Coprophagia refers to the act of eating faeces. For some species, e.g. rabbits, this is a normal behaviour that helps establish a healthy gut microflora. At some stages of a dog’s life it is also considered normal, such as mothers licking their pups to clean them. However not all coprophagia is normal and it can indicate an underlying medical or behavioural diseases such as:
- Gastrointestinal parasites (worms)
- Malnutrition (e.g. poor quality or unbalanced diets, restricted feeding to assist weight loss)
- Poor absorption and/or digestion of nutrients (e.g. chronic diarrhoea, pancreatic insufficiency)
- Polyphagia a.k.a. abnormally increased hunger (e.g. due to various GIT disease, diabetes or other hormonal diseases, cognitive dysfunction, or dementia
- Anxiety or stress
- Puppies with a lack of interaction and excessive crate confinement during their early critical socialisation window have been shown to have future issues with coprophagia
- Punishment avoidance: some dogs will consume their faeces to remove evidence after an accident to avoid punishment. This may be the case in young pups who aren’t yet fully toilet trained, or older dogs who couldn’t make it outside due to illness (e.g. arthritis)
- Some dogs are just gross and enjoy it!
Will it make my dog sick?
Generally coprophagia is a fairly benign habit but it does come with a few risks. There is a higher chance of gut-borne infections such as E.coli, Salmonella and gastrointestinal parasites. Some of these infections can cause illness in humans so you should avoid letting your dog lick your face. There have also been rare reports of dogs consuming faeces from an animal (or human!) that is taking medication, then becoming sick from that medication.
What can you do to prevent it?
Unfortunately, there is no magic answer to stop dogs from eating poop. Some puppies grow out of the habit with time, but here a few suggestions you can try:
- Prevention! I.e. as soon as your dog does a poop, pick it up before there is a chance for it to be consumed. This is the most reliable way to stop the habit, but it is sometimes easier said than done. Feeding at consistent meal times can also help you predict when your pet needs to poo so you can be ready with a poop bag! If your dog is mostly indoors, using a leash for every toilet walk will help keep them away from temptation. If cat poop is your dogs favourite delicacy, placing litter trays in unreachable locations or automatic litter boxes may help. Basket muzzles may stop some dogs being able to eat poo… though if they still try it can quickly become a really gross mess
- If you dog isn’t yet fully toilet trained, persevere with lots of opportunity to go outside, and lots of praise and reward when they go in an appropriate location. Don’t punish them for accidents as this may exacerbate their poop eating behaviours! Pups generally don’t like to toilet where they eat or sleep so crate training and/or playpens can be a helpful tool during toilet training.
- “Leave it” can be a tricky command to learn as dogs often view the poop as a highly valuable reward but with enough consistency and an even higher value reward, pets can be taught to leave poop alone.
- Don’t punish or scold pets if they are caught eating faeces. This may worsen underlying anxiety and exacerbate the behaviour
- Diet: Dogs should be fed a high-quality food with plenty of fibre to reduce the chance of malnutrition. Some diets are thought to produce more tempting faeces so it may be worth trialling an alternative brand or flavour. If your dog is eating another pet’s poo, you may need to change their diet as well.
- Worming: Consider giving an intestinal all wormer if you pet hasn’t had one lately
- Deterrents: In some cases sprinkling hot sauce over the poo can be enough to put dogs off further consumption. However this should be tried very cautiously as too much hot sauce may cause gastrointestinal upset. Alternatively sometimes feeding fresh pineapple can change the taste of the faeces to make it less appealing. There are also some commercially available deterrents “For-bid” and “NaturVet – Coprophagia Stool Eating Deterrent” (at this stage most of these are only available overseas)
- Environmental enrichment: ensuring dogs are getting plenty of exercise, play and interaction can reduce poo eating habits, especially for those with boredom or anxiety