› Coprophagia

Is Your Dog Eating Feces?

Coprophagia, when a dog eats feces

Is your dog eating feces?  His own or others? 

Well, it might sound strange, but it is more common than you think, and especially in small breed dogs like the Shih Tzu.

This revolting habit may be more common than you expect because normal people have better things to do than to discuss such matters and let's face it, well would you want to talk about it over a family dinner or romantic night out?   

Even though it seems nasty or disgusting to humans, the habit of dogs eating their own stool has a very natural beginning and seems perfectly reasonable and natural to the dog.

Coprophagia is the technical term for this nasty habit of eating feces and may be caused by a number of different things:

  • A Learned behavior
  • A nutritional deficit
  • An illness

Causes of a Dog Eating Feces:  Learned Behavior

Influence of the Mother Dog

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Many puppies pick up the habit from their mother at a very young age.  When puppies are first born, they cannot defecate or urinate on their own.  Mother dogs must stimulate their newborns to defecate and will then clean their nursing puppies and eat the feces.

This canine behavior goes back to when dogs were wolves.  It is still seen routinely in wild wolves and dogs.  With pups in the den, the mother would remove the feces of her young by eating it to keep the area clean, but also at the same time; she would do this to avoid any smell that might be picked up by a predator.

Since dogs are pack animals, other adult dogs in the “canine” family will sometimes help in rearing the young and help keep the den clean through the same process.  So through evolution, dogs eating feces is quite customary from a dog’s point of view.

As puppies mature and begin eating food, the mama dog often relaxes and relegates her former cleaning chores to the breeder, but not always.

We don’t know whether this repeated behavior becomes hard-wired into her brain or the result of instinctual behavior.  Her insistence on cleaning seems to persist and her offspring observe the habit and may continue.  In my experience, those puppies who end up with the habit have mothers who were unusually fastidious.

Many puppies outgrow this behavior by six months of age with mild discouragement from their owners.  A few dogs continue to ingest their own or other dogs’ feces into adulthood. Some of these dogs are highly motivated and the behavior seems to become compulsive.

From my own experience with a "herd" of Shih Tzu dogs, my girls are much more likely to eat feces, theirs and others than the boys.  Could that mean that their is some maternal instinct that causes dogs to insist this habit is appealing?

There are other reasons for dogs eating feces.

Is Your Dog Eating Feces?:  Check Your Punishment Methods

Sometimes, dogs are severely punished for leaving “surprises” in the house. 

These dogs may develop a mental connection that they will be punished if their humans find them in the same room with feces. 

Dogs react by eating the feces so it will not be there to make the human angry. 

This is one of many reasons not to use punishment when house training a dog.

Is Your Dog Eating Feces?  Maybe she is bored!

Boredom could be another possibility.  Bored dogs do all sorts of unacceptable things, including eat feces.  Interesting toys that have treats inside them for the dog to get out can help with lots of boredom-based problems.

When is Your Dog Eating feces?  Is she alone?

Dogs may do just about any wild thing when suffering from separation anxiety.  If the dog eats the feces when the owner is away, this too could be a possible cause.  Dogs with separation anxiety need to work through this problem before you can tackle the poop eating. 

Causes of a Dog Eating Feces:  Nutritional Deficits

It is possible that dogs get some nutritive value from such feces.  It is hypothesized that eating garbage and human feces was one function of dogs during their early domestication, some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.  They served as our first waste management workers, helping to keep the areas around human settlements clean.

A dog that is chronically hungry, meaning that they are not getting enough to eat or going too long between meals may eat feces.  Even a dog that has plenty to eat may have a dietary deficiency because the quality of the food is poor.  Your veterinarian can help you evaluate the dog's weight and can suggest a feeding schedule and amount.  Sometimes it takes experimentation to see what works best for a particular dog.

Causes of A Dog Eating Feces:  Physical Illness

A dog with a physical problem such as a condition that prevents the proper digestion of nutrients in the food.  Other problems can cause excessive hunger, pain, or other sensations may resort to eating feces.  If your adult dog that has not previously had this habit suddenly develops it, take the dog to your veterinarian for a check-up. Although very rare, it is worth the trip to the vet.

It may not be the nutrients that the dog is lack but rather the enzymes that digest the food.  This popular theory states that dogs who eat their feces are actually trying to consume the digestive enzymes in the poop.  To support this, there has been some success from simply adding a digestive enzyme supplement to the coprophagic dog's diet, and/or the diet of other dogs in the household.

A dog with intestinal parasites or worms that produce feces that may contain blood or other changes may also eat poop.  A dog may eat the feces of another dog who is shedding something like this in the stools.  A fresh fecal specimen to your veterinarian for evaluation can detect some of these problems.

Treatment for a Dog Eating Feces

Good Sanitation For Your Dog Eating Feces

The number-one thing you can do to help overcome feces eating is to keep your dog's area clean of feces.  This means house training, and supervising the dog whenever the dog is in the designated relief area.  It is not healthy for dogs to eat feces but in most situations, it will not harm them.  However, it is definitely unpleasant for their human owners so preventing the dog from carrying out the habit is the first step towards getting the habit to fade.

