Why Do Dogs (and Cats) Eat Poop?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Coprophagia is a disgusting but extremely common behavior in pets, especially dogs
  • Believe it or not, there is actually one stage in a female dog’s or cat’s life when coprophagia is expected
  • An underlying medical problem or dietary deficiency can cause a dog to develop coprophagia
  • Coprophagia can also stem from behavioral and environmental issues, such as boredom, curiosity and imitating other neighborhood pets
  • When the activity is long-standing and behavioral in nature, it can be difficult to extinguish
  • There are several steps you can take to curb your pet’s poop-eating behavior

By Dr. Becker

In this video, Dr. Karen Becker discusses a really disgusting but very common problem for many dog owners — coprophagia, also known as the habit of eating poop.

Today I'm going to discuss a totally disgusting topic, coprophagia.

Coprophagia is a pleasant term for stool eating.

Although the idea of this activity is totally gross, there is actually one stage in a pet's life when coprophagia is expected.

When mother dogs and cats have litters, they deliberately consume the feces of their puppies or kittens to hide their scent while the litter is vulnerable and sheltered in the den.

Beyond that, stool eating — although a very common complaint among pet and especially dog owners — is just plain gross.

The 3 Main Reasons Why Dogs Eat Their Poop

Coprophagia is mainly rooted in digestive issues, with the following three reasons needing the most pressing attention:

Enzyme Deficiency

A healthy pancreas is vital to your pet's overall well-being because it produces enzymes that help them digest the nutrients from their food. When your pet lacks these enzymes, most of the nutrients will not be properly absorbed and will be simply eliminated through their poop.

Dogs have several digestive enzymes that they can produce on their own, but they need to get the rest from their diet. Over time, enzyme deficiency can cause your pets to starve, lose weight and eventually resort to eating their stools because they're trying to obtain those much-needed nutrients.

In other cases, dogs may eat the stool from healthier animals. Rabbit poop is one of the richest sources not only of digestive enzymes, but also B vitamins. Many dogs, if they stumble upon rabbit droppings, will scarf them right up.

Dogs with a deficiency will "recycle" by eating enzyme-rich poop. Gross, I know, but true.

Parasites

According to Dr. Benjamin Hart from the University of California, Davis, intestinal parasites can play a role in coprophagia.

He explains that it may be an ancestral trait to help protect young pack members from ingesting parasites in their den, so to prevent the spread of disease among the young, the older members consume the feces instead.

I recommend dogs have their stools checked by the vet's office every six months to make sure they're parasite-free. Healthy dogs can acquire intestinal parasites from eating feces, so a twice-yearly stool analysis is a great idea for all dogs.

Poor Diet

Dogs who are fed entirely processed, dry-food diets and eat no living foods at all will intentionally seek out other sources of digestive enzymes to make up for their own lifelong enzyme deficiency.

Cats with enzyme deficiencies, malabsorption, or who are fed poor-quality diets can provide litter box temptations for dogs in the family.

Many cheap dry foods contain ingredients that are not bioavailable, so ingredients are passed out in the stool undigested, providing scavenging dogs with the opportunity to "recycle."

Feeding your pet a diet containing human-grade protein, probiotics and supplemental digestive enzymes can sometimes curb the urge to find gross sources of free enzymes around the yard or in the litter box.

In other cases, coprophagia can be caused by environmental and nurturing issues, such as:

Cleanliness: A female dog may eat feces as a way to keep her surroundings clean for her puppies.

Age: Puppies and kittens are very curious about their surroundings and it may get the better of them.

Boredom: A bored pet may eat their poop simply because they have nothing to do.

Avoiding punishment: If you reprimanded your dog from defecating in certain places before, they may resort to coprophagia to avoid being scolded again.

Imitation: Your dog may emulate the mannerisms of other dogs in your neighborhood, including coprophagia.

Coprophagia Can Also Be a Behavioral Problem

Another cause for coprophagia in dogs is behavioral.

Some dogs, especially those in kennel situations, may eat feces because they are anxious and stressed.

Research also suggests dogs who are punished by their owners for inappropriate elimination develop the idea that pooping itself is bad. So they try to eliminate the evidence by consuming their feces.

Another theory that seems to hold some weight is that coprophagia is a trait noted in all canines — wolves, coyotes and domesticated dogs — and arises when food is in short supply.

Sadly, I see this most often in puppy mill dogs. Puppies who go hungry, are weaned too young, have to fight for a place at a communal food dish, or are forced to sit for weeks in a tiny crate with nothing to do, are at high risk of developing habitual stool-eating behavior that becomes impossible to extinguish.

Coprophagic behavior can also be a learned behavior. Older dogs with the repulsive habit can teach it to younger dogs in the household.

Like a dysfunctional game of "monkey see, monkey do," one dog can teach the rest of the pack that this is what you do while wandering around the backyard.

When Poop Eating Is Compulsive

Some scientists believe dogs eat poop simply because it tastes good to them.

I disagree with this.

Some dogs have weirdly strange "standards" about the poop they eat. It's strange to think any standard is applied to poop as a food group, but for example, some dogs eat only frozen poop (we affectionately refer to these as poopsicles at my practice).

Others consume only the poop of a specific animal. Still others only eat poop at certain times of the year.

So some dogs who stumble upon feces occasionally decide to sample it, while others become completely obsessed with eating certain specific poop.

Tips for Curbing Your Dog's Poop-Eating Habit

What we do know for sure is dogs don't eat poop because they have a poop deficiency!

Fortunately, there are some common sense ways to reduce your dog's coprophagia habit.

First on the agenda is to pick up your dog's poop immediately, as soon after he eliminates as possible. Don't give him the opportunity to stumble across old feces in his potty spot.

Next, if you have cats, get a self-cleaning litter box or place the box in a location in your home where you dog can't get to it.

I also recommend you improve your pet's diet as much as possible, and add digestive enzymes and probiotics at meal time.

Offer toys to your dog that challenge his brain and ease boredom.

Sufficient exercise is also crucial in keeping your dog's body and mind stimulated. Bored dogs tend to develop far stranger, disturbing habits and behaviors than dogs that get plenty of exercise and mental stimulation.

Lastly, consider trying one (or more than one) of the many over-the-counter coprophagia deterrent products. These are powders you either sprinkle on the stool itself or feed with meals to create an unpalatable stool. But keep in mind these powders contain MSG, including most of the remedies you can buy online.

Also, you may have heard you can add a meat tenderizer to your dog's food or stool to discourage poop eating, but most meat tenderizing products also contain MSG.

I recommend you look for a non-toxic deterrent than doesn't contain MSG.

If your pet's coprophagic behavior seems to be going from bad to worse, make sure to talk to your vet about your concerns. You definitely want to rule out any underlying medical reason for this very gross, yet very common behavior problem.

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