Dogs occasionally eat their own fecal matter or the feces of other animals for a variety of medicinal, nutritional, instinctual, behavioral and environmental reasons. The act of consuming fecal matter (eating poop) is known as coprophagia.
There is no denying that dog owners love their pups, and are endlessly entertained by their antics, loyalty and seemingly limitless love.
However, there are some less attractive habits shown by man’s best friend that are downright worrying, including those times when your dog decides to snack on a pile of poop. Whether you’re walking your pooch and it chows down on some goose droppings or your puppy develops a habit of eating its own fresh feces, this can be a truly gross sight to witness.
Human beings have a natural aversion to the act of eating excrement, which is formally known as coprophagia, but it doesn’t seem to bother dogs (or various other animals). In fact, some dogs seem eager to dine on these disgusting delicacies, much to their owners’ dismay.
So, if your pooch is showing a penchant for feces feasting, is there something wrong with your pet? Is it dangerous for dogs to do this? And perhaps most importantly, is there any way to stop this habit?
Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?
This is far from a simple question, because there isn’t a single explanation for this habit, which is seen in some form in more than 25% of dogs. While dogs can’t tell us exactly what they’re thinking when they take a bite of their own stool, or the stool of some other animal, researchers have identified a number of behavioral and medical reasons why dogs may engage in coprophagia.
In the case of puppies, eating their own poop (autocoprophagia) is quite commonly seen, and is believed to be a mimicry of their mother. In the den with a fresh litter of pups, a mother would do anything she can to prevent predators from approaching and keep her pups safe.
Eating her stool, and that of her pups, will eliminate the smell from the den, and will prevent any parasite eggs from hatching and infecting her offspring. Puppies, much like human babies, learn through observation, so their early habit of eating their own feces may be due to their mother’s own behavior, or a survival instinct imprinted deep in canine history.
While this habit is commonly seen in young dogs, it is a habit they will grow out of, once they can leave the den and defecate elsewhere. In the case of a pet, however, if this habit extends into adolescence and adulthood, there are likely other factors at play.
Medically speaking, if a dog isn’t receiving enough nutrition from its food, i.e., its digestive system isn’t functioning properly, then there will still be a good amount of nutrition in their stool, which could encourage them to re-consume the “food”.
If a dog is suffering from diabetes, thyroid issues, intestinal parasites, worms, or digestive enzyme deficiency, among many other conditions, they will not be able to process or take in enough nutrients, leading them to seek out other sources of nutrients—their poop and the poop of other creatures.
However, this behavior isn’t inherently tied to poor health, as there are many appropriately fed and cared for pups who still display this stomach-turning tendency. Factors such as boredom and stress may also cause dogs to dine on their own droppings, as they will be looking for different (and potentially nutritious) ways to distract themselves.
Dogs are also highly responsive to their owners’ reactions, so if eating poop has elicited an excited reaction in the past (even if that reaction was one of disgust), dogs might repeat this tactic for attention.
A desire for cleanliness, as mentioned earlier, is imbued in dogs at a young age, so they may simply be eating their poop to maintain clean surroundings for themselves. Similarly, if they were trained that pooping in the house was bad, and had been punished for doing so, dogs may consume their feces to “cover up” their actions.
Some dogs are trained to poop in close proximity to where they are fed, which can lead to confusion or an incorrect association of feces with food. Finally, we can’t forget the natural curiosity of dogs, who are perpetually eager to sniff, play with, and eat almost anything they can find.
Is Eating Poop Dangerous?
If you see your dog nibbling on a pile of some other dog’s dung, your first reaction may be concern for your dog’s safety, but generally speaking, eating poop isn’t dangerous. Provided the feces is fresh (1-2 days old), any potential intestinal parasite eggs will still be intact and won’t represent any immediate danger to your dog. Since canine diets are largely the same, in the case of pets, if your dogs eat one another’s feces from time to time, it isn’t harmful, just gross.
Dogs may also seek out the common droppings of other animals, such as cats, rabbits, horses or geese, which may have different nutrient makeups, and may indicate an underlying cause behind the behavior. While it is generally safe for dogs to eat other canine droppings, things get a bit more complicated with the feces of other animals.
These droppings may contain viruses or toxins, or parasitic species that are foreign to your dog’s digestive system. There is no immediate risk to your dog’s health in these cases, but it is a practice that should generally be avoided. Although wolves and dogs have long been scavengers (for tens of thousands of years), and the canine immune system is impressive, it’s best not to put your dog at unnecessary risk.
Finally, while eating poop isn’t inherently dangerous for your dog, it’s a pretty gross habit, and considering how much dog owners love getting kisses from their canine companions, many owners would like to break this habit—and fast.
Tip for Stopping the Habit
Most puppies grow out of this habit after 9 months or so, but if the habit persists, there are some techniques you can try and things to consider to lower the risk of this occurring.
First and foremost, eliminating triggers such as boredom, isolation and stress in your dog can cut down on this behavior, so be sure your dog stays active, gets regular walks, and receives attention and affection from you and others. Keeping the dog’s environment clean, and regularly picking up poop from the yard, will also diminish the dog’s instinct to keep its space tidy, i.e., eating the poop that is piling up.
Concentrated periods of training, particularly while on walks or immediately after your dog has “done its business”, will help to instill the idea that eating poop is a “bad” behavior. Be careful in this training, however, and avoid associating punishment with the act of pooping, as this may actually increase the unwanted behavior. Consulting with a professional trainer, in severe cases of coprophagia, may be required.
To prevent medical causes to coprophagia, ensure that your dog has high-quality dog food at regular intervals and isn’t suffering from any nutrient deficiencies. Regular checkups at the vet will indicate whether this poop-eating behavior is the result of poor digestion or diet—two things that can be easily remedied and managed.
Pay close attention to your dog’s eating habits; if you notice a shift in hunger levels or stool quality/color, it could indicate a problem that is driving them to seek out other food/nutrition in stool. Vitamin supplementation, digestive enzyme supplementation or taste-aversion products could all be used in this situation to inhibit this behavior.
A Final Word
Seeing your beloved pooch chowing down on another dog’s pile of poop is far from a pleasant sight, but rest assured that it is generally a safe and natural behavior, and may actually indicate that your dog requires some medical assistance or dietary adjustments.
It may also be a sign that your dog needs more attention, space, training, or affection. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to diminish this fecal habit, if it continues to be an issue. However, try to remember that coprophagia is quite common in the animal world, and human beings are the weird ones who turn up their noses at such free, nutrient-rich snacks!