs eat feces because it tastes good to them.
Take corrective measures: If your adult dog suddenly starts eating his stools, start with a vet check and a diet review. That way you can eliminate health problems or poor diet as causes of the coprophagy.
If your dog is bored or seeking attention, you need to find a way to spend more time with her. Try giving him more walks and play time with you. Add more fun toys to his environment like a Kong filled with peanut butter to keep him busy at home.
Since most dogs probably ingest their own and as well as the feces of other animals because it tastes good to them, you can try a food additive or stool spray to make the stool taste downright nasty. The list of additives and sprays that people have tried is long: anise seed, bitter apple, meat tenderizer, pepper, pineapple, Tabasco sauce, papaya enzyme, pumpkin, antiseptic mouthwash and more. Given that every dog is different in size and medical history, ask your vet which of these additives would be safe for your dog. You want to dissuade your dog not harm him. There are commercially available additives available like Dis-taste, Deter or For-bid. These are easy to use. Follow the directions on the package and dose according to body weight. Remember, if you have more than one dog, you will have to give it to all of the dogs, even they do not all eat feces.
It is not easy to break a dog from the habit of eating feces, since it is obviously something dogs enjoy. Each of these methods to deter dogs may not work with every dog. It takes time and vigilance and even then may not work. The only one sure way to keep your dog from eating his feces is the make sure you keep your yard clean. If it isn’t there, he can’t eat it. While you are working on correcting the habit, remember to give your dog plenty of praise and love. But until you get it under control, you might want to hold off on the kisses!
Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator. She shares her home in Cerrillos with her husband, dogs and horses.