If you have a dog and a cat, you already know there are specific hurdles that come with parenting pets of totally different species. People who don't have a mixed-pet household might think that the biggest issue is animal aggression, what with the famous saying "fighting like cats and dogs" and all. But pet parents who have really been in those trenches know that the real horror isn't in playing referee. No, dog-cat sibling interactions get much uglier and much grosser.
Look away now if you can't handle a little poop talk (but really, if you can't handle poop talk, can you really handle owning a pet?). Real talk: Some dogs are obsessed with eating poop right out of their cat sibling's litter box. But why? Seriously, whhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyy?
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Here's what you need to know about why dogs like to eat cat poop, because the public demands to know.
Why do dogs eat poop in general?
Before we can get to the bottom of dogs' love of cat poop, we have to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: Dogs eat poop, pretty indiscriminately in some cases. Their poop love isn't limited to just cats. Some dogs will eat other dogs' poop. Some will even eat their own poop. Why?
There are several reasons. In an official study of poop-eating canines, 85 percent of dogs who ate poop wanted their poop fresh—less than two days old. Researchers believe that dogs' poop-eating is an adaptive behavior they inherited from their wolf ancestors. Basically, eating fresh poop around their dens is a way for wolves to keep their living area clean and reduce their own risk of parasitic infection, according to the study.
Obviously, most modern dogs aren't constantly eating poop (a practice also called coprophagia). So let's dig into why some are.
Why do puppies eat poop?
First of all, poop eating can be a learned behavior, right from mom. "But wait," you might be thinking, "I have an adult, female dog, and she doesn't eat poop. What gives? How can that be a reason?"
Well, when a mother pup gives birth to her litter, she will often eat their poop for a while. This serves two functions and neither is bonding or emotional. First, this is a way for the mother dog to keep the den clean (proof that new moms of every species have to hustle to keep a clean house) which protects the puppies from predators that might be attracted by the smell of the poop. Mama dogs stop eating their babies' excrement pretty quickly—as soon as they're weaned and able to leave the den to poop away from where they eat and sleep—but puppies are very impressionable, and they're like "Mom did it so I want to try!" On top of that, puppies are crazy curious and just love to put things in their mouths to learn about the world.
Usually, just discouraging the behavior will be enough to stop a puppy from chowing down on poop. In some cases, they might be more persistent. Here are some reasons why:
- Poor digestion: If your puppy isn't digesting his food properly, for any reason, then the food will pretty much taste the same coming out as it does going in. In this case, your pup isn't being gross so much as practical—he didn't get the nutrients he needed out of his food the first time around, so he's giving it a second go. You can try feeding your puppy higher quality food to curb this, but if it persists, you'll need to see your vet.
- Boredom: Puppies get bored and if you leave them alone without toys, they'll get creative. That can mean chewing on furniture or, if all that's around to play with is poop, well...
- Stress: If your puppy (or older dog) is eating his own poop because he's stressed, punishing him for it will only make things worse.
- Hunger: Even if you're feeding your puppy plenty of high-quality food, worms and other intestinal parasites can cause him to lose valuable nutrients and feel hungry in spite of already having eaten. In this case, he might eat anything he can find, including his own poop or the poop of other dogs. Yuck, right? Another reason to stay on top of your vet visits and regular preventative medications.
- Attention: You know the saying "there's no such thing as bad publicity"? Well, for puppies, there's no such thing as bad attention. If you're not paying as much attention to your dog as he would like, he'll do anything to get you to focus on him, including misbehaving if he's learned that certain behaviors make you stop what you're doing and laser focus on him (even in a negative way).
Why do older dogs eat poop?
So what about older dogs? Most dogs will grow out of the poop-eating phase as they get older, but sometimes you'll notice this gross behavior even among older pups.
First, you need to assess what this behavior means for your dog. Is your dog in the majority, who stopped eating poop after puppyhood? If they are and then they suddenly start eating poo again, you might have a sick doggo on your hands. Eating poop can be associated with diseases of the intestinal tract and sometimes other parts of the body (liver, brain, etc.). If your dog is losing weight, acting sluggish and lethargic, whining in discomfort, vomiting, or experiencing diarrhea in addition to eating poop, you need to call your vet.
Why do dogs eat cat poop?
Of all the poops out there, dogs seem to be most enamored with cat poop. Why? The simplest reason is that cat poop smells like cat food and, to your dog, that means it smells like a treat. For most cat poop-eating dogs, it's as simple as that.
What's more, dogs are natural scavengers, and cat poop, in its sandy little hiding box, doesn't just smell appetizing, it's also perfectly positioned to activate your dog's scavenger instincts.
Possible other reasons your dog might be eating cat poop:
Is it possible there's something more to your dog's love of cat poo? Here are some other reasons your dog might be eating cat poop.
- Stress: As with eating their own poop, dogs can be motivated to eat cat poop because they're stressed out. According to PetMD, isolation, confinement, living with other sick or elderly dogs, and anxiety can all trigger the cat poop-eating instinct.
- Nutrient deficiency: If your dog has a vitamin deficiency, he might eat cat poop to try to make up the difference. Some deficiencies that might inspire cat poop eating include fiber, protein, fat, and vitamin B.
- Boredom: Dogs just like to have something to do, even if the only thing to do is raid the litter box. If a dog is bored, they can easily get destructive (and gross, if that destruction involves a litter box).
Is eating cat poop bad for dogs?
So now we know there are a lot of reasons your dog might be eating cat poop. Is it bad for him though? The answer is that it can be.
According to the American Kennel Club, dogs can contract several different kinds of internal parasites from cat poop, even if the cat isn't showing any sign of a parasite infection. What's more, if the dog is eating a lot of cat poop, they could develop a blockage from clumped cat litter.
Usually, eating cat poop won't lead to long-term health issues. However, if you're concerned, you should always call your vet.
How to prevent your dog from eating cat poop
Veterinarians' best advice about how to stop a dog from eating cat poop is a pretty common sense solution: Put the litter box somewhere where your dog can't get to it.
If putting the litter box somewhere your dog can't reach it isn't an option, you could try getting a litter box with a closed top, although smaller dogs or really tenacious dogs of any size will be able to get in if they put their minds to it. A top-entry litter box is also a viable option. (Just make sure your cat understands how to get into their new bathroom!)
Another way to combat your dog's cat poop eating is to scoop the litter box right away after your cat uses the bathroom. That can be time-consuming or totally impossible, though, if you work long hours away from home.
While it's possible to train the behavior out of dogs, the AKC cautions that it's difficult because if you miss a single poop snack, you've allowed your dog to reinforce the bad behavior and counter your own efforts to train it out.
Alternatively, you could also train your cat to use the toilet, but that's a whole other thing.