Coping with coprophagia

ashamed dog

Is coprophagia your dog’s dirty little secret?

If it is, you (and your dog) are not alone. According various estimates, 10–25 percent of dogs engage in intraspecies coprophagia — that is, they eat their own or other dogs’ feces.

In most cases coprophagia is a behavioral problem, but it can also have a medical basis. Medical causes of coprophagia include dietary deficits from inadequate intake or absorption of nutrients and increased appetite caused by different diseases or medications.

Dogs receiving adequate calories and being fed diets that are “complete and balanced” according to AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) standards should be receiving the nutrients they need unless they have a disease that prevents them from absorbing and retaining nutrients.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is one disease in which dogs do not have the enzymes they need to properly digest their food. Despite receiving a diet that is complete and balanced, dogs with EPI will often lose weight, act hungry and lose nutrients in voluminous stools.

Dogs with severe liver disease, intestinal parasites, undertreated diabetes mellitus and some types of gastrointestinal and kidney disease may also not be able to properly absorb and retain nutrients from their food. These deficits can leave dogs hungry and seeking calories and nutrients from nontraditional food sources (like feces).

Cushing’s Disease, or hyperadrenocorticism, can increase a dog’s appetite, as can steroids or medications given to control seizures. In some cases, these dogs may eat feces as a way to satisfy their hunger.

In the majority of cases, though, coprophagia is a behavioral rather than a medical problem.

Coprophagia is actually a normal behavior in female dogs with puppies. Good dog mothers will lick at their puppies’ rear ends to stimulate defecation and will consume puppies’ feces to keep the “nest” clean. It is possible that dogs who aren’t cleaning up after their puppies may also engage in this cleaning behavior.

Some researchers propose that eating feces may have had evolutionary benefits.

Dogs are omnivores, and dogs that scavenged and ate the stools of carnivores may have gotten some added nutrients with little energy expenditure. Since some intestinal parasites take a few days to reach an infective stage in the environment, eating fresh feces within a dog’s territory may be advantageous to help contain or prevent parasite transmission to members of the pack.

What should you do if your dog eats poo?

If your dog is suddenly eating its own or other dogs’ feces, it is best to consult with your veterinarian to make sure there isn’t a medical cause.

A fecal parasite test may be recommended to screen for some intestinal parasites that may be a cause or consequence of your dog’s coprophagia. If any medical causes are identified, they should of course be treated.

For the more common behavioral causes, the most effective treatment is behavior modification (training).

The best way to prevent coprophagia is to pick up feces promptly and keep dogs on leash or well-supervised when in areas where other dogs’ feces might be present. Teaching dogs to come when called (and rewarding with an edible treat that is more high value than stool) and the commands “leave it” and “drop it” can also be helpful to prevent coprophagia.

Food additives also exist that can be given to the “victim” — the dog whose stool is being eaten — with the idea that it will make the stool distasteful to the coprophagic dog. The problem with these additives is that they aren’t always practical, nor are they very effective.

The additives have to be given to the dog whose stool is being eaten, and you can’t give medication to all of the dogs at the dog park! The additives also have to be given with every meal for a period of time. One product recommends giving it for 20 days. During this time period, the coprophagic dog is allowed to eat feces, which will ideally be unappetizing and stop the behavior.

Unfortunately, a recent survey of owners of coprophagic dogs found the overall efficacy of these additives was between zero and 2 percent in eliminating coprophagia.