Dog Coprophagia (eating feces)
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The act of Coprophagia
(sometimes called coprophagy, or eating-feces) is a pretty disgusting
habit that only some dogs indulge in fortunately. It appears to be
"one of those things" as far as dogs go: a behavior that certainly defies
logic, scientific study, and mystifies dog trainers and veterinarians
around the world.
Many dogs will eat the feces of other animals (particularly other dogs,
cats, sheep, and horses) with gusto whenever the opportunity presents
itself. It’s a very common behavior in dogs, but not particularly well
The simple truth is that nobody really knows why some dogs will make a
beeline for a pile of poop that's lying on the grass. It's natural for
dogs to want to sniff the feces - almost all dogs will do this, since the
depositor's anal glands have left a kind of Post-It note there for other
dogs to "read" - and it's just as natural (seemingly) for some dogs to
want to consume these little signposts. It's just that we don't really
know why they do it.
There are several popular theories about the causes of this strange habit:
- A dog that eats poop is doing so in order to supplement his own,
nutritionally-deficient diet. He is not getting enough vitamins from the
food he's given in his own home, so he chooses to eat the feces of other
animals (usually dogs and cats) in the hope that there may be some
residual nutrition available for him to sponge up the second time around.
This is a faintly plausible theory, apart from the fact that studies have
been conducted on dogs suffering from malnutrition and well-nourished dogs
with a clean bill of health: and the incidence of cophrophagia among both
groups was virtually identical.
- The behavior may be derived from the carnivorous/scavenging heritage of
our dogs. When carnivores make a kill, they typically consume the entire
carcass of the animal – everything from the actual flesh to sinews and
tendons to “offal”, which includes the stomach, digestive tract, and its
contents (feces). It’s been suggested by some that coprophagia is a simple
and natural extension of this instinctive behavior.
- It may be related to boredom or stress. The particulars of this theory
are hazy, but essentially, bored or stressed dogs – such as those that
spend too much time on their own, those that lead under-stimulated,
under-exercised lives, and those that are excluded from family life and
adequate human attention and affection – often succumb to strange and
compulsive habits, like pulling out their own fur, spinning in circles for
hours on end, and (theoretically, at least) feces eating. In other words,
a dog will eat feces simply because there’s nothing else for him to do.
- Internal parasites, such as worms, may be leaching nutrients and
calories from the dog’s stomach and digestive tract. Typically, a dog with
worms will have a voracious appetite (even more so than usual!) and will
consume all the food that he has access to. In more advanced cases, an
infested dog will turn to technically-edible substances (such as feces),
which he would not normally consider appetizing, to fill the gap.
- Improperly housetrained dogs sometimes eat their own feces in an attempt
to conceal the “crime” from their owners and thus avoid detection. This is
especially true of dogs whose owners tend to punish them for housetraining
mistakes, whether out of impatience/frustration or because they believe
that the dog is somehow doing it to “spite” them. A dog that’s eliminating
inappropriately indoors either has not been housetrained correctly, in
which case the accidents are not his fault; or the reason is medical in
nature. To rule the latter out, the dog should be taken for a check-up at
the vet (particularly if the indoor defecation has started suddenly and
- Nursing female dogs eat the feces of their puppies as a means of keeping
the den area clean, and of hiding the existence of her pups from potential
predators. It’s thought by some that one of the reasons that coprophagia
is so commonplace in puppies, especially, is because they’re emulating the
behavior of their mother.
Clearly, theories abound on the subject. Unfortunately, most of them lack
merit: the simple truth is that, although we can guess as much as we like
as to the reasons that our dogs willingly and enthusiastically ingest
feces pretty much whenever the opportunity presents itself, nobody knows
with any degree of certainty as to why they do it.
Although it’s nearly impossible to “cure” a dog with a taste for feces of
this socially unacceptable habit, here is a short list of tips for coping
with the behavior and minimizing it as much as possible:
- Clean up the feces in your own backyard as soon as the dog toilets. If
he doesn’t have access to it, he can’t eat it – and it’ll save you from
dealing with the flies, the odor, and the eventuality of someone treading
- Teach your dog the “leave it” command for those times when you want to
be able to walk him off-lead. Reliable obedience in the “leave it” makes
off-lead walks a real pleasure (and it’s a lot safer for your dog, too –
the usefulness of “leave it” applies to things like herbicide, snail bait,
and broken glass as well as feces!).
- You can try booby-trapping the feces in the backyard with things like
Tabasco sauce and lemon juice, but this seems like a great deal of (rather
disgusting) trouble to go to when you could just pick the feces up. In
addition to the natural deterrent of having to repeatedly handle feces,
reports of success from this technique are pretty erratic – in most cases,
it seems that a dog bent on coprophagy isn’t going to be put off by a
brief burning sensation in his mouth.
- There are substances you can buy from pet stores and vet clinics which,
when put into the dog’s food (or the food of the household pet whose feces
he’s eating) makes the feces smell and taste very unappealing to dogs. One
such product is called “For-Bid”.
- You can experiment with adding natural deterrents – such as a few
tablespoonfuls of canned pumpkin or pineapple, or fresh grated zucchini –
to your dog’s meals. Again, anecdotal evidence suggests that most dogs
will readily eat these substances, but that their presence in feces makes
For more information on bewildering canine behaviors – what they are, how
to recognize them, why they happen, and what to do about them – check out
Written by an experienced dog-trainer, it’s packed with useful and
valuable information on training your dog and coping with problematic
behaviors. No responsible dog-owner should be without a copy!
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