If you’ve read any of my rabbit blog posts or you are a rabbit owner, you will know that for rabbits, eating poo is an essential behaviour to keep their digestive system healthy.
However, when it happens in dogs (when they eat their own or other dog’s poo) it becomes something that we find disgusting and difficult to understand. Sadly, dog poo eating is a reason for dogs to be rehomed and even euthanised.
What are the theories for coprophagia (eating poo)?
- Poor quality diet
- Overfeeding/Underfeeding (starvation)
- Medical conditions (especially those involving the digestive system, g. food allergies, malabsorption, pancreatic problems)
- Medicines such as steroids
- Attention seeking
- Isolation (in kennelled dogs)
As you can see, there are many theories out there. Interestingly, for 15 years I worked for a pet food company who believe that a diet based on whole grains, with reduced levels of protein and fat, can stop coprophagia. This company produces high-quality diets which have undoubtedly helped reduce skin and digestive problems in some dogs, unfortunately, though, the coprophagia claim is not something I found to be true. I don’t know if they now have any data to support this claim.
Does changing their diet help?
Sadly my own dog eats poo. I don’t believe diet has anything to do with it as I have tried him on:
- High fibre diets
- Diets high in whole grains, low fat, low fibre, low protein
- Low carbohydrate, high fat, high protein diets
- Novel protein diets
- Grain-free diets
- Wet food diets
- Raw food diets
None of these diet options (or increasing or decreasing the amount he ate) made any difference to his poo-eating habit.
Even solving his previous digestive problem has not stopped him from poo-eating. However, I wonder if a digestive problem is what started the poo eating in the first place. Currently, he is fed on a commercial raw food diet and his digestive system has never been better. He does small, solid poos now instead of large sloppy ones and he used to have frequent bouts of diarrhoea which he does not have any more.
Nutritional health and coprophagia
Late in 2016, his poo eating changed. He started to eat our other dog’s poo (which he has never done) and he was diagnosed with a Vitamin B12 deficiency. He had a few courses of B12 injections, we changed to a commercial raw food and he stopped eating our other dog’s poo. He still eats dog poo he finds on a walk, unless we keep an eye on him. I believe with him it is either an attention seeking behaviour (it is very hard not to react when he eats poo) or a habit which started as a result from previous digestive issues.
Interestingly, the results of a study presented in 2012 in America by Dr. Benjamin Hart (a board certified veterinary behaviourist from the University of California, Davis) which had over 1400 completed surveys also found that diet made no difference at all. And for all those people that say dry food or grains are the cause, this is not true. I’m aware that there are several raw fed dogs (including my own) that eat poo.
Is there a breed trait?
From personal experience (working on a pet health helpline for 15 years) I have found that the most common breed to do this is the greedier type of dog i.e. Labradors, Retrievers, Beagles and Cocker spaniels. Of course this does not mean if you own one of these breeds they will definitely eat poo and other breeds can develop this problem too.
Dr. Hart’s study also conducted that Border collies and Shelties were most likely to eat poo and Poodles were the least likely. Bitches are more likely than male dogs and dogs in multi-dog households are more likely to develop this issue.
So why do they do it?
The conclusion of many behaviourists is that this is actually a normal behaviour in dogs – after all bitches will clean up after their puppies to keep the ‘nest’ clean. There is no evidence to suggest that it is caused by a dietary deficiency but may be a throw back to when dogs were scavengers and food was scarce. I personally believe the cause is not the same for all dogs and there is no simple cure.
What can you do if your dog eats poo?
First of all, get your dog checked out at your vet for any medical issues. Make sure they are up to date with parasite treatment (as they can pick up worms and other bugs from faeces) and if possible try to restrict access to faeces as much as possible by removing it from your garden. Consider muzzling your dog when on a walk. Try to avoid reacting when they eat poo. Shouting at your dog is still attention, even though it is negative. Any type of punishment has been shown to make the issue worse (although at the moment I can’t find the reference for this). So try to ignore the bad and reward the good behaviour. If he/she sniffs a poop but doesn’t eat it make sure you go over the top with rewards by either offering a very tasty treat or playing a game. You may also wish to try a change in diet – it does work for some dogs but only occasionally in my experience. Try to increase mental stimulation as this will help to reduce boredom and anxiety. This involves things like puzzle games and scent work.
Thanks to Clifford Art for the illustration for this blog!
Coprophagia: The Scoop on Poop Eating in Dogs by Dr. Sophie Yin. https://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/coprophagia-the-scoop-on-poop-eating-in-dogs/
POOP EATING (COPROPHAGIA) by Victoria Stilwell
Which Dogs Eat Poop and Why Do They Do It? By Stanley Coren PhD, DSc, FRSC, January 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201801/which-dogs-eat-poop-and-why-do-they-do-it