It is not healthy for humans or dogs to have the feces lying around.  Until a dog is fully house trained and the feces-eating habit has died out, picking up after each bowel movement is an important tactic.  After the dog's habits are steady, you may be able to pick up just once a day if you have a private place for the dog to use.

Is Your Dog Eating Feces:  Could be the Dog Food

Sometimes, changing the dog’s diet will help reduce the problem.  There does not seem to be any one food that is right for all dogs, and your dog may need something different than you are currently feeding.  Be sure to make any changes of diet gradual, mixing the new food in with the old over a period of several days or weeks, to give the dog's intestines time to adjust and avoid diarrhea from the change.

Add something to your dog’s diet

Some people swear by food additives to stop a dog from eating feces.  Sometimes the theory is that the additive provides a nutrient the dog is seeking when eating feces and thus the dog will no longer crave feces.  Other times the theory is that, the additive makes the feces taste bad and the dog will not want it. 

One example that often works is pineapple.  You can add a bite of pineapple to the dog’s food or feed it directly as a treat.  Another idea is to feed your dog broccoli, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts.  The idea behind these remedies is that the fruit or vegetable makes the poop so undesirable that the dog will not touch it.  Some of these additives seem to work in some dogs, but not all.

Adding enzymes to the dog’s food may also help.  ProZyme, for example, is one popular and readily available brand.  A similar home remedy is to add meat tenderizer to the dog's meals to stop coprophagia.  Meat tenderizers contain an enzyme called papain that helps to more fully digest the meal, so this tends to support the notion that it is enzymes that may be lacking, not nutrient themselves.

Before you try adding any of these things to your dog's food, consult your veterinarian about whether the particular additive is safe for your particular dog.  Do not expect any additive to be a miracle cure.  These things tend to work for the occasional dog, but chances are good that your dog will not be the one.

Commercial Products to Try

This is a product my veterinarian always recommends and I have used it with some success.  It is easy to use, just pour a little packet of powder over your dog's food. 

It works by giving the stool a bad taste so dog's will avoid eating it.

ForBid Stop Stool Eating (12/pkg)

Prozyme is an interesting product.

It aids in digestive health by promoting the digestion of fats, protein fiber, and carbohydrates to maximize the nutrition from food.

It also helps pets who have problems with poor nutrient absorption, excessive gas, dull hair coat, lack of energy skin problems, weight issues, and stool eating.

Prozyme Original All-Natural Enzyme Supplement for Dogs and Cats, 454gm

It is definitely worth checking out.

Is Your Dog Eating Feces:  Have You Tried  to Treat the Stool?

Use taste deterrents on feces. 

Some people find that finely ground black pepper, crushed hot pepper, Tabasco® sauce, and Bitter Apple® works.  However, you must apply the deterrent consistently to all feces that your dog can access for a significant period so that he comes to expect that all feces taste horrible. 

You may need to use the deterrent weeks or even months, depending on the length of time the coprophagia has been going on.  The real problem I have with this one is the effort it takes.  If you are going to “treat the feces” why not just pick it up in the first place and dispose of it?

Grannick's Bitter Apple for Dogs Spray Bottle, 16 Ounces

While I haven't had much success using Bitter Apple on my dogs' stools, it works great as a deterrent for chewing. 

It is safe to spray on furniture, woodwork, doors or anything a dog may wish to munch on.

You can also spray it on the dog's skin to discourage them from biting or licking their skin.

Dog Behavioral Training for Eating Feces

Take your dog out to potty on leash.  As soon as the poop hits the ground and the dog shows interest in it, call the dog to you.  Use the leash not to jerk the dog, but simply to keep the dog from being able to reach the feces.  Keep the treats out of sight.

The instant the dog reaches you, praise the dog and give it a treat.  Then back away from the dog, praise and give another treat for coming to you.  At this point, you have taken the dog's mind off the feces.

Go on indoors with the dog and come back out without the dog to clean up.  Once you have good control and a good rapport with the dog, you can go ahead and clean up while the dog is still outside.  As you set this habit more strongly through repetition, you will be able to do this with the dog on a long line, coming to you at the back door for a treat.  Eventually you'll be able to do it without a leash on the dog.  Keep up the same energy and level of reward, if you want the dog to keep responding!

Teach the command, “Leave It.”

Add a Stool Softener

It sounds weird, but dogs prefer perfectly formed stools to munch on and will leave any feces that seem soft or runny.  They will back away from any diarrhea that they see.  One method that has be suggested is to add a mild stool softener to your dog's daily routine so that her stools are less appetizing.  You be the judge on this one:  Clean up half eaten feces or clean up diarrhea?  Neither sounds appealing to me!

A Few Last Words about your Dog Eating Feces

In summary, there may not be one single cause of coprophagia so the one cure fits all will not work.  Sometimes it takes some detective work to determine the cause, but once the cause is found, it is easier to discover a cure. 

Certainly, there are things that you should never do such as rubbing your dog’s nose in the feces to punish him.  This will not work and will likely cause your dog to be afraid of you and of leaving poop in a room.  Secondly, you should not punish your dog for eating poop.  Serious problems such as fear or aggression can often be traced back to physical punishments.

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