Coprophagia is normal when nursing dogs need to keep the den clean. Pups may need to eat feces to help establish a healthy gut flora. Other than that, it is not normal! It may be a medical problem, type of attention seeking behavior, lack of stimulation or enrichment, a learned behavior, self-reinforcing behavior (they like it?), hunger, play, stress or anxiety.
Meanwhile in the U.S., pups from a pet store are more likely to have coprophagia than pups from a breeder. Thiamine deficiency can produce it in experiments, but most commercial dog foods have enough vitamin B and too much is bad. Whiskey gets a very well balanced diet and still seeks out poop to eat.
The first thing we did when we realized there was a problem was to do a good physical exam and a microscopic stool exam. I know this sounds strange that I would list a PE on my dog as the first thing, but just because he is the best snuggler that I have, doesn’t mean that is a substitute for a professional hands on exam. So, he came to the exam room for a full exam. His stool analysis was negative, but he was dewormed anyway.
Medical reasons can include chronic pancreatic insufficiency, malabsorption, and starvation. Whiskey’s blood work and tests were good. Sometimes we have to do pancreatic and GI function tests if there is GI involvement.
It is also important to get a thorough history. What food is fed? Where did the pet come from? When did it start? Has it gotten better/worse? Is it worse when the owner is present? What animal feces is being consumed? (Forget it if you think you can stop dogs from eating cat poop by any means other than preventing access. Cat poop contains undigested food and fats. Wild animal poop is also tasty.) Is it another dog in the household? Is another of the other animals in the household sick? Where does the behavior happen? Backyard? Walks? Kennel? We think there may be a greater attraction toward the feces of dogs that have decreased GI transit time, perhaps due to undigested food in their feces.
And Whiskey still eats poop. Luckily, the medical consequences are usually minimal, because a lot of dogs eat poop. Dr Sophia Yin had some interesting thoughts on poop eating. She felt that “It all started thousands of years ago. Originally domestic dogs descended from hunters, but more recently the descendants have been scavengers. This tendency to scavenge can be seen in the present day “wild” model of the domestic dog—the village dog. While many dogs in the U.S. experience the luxury of a cozy home, free meals, and regular veterinary check-ups, three quarters of the world’s dogs are feral dogs, most of whom have chosen to live in villages near people. These motley mutts make their living by preying on stolen tidbits, human leftovers, and feces of all kinds. Those tame enough to hang out close to humans and indiscriminate enough to eat anything with nutritive value survive the best.”
Of course, if there is a medical problem, it should be treated. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency needs enzymes added to the food. Malabsorbsion issues may be changed by a diet change. Starvation may be a diet or surgical answer.
If there truly are no medical causes, there are some taste aversion products. These can be added directly to the poop or added to the diet. Anything added to the poop needs to be done consistently. Diet additives change with the processing of the bile acids in the intestines into a bitter substance. Unfortunately, the dog relies on smell for food attraction and the bitterness often doesn’t affect the coprophagia. Intermittent reinforcement makes it even harder to teach a dog not to eat poop, because they keep looking for the poop that is not tainted. Pumpkin and other addititives don’t really add enough fiber to help.
Because of this difficulty, it is often best to use behavior strategies if it is not a medical problem. Don’t yell and move quickly toward the dog when you catch them in the act. Typically the dog reacts by eating the feces very quickly before the owner can get the feces away. Then the dog has gained the reward of ingesting the feces. Any punishment just causes confusion or a fear response.
Even with a medical cause, behavior strategies can help. These include avoidance, redirection and response substitution. Avoidance means keeping the dog away from the poop. Clean up the yard after they or other pets have pooped. Keep them on a leash or indoors until everything is cleaned up. In the beginning, muzzle training might be an aid.
Redirection is the action of assigning or directing something to a new or different place or purpose. If you use a toy or treat to get the dog’s attention when they are sniffing for poop, you may keep them from eating feces.
Response substitution is when you teach the dog to do something other than eating the feces when they find it. Think sit, look at me, get a high value treat. This has to be consistent, but it can replace the unwanted behavior. Also make sure there is plenty of enrichment: puzzle toys, walks outside the yard, and chew toys.
We try to clean up all the poop before he can find it, call him off the scent and offer bribes to keep him from eating it, but after all that, Whiskey still eats poop. Luckily it is not a medical concern. However it is disgusting. I can see how it could damage the human animal bond, but luckily for Whiskey, I just know when to time my pup kisses.