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Common Traits That Poop-Eating Dogs Share

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

canine coprophagia

Story at-a-glance -

  • Coprophagia (poop eating) is one canine behavior that most pet parents are desperate to understand and extinguish
  • Poop eating in dogs can have multiple causes involving both nutritional, microbiome and behavioral issues
  • A UC Davis study found that coprophagic dogs tend to be greedy eaters, live in multi-dog households, and prefer fresh poop; the researchers also found that neither commercial deterrent products nor behavior modification training are particularly effective
  • The most effective way to prevent coprophagia is to feed a nutritionally optimal, fresh food diet with appropriate supplementation, and keep your dog’s indoor and outdoor environment free of temptations

Of all the curious, definitely-not-human behaviors dogs exhibit, coprophagia is perhaps the most-researched and least talked about of the bunch. Known in layman’s terms as poop eating, it’s a common enough problem among canines to warrant countless internet searches and even university studies.

From the perspective of humans, coprophagia is such an incomprehensible behavior that we are driven to understand why our beloved furry companions engage in an activity that is so completely disgusting to us.

Coprophagia May Be a Response to a Nutritional or Gut Imbalance

In my experience, many dogs start eating poop because their bodies are prodding them to correct an insufficiency or imbalance in the digestive process. Perhaps the pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin or other enzymes, for example, or maybe the balance of gut bacteria is out of whack.

I think it’s safe to assume dogs eat poop not because they think it’s yummy, but because their bodies are telling them to ingest something present in the feces — something that may be missing from their diet.

It’s been my observation that coprophagia is more prevalent in dogs fed kibble, which is a biologically inappropriate diet that can create a chronic digestive enzyme deficiency. Since the feces of other animals are a good source of digestive enzymes, dogs with a deficiency will sometimes ingest enzyme-rich poop.

In fact, rabbit poop is a very rich source of not only enzymes, but also B vitamins, which is why many dogs, given the opportunity, will happily scarf up rabbit droppings.

I suspect the reason most poop-eating dogs limit themselves to fresh feces is because in addition to digestive enzymes, it also contains the high levels of microbes necessary to regenerate beneficial bacteria in the gut. For this reason, probiotic supplementation may also help reduce the desire to seek out and consume necessary microbes from fecal sources.

Fecal transplants are becoming more and more common in both human and veterinary medicine for treating a variety of systemic gastrointestinal (GI) infections. Could dogs be using their innate instincts in an attempt to treat their own digestive imbalances? Microbiome restorative therapy can be of great benefit to many dogs who participate in coprophagia.

Poop Eating Can Also Have a Behavioral Cause

Some dogs, especially those in kennel or punishment-based training situations, may eat poop because they’re feeling anxious or stressed. Research suggests dogs who are punished for inappropriate elimination can begin to view pooping itself as bad, so they hide the evidence by eating it or to avoid physical repercussions of eliminating.

Coprophagia is also a problem in puppy mill dogs. Puppies who go hungry, are weaned too soon, have to fight with others for food, or are forced to sit for weeks in a small crate with no physical or mental stimulation, are at high risk of becoming habitual stool eaters.

Coprophagia can also be a learned behavior. Older dogs can actually role model poop eating behavior for younger dogs in the household.

Some dogs are feces connoisseurs who are quite selective about the poop they eat. Some favor only poopsicles (frozen poop); others will eat only the feces of a particular animal, and some dogs only indulge their habit at certain times of the year!

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Commonalities Among Poop-Eating Dogs

In 2018, a team of researchers at the Center for Companion Animal Health at the University of California, Davis, studied the factors involved in canine stool eating.1

The title of the study, “The paradox of canine conspecific coprophagy,” means the researchers looked specifically at poop eating behavior in which dogs eat dog poop (their own or another dog’s). The paradox is that since dogs are naturally averse to poop (evidenced by the fact that they won’t soil their dens and are amenable to housetraining), it makes no sense that some of them engage in coprophagia.

The researchers used two web-based surveys to collect data for the study. One survey, which received 1,552 responses, found that 16% of the general dog population could be categorized as poop eaters based on having been caught in the act at least 6 times.

Of this group, 76% had been observed eating poop more than 10 times. There were very few similarities among the dogs — not their diets, their age at weaning, or their current age. Their owners reported that all were easily housetrained, which suggests they possess a normal canine aversion to feces.

The other survey was designed for owners of known poop eaters and received 1,475 responses. The researchers found that 38% of these dogs practiced their stool eating habit weekly, and 62% daily. Some additional findings:

Many of the dogs in the study belonged to the hound or terrier breed groups; the most likely individual breed was the Shetland Sheepdog and the least likely was the Poodle

75% were older than 4 years of age

They frequently lived in multi-dog households, which might suggest there’s a social or “follow-the-leader” component to the behavior

85% preferred fresh stool (not more than 2 days old)

They also tended to eat dirt and cat poop

They were more likely to be greedy eaters than non‐coprophagic dogs

Commercial Coprophagia Deterrents Get a Thumbs Down

The UC Davis research team also evaluated several products claiming to treat coprophagia, as well as some behavior modification techniques. They used the same web-based surveys to assess the effectiveness of 11 commercially available products that claim to help curb the habit, including 21st Century Deterrence®; Coproban®; Deter®; Dis‐Taste®; For‐Bid®; Nasty Habit®; NaturVet Deterrent®; Potty Mouth®; S.E.P®; Stop Stool Eating®; Stop Tablets®.

According to pet parent responses to the survey, the best of the products scored just 2% for effectiveness. Three others had a 1% success rate, and the rest were virtually useless. Behavior management to curb poop eating was also ineffective according to survey answers. The “leave it” command scored the highest rate of just 4%.

Bottom line, most experts agree coprophagia is a normal dog behavior that ranges from difficult to impossible to correct. The best way to prevent a poop eater from indulging is to ensure there’s no poop anywhere in his environment to sample, and when out for walks, he should be carefully supervised in case another dog or animal has left a “deposit” nearby.

If your dog partakes in this behavior make sure to have a stool analysis completed at least annually to check for internal parasites that might be passed up the food chain.