One of the many joys of dog ownership is catching your furry friend chomping down on a freshly deposited fecal matter. The best part comes when mere seconds later, they want to give you ALL the kisses…right on the mouth. This article will explore the reasons why some dogs eat feces, and what you can do to prevent or discourage the behaviour. Many dogs eat feces. The act of feces-eating is referred to as coprophagia. Believe it or not, it is actually an evolutionary behaviour whereby nursing female dogs would keep the den clean. As well, it was thought to help develop gut flora in developing puppies. But there can be many abnormal reasons why dogs eat their feces or the feces of others. Some of these reasons may include:
- Lack of stimulation/entertainment (boredom)
- Attention-seeking behaviour
- Learned behaviour from other dogs in the home
- Environmental stress and anxiety
- And occasionally, they can just really like the taste and/or smell
Perhaps not surprisingly, it has been found that puppies purchased from pet stores are more likely to eat feces due to usually a combination of the above-listed reasons. In contrast, puppies from good breeders are often less likely to exhibit this behaviour, due to typically being raised underfoot with proper socialization and enrichment. Fortunately, for welfare purposes, most pet stores are now forbidden to sell puppies or keep them in-store.
Many pet owners also become concerned that their pet may not be receiving adequate nutrition, or that they are missing something in the diet which is causing the resultant behaviour. Although experimentally linked in the past, to thiamine deficiency (vitamin B), most commercial diets are well balanced to meet nutritional requirements. This makes dietary deficiency a cause of lower likelihood.
Consequences of eating feces can often include gastrointestinal upset, transmission of infectious disease, gastrointestinal parasite transmission, medication toxicity – and of course, the utter disgust of us owners! This highlights the importance of evaluation of the behaviour and attempting to discourage or prevent it from occurring in the first place.
When the pet presents these symptoms at a veterinary clinic, general information is typically obtained regarding the pet’s diet and environment. We also look at the behaviour of the pet and relative energy level and discuss if such energy requirements are being met. This is not to assume that the pet owner is doing something incorrectly, but instead to get a clinical picture that is as complete as possible when trying to determine the cause of the behaviour. As mentioned previously, some dogs don’t need a reason to chow down on feces.
If you’re anything like me, seeing your dog in the middle of the act can result in you running and hollering in disgust in an attempt to immediately stop the behaviour. This can make the dog ingest the stool faster and may predispose them to hide the behaviour in the future (when you’re trying to eliminate it). It can also, unfortunately, promote a fear response, which we always try to avoid.
Appropriate methods of discouraging the behaviour can include picking up immediately after your dog defecates and avoiding areas where stool may be present. As well, supervising your pet during outdoor activities and providing enrichment (toys, playtime) can also be helpful in deterring the behaviour. Some over the counter products are available, which are often added to the diet to make the stools taste bitter or foul to the dog. However, I have found in my experience, that this can be hit or miss, depending on the dog.
In all, coprophagia is a very common behaviour in dogs. Treatments are often aimed at behavioural modification and training, combined with avoidance and removing the ability of the dog to have contact with feces. Although there can be several consequences to eating feces, typically if regular deworming is performed, risks of stool ingestion are often low, and ramifications can be transient.
So, if and when your dog chooses to have an afternoon snack in the yard or inside your home, just remember, evolutionarily, he or she is only trying to help with the cleanup – no matter how mortified it makes us!
Written by Dr. Samm Wambolt, DVM