What is Coprophagia in Dogs?

With their soulful eyes, big, toothy grin, zest for life, and unconditional love, dogs are wonderful companions. But, of course, they're not perfect, and some have a few little quirks.

Pretty Eyes
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Take, for example, dogs who eat poop! Officially known as coprophagia, the act of eating poop — their own (autocoprophagia) or other dogs' (allocoprophagia), cats', and other animals' feces — is more common than you might think. It's typically behavioral, but can also be symptomatic of a medical problem or caused by dietary deficiencies.

How do you discover your dog is coprophagic?

Vigilant owners who closely supervise their dogs will catch their dog in the act the first time. Some only discover the behavior by chance, such as in the case of offensive breath or "disappearing" poop that's here today and gone tomorrow — except you didn't clean it up — your dog did. Then there's the big reveal amid a backyard BBQ party. Yikes!

Regardless of how you find out your dog is coprophagic, it's understandably a major turn-off and a huge concern.

There's help for coprophagia

Whether your dog partakes in a pungent snack now and then or on a regular basis, you're not alone. Let's explore this behavior that is repulsive to dog owners and not only widespread, but also quite "natural" in dogdom. And learn how to curb it.

When you dig into the murky details of coprophagia and consult with your vet, you'll know whether your dog's coprophagia is behavioral, psychological, driven by a lack of some dietary nutrient, or if it is symptomatic of a serious medical issue that needs further investigation and treatment. If it's purely behavioral, you'll learn how to manage, and eliminate it.

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Why do dogs eat poop?

The experts agree there's not one reason to explain why dogs are coprophagic. Firstly, eating poop is quite normal for some dogs and puppies. In the first few weeks of a puppy's life, mom stimulates her babies to go to the bathroom, then cleans up after them. Sometimes, a puppy will follow suit and begin eating poop. Puppies may also eat stools in the course of exploring their world. And many pups enjoy frozen stool, not so fondly known as poopsicles, which they may bat around and play with before gulping down. Puppies generally stop this behavior when they're about nine months old.

A female adult dog without puppies may begin cleaning the yard of her waste akin to a dam consuming her pup's waste to keep the birthing nest clean. This can easily become habit-forming if not nipped in the bud.

Here's a few other facts about coprophagia from the American Kennel Club that you never wanted to know:

  • Coprophagia is more common in multi-dog households.
  • Coprophagic dogs prefer stool that is less than two days old.
  • Females are the most likely to eat poop while intact males are the least likely.
  • Only 15% of dogs eat their own feces while 85% of coprophagic dogs eat another dogs' poop.
  • Dogs who steal food off counters or are generally greedy eaters are more likely to eat poop.

When medical and dietary issues are to blame for coprophagia

Consult with your veterinarian if your dog is eating poop. While coprophagia is typically behavioral, underlying medical issues and dietary deficiencies can cause or contribute to the behavior and must be ruled out before a definitive behavioral diagnosis can be made.

Medical problems that lead to a decrease in absorption of nutrients, cause gastrointestinal upset, or make the stool more appealing to a dog may be to blame for coprophagia. In adult dogs, the malabsorption of nutrients or nutritional deficiencies along with an increase in appetite may be caused by diabetes, Cushing's disease, thyroid disease, and steroid drugs often lead to an increase in stool eating.

Dogs may eat poop due to a lack of certain nutrients in their food. In these cases, your veterinarian can prescribe an appropriate diet, or enzyme and vitamin supplementation. Also, dogs that are placed on calorie-restrictive diets, or eat an unbalanced diet, may begin to eat their own stools, or that of other dogs. In the case of eating another dog's stool, veterinary tests should be done on the other dog who may have problems with digestion. Excess food nutrients may remain in their stool which in turn attracts your dog.

If your veterinarian rules out a medical reason for your dog's coprophagia and determines it's behavioral, you can experiment with a few methods to control the behavior.

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How to manage or eliminate behavioral coprophagia

While there's no foolproof method of eliminating coprophagia across the board, you can experiment to find the sweet spot in managing your dog's coprophagia. Be prepared for inconsistent results, or temporary cessation, before your dog reverts to her old habit.

You can make the stool less palatable with finely ground black pepper, Adolph's meat tenderizer, hot sauce, crushed peppers, bitter apple spray or gel, or a product called For-Bid. You must consistently apply these deterrents for weeks or even months until your dog expects all feces will taste horrible and eventually stops taste-testing.

Ultimately, training and environmental management are the only surefire ways to prevent your dog from eating his own or another dog's poop. Keep your dog's environment clean and remove stools immediately, or alternatively move your dog away from the stool, and work on behavior modification with positive reinforcement, which involves a treat and praise when he ignores the stool.

For dogs who steal stool from the cat's litter box, deny access. You can place boxes in rooms with cat door access only, or behind baby gates. Telling your coprophagic dog "no" rarely works in real life when you're not around to monitor her behavior.

Where there's a will, there's a way, so you may need to stay vigilant to keep coprophagia in check. With consistent, positive-reinforcement training and a trick or two, you can break your dog's nasty habit.