Dog Behavior Problems: Coprophagia

Why do dogs eat feces?

Eating feces, known as coprophagia, is very common and can be normal behavior for a dog. The behavior may have originated to keep the den or sleeping area clean. Also, fresh feces can contain parasite eggs and, since these eggs will not become infective for several days, fecal consumption can prevent a parasitic infestation.

Can a medical condition cause coprophagia?

If your dog frequently ingests feces, it is important to screen for a possible medical cause. Illnesses that prevent the digestion or absorption of nutrients could trigger a dog to eat their own feces.

The first step is to have a physical examination and check the stool for intestinal parasites. Your veterinarian will review your dog’s diet to ensure it meets the dog’s basic nutritional needs. Some foods are more digestible than others, and it can be tricky to try to determine the actual digestibility of a diet. Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary nutritionist if there is any concern.

Diagnostic testing is particularly important if your dog suddenly begins to eat feces or if you notice weight loss or a change in your dog’s coat quality.

Are there behavioral conditions that can trigger coprophagia?

Normal exploratory behavior, attention-seeking, and play-related behavior: Coprophagia is commonly seen in young puppies, who explore their environment by putting assorted things into their mouths. Left on her own, a puppy might sample some feces and move on to a more appropriate object such as a food-filled toy. For that reason, it is important to provide plenty of appropriate, safe objects for your puppy to examine and taste. Be careful not to turn stool eating into a “game”. If you make a big fuss, perhaps shouting or rushing toward your puppy when you notice she is eating their stool, the puppy may think you are trying to play with her. This attention may encourage the behavior.

To manage this normal, undesirable behavior, supervise your dog until she has eliminated outside. Have a treat or toy in hand and, as soon as she finishes defecating, praise her and call her to you for a positive interaction. As training progresses, your dog will leave the feces to look for you so that she can enjoy a treat or game of fetch.

Frustration-related or compulsive behavior (pica): Dogs that are frustrated often engage in behaviors that calm their emotions. Frustration or anxiety can predispose a dog to ingest any number of non-food items, and feces may be one of them. Be sure that your dog’s social and environmental needs are being met. If your dog ingests the feces of animals when out on a hike, bring some toys and treats along and frequently call your dog back for some interactive fun. If your dog does exhibit pica or if stool eating is a new behavior, the first step is a physical examination, and then a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist who can address the emotional component of the behavior.

Why do dogs eat the stools of other animals?

This behavior is akin to scavenging. It is not unusual for dogs to steal food items, raid garbage cans, and chew or eat non-food items that most humans would consider unusual or even disgusting. Cat feces and those of some other animals seem to have appealing attributes: dogs apparently like something about their odor, texture, or taste.

To keep your dog from eating cat feces, it may be helpful to place the cat’s litter box behind a gate, with an opening that is large enough for your cat but too small for your dog. Dogs that eat the feces of herbivores may be attracted to the digested vegetation. In fact, stools are seldom unpleasant to dogs.

How can coprophagia be treated?

Prevention is the best strategy when managing any undesirable behavior. Supervise your dog at potty time so you can clean up any feces immediately. Call your dog away for some fun play so she is motivated to leave the stool. If you are walking on leash, reward your dog for sitting quietly while you pick up her stool so that she does not think that you are “playing” with her feces - dogs sometimes like to share our toys!

It can help to teach your dog to “leave it” when she sees objects on the ground. This training begins in a quiet location.

  1. Hold a low-value item in your hand, let your dog sniff, and when she looks away, give her a great treat.
  2. After a couple tries, your dog will see the object and automatically turn her head away. At this moment, add the “leave it” cue: just as she is about to turn her head away, say “leave it” and treat her.
  3. Next, place the object on the floor, say “leave it” and treat your dog for looking away.
  4. Finally, practice outside and on walks. If your dog spots some feces, before she even gets close enough to sniff, say “leave it” and give a very high-value treat.

If a medical condition has been identified, then appropriate treatment may reduce the behavior over time. Your veterinarian may prescribe specific enzymes or design a more suitable diet. Even if there is a medical component, there can be a learned component as well, so supervision and behavior training strategies are important.

"Your veterinarian may prescribe specific enzymes or design a more suitable diet."

Research suggests that most of the over-the-counter deterrents meant to make feces less tasty are just not effective. They are not typically harmful; they just rarely yield results. Fortunately, a dog’s feces are not toxic and ingestion of small amounts of stool is not likely to cause any illness. On the other hand, some diseases, mainly parasites, can be spread when the feces of infected dogs or animals are ingested.