Coprophagia. A Dirty Word?

September 11, 2014 at 10:46 am

Although dogs and humans are classified as omnivores (both plant and meat eaters), there is no mammal on earth born with the enzymes to digest plant material.  The enzyme cellulase is found in gut bacteria that breaks down plant cell walls. To contain this bacteria, many animals will ingest it from their mother’s feces at birth. Koala joeys are a well know example of this. So yes, ingesting poo can be considered a very normal, healthy and beneficial behaviour to acquire nutrients for survival.

Having said this, people often contact me in great perplexity, telling me their dog is eating other animals’ poop, or worse, their very own! Whilst most people tolerate their dog finding other animals’ poop palatable, when it comes to a dog eating their own; owners become understandably concerned. When dogs are close family members, the idea of cuddling up on the couch with your best friend who has just ingested their own faeces can really put a strain on the relationship!

 So why do dogs eat their own poop (AKA coprophagia)?

There are a few possibilities, but the true cause is not completely understood.

One possibility is that your dog lacks some essential nutrients in their diet, or is unable to effectively digest what they are fed. Reconsider their diet and observe their faeces when you can, as a dog’s poop can reveal a lot about their health.

The other possibility to consider is that it is a ‘displacement’ behaviour elicited by anxiety, boredom or possibly even attention seeking.

How can you fix it?

Improve your dog’s diet.  There is a lot of information about canine nutrition, so ensure that your dog’s diet is in the best interests of their long term health.

Consider your dog’s feelings more. Are there any other behaviours that indicate your dog is anxious, nervous or worried? If so:

  1. Increase the physical exercise routine. Physical exercise daily until your dog is genuinely tired and wants a long rest afterwards.
  2. Increase the mental exercise routine.  Feed your dog their daily meals in a Kong or similar food dispensing toy. Provide treat treasure hunts outside. Play fetch and hide n seek. Teach your dog a new trick where they have to problem solve to get a reward.
  3. Block the behaviour. Find the pattern when your dog defecates and pick it up immediately if you can, A good training trick in combination with this, is to call your dog to you straight after they have defecated, cue them to sit and give them a yummy treat. By doing this, you change the behaviour pattern to something positive and interactive.
  4. Consider your relationship and what behaviours you are teaching your dog. We often inadvertently reward many unwanted behaviours, so try to consistently implement the following: Reward your dog only when they are: Calm, Compliant and Controlling Impulses.

These three rewards umbrella most of the behaviors you should want from your dog. Next time you go to give your dog attention, food, or play with them, ask yourself; ‘are they any or all of those three points?’. If not, should you be rewarding them?

If you find your dog continues the coprophagic behaviour, please consult your trusted veterinarian.

Good luck and to all those who read this while eating … our sincerest apologies!