[Updated March 21, 2016]
Most of us find the habit of eating feces to be the most disgusting thing that a dog can do. The clinical name for this behavior is coprophagy (pronounced kä – prä – fey – je), from the Greek words copro, which means feces, and phagy, which means eat.
The habit is not just revolting to us humans, it’s also potentially harmful to the dog’s health – although it’s less dangerous if the dog eats only his own feces and is parasite-free. A dog can become infected with internal parasites (worms) by eating feces from a dog who is already infected. The highly infectious parvovirus is also shed in feces, posing a risk to a coprophagic dog.
There are many theories to explain why some dogs do this, and at least as many suggested remedies. They range from the somewhat scientific to the hopeful. A multitude of remedies can be found through veterinarians, dog trainers, and local pet supply stores. Available literature and anecdotal reports suggest many things work for various dogs, and some dogs don’t respond completely despite the best efforts of their caregivers.
Even though there are no definitive answers for this seemingly eternal question, don’t despair. Keep reading and make as many of the changes suggested below as you reasonably can, and you may find one or more that work for you and your poop-eating dog.
There are any number of theories that propose reasons for dogs to engage in coprophagy, including the following:
Disease – Pancreatic insufficiency is one health condition linked to coprophagy, as is severe malnutrition caused by parasitic infestation.
Stress – Coprophagy is a behavior that is much more prevalent in shelter dogs (and former shelter dogs) than in the general population and is therefore thought to be related to anxiety and stress. For some dogs, removing sources of stress can help reduce this behavior. On the other hand, it may be that more dogs are surrendered to shelters because their humans can’t tolerate feces-eating.
Fear of Punishment – One theory suggests that dogs punished for defecating inappropriately may begin eating the evidence, in order to avoid owner disapproval.
Momma did it, too – Mother dogs eat their young puppies’ feces in order to keep the puppies (and the puppies’ environment) clean and healthy. Some very young puppies may join her in coprophagy (although many grow out of the habit if the feces-eating was motivated solely by a desire to keep the environment clean).
Some dog professionals have developed theories that place the blame for the habit on the dogs’ owners. They may propose:
A big fuss – If the owner makes a huge deal out of the behavior (and it’s hard not to!) the possibility exists that poop takes on special importance to the dog. A dog may interpret the owner’s response as interest in, or competition for, this high-value item. A simpler explanation may be that poop eating becomes an attention-getting behavior.
Valuable item – Some trainers and behaviorists believe that it’s possible to turn poop eating into a resource-guarding behavior, for the above reason (the owner’s interest in the feces). This would likely be the case if your dog growls at you over attempts to interrupt feces eating. If this is your situation, it is likely that the assistance of a qualified trainer is in order to help you address this behavior.
Whatever the cause of your dog’s coprophagy, a solid plan for prevention through management and training is necessary. If he shows any interest in eating poop, do not delay addressing this behavior. Careful management combined with training incompatible behaviors and a bit of counter-conditioning will be invaluable.
Some possible strategies include:
Praising your dog as he poops. As soon as he’s done, offer him some treats, so quickly that he doesn’t even think about his deposit. (You must use food rewards that your dog likes more than poop!)
Managing your dog with a leash: moving him away from the feces as soon as he’s done and feeding high-value, super yummy treats as you pick up the pile and move on. This can be accomplished by tossing a handful of treats on the ground (away from the poop), so you can pick up the feces without your pup trying to nose in. Remember to praise your pup all the while for eating the treats and ignoring the poop.
Classically conditioning your dog to associate feces with good stuff from you. The second you notice that he has zeroed in on a pile of poop, stick a yummy treat in front of his nose; if you are consistent and use high-value treats, soon your dog will look at you for a treat whenever he notices poop. Be ready to reinforce this behavior at any time!
If you already have a clicker-trained dog, using operant conditioning. Click or verbally mark your dog for noticing feces and immediately treat. You can do this with deliberate set-ups or during any walk when a pile of poop is spotted.
Teaching your feces-loving dog “leave-it” is a must. Always reward him handsomely for “leaving” feces. Trained to great fluency, a behavior like “Leave it,” will give you great control over your dog in this and many other situations.
Training an incompatible behavior. For example, teach your dog to sit and look at you for a series of treats immediately after pooping; he cannot do this and eat poop at the same time!
Conditioning your dog to love wearing a muzzle. This will be of some help, though a determined dog may still dive for feces unless you use some of the other strategies suggested here.
Using a substance with an unpleasant taste to make coprophagy aversive. This will only work for dogs who eat other dogs’ feces, so that it can be tainted in advance without the dog seeing it done. Otherwise the dog may learn to avoid only the feces that he has seen being sprinkled with icky stuff.
Managing your dog during elimination even in your yard. All pooping must be supervised with your dog on leash. The behaviors that dogs practice and enjoy increase; ones they never get a chance to engage in decrease and eventually extinguish. Don’t give your dog the opportunity to practice feces-eating. Ever!
Keeping the yard completely free of feces. Very scrupulous management will stop the dog from practicing the habit.
Never using punishment when trying to fix this problem. Punishment is highly unlikely to work and could, for reasons stated earlier, easily make the problem worse.
Some animal care professionals believe that coprophagy may be related to dietary deficiencies. Improving (or just changing) the dog’s diet might address any nutritional deficits that could possibly contribute to this behavior.
– Switch to a higher-quality commerical food with higher protein and fat content, and lower carbohydrates.
Feed high-quality raw or a home-cooked diet.
– Add nutritional yeast (also called brewer’s yeast) to your dog’s daily meals to supply necessary B vitamins and thiamine).
– Add a commercial product to the dog’s food that gives the dog’s feces an unpleasant taste. This is worth trying if the dog only eats his own feces. These products can be found on-line or at local pet supply stores.
– Add digestive enzymes, on the theory that undigested matter in poop attracts the dog to eat it. This will be helpful only if the dog eats his own feces. Digestive enzymes can be found in health food stores and pet supply stores.
– When feces-eating questions show up on training and dog owner groups on the Internet, supplements like pineapple, papaya, and MSG are often mentioned as possible remedies. Based on my reading on the dog lists, few people actually report success with using these.
If your dog’s feces-eating is caused by stress, you can make lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of coprophagy.
– Schedule sufficient and appropriate exercise and play for your dog every day; a tired dog is a better-behaved dog. Make sure the activities you choose are age- and health-appropriate, and leave your pup tired and relaxed. An on-leash walk, even a long one, may not the kind of tiring aerobic exercise that will help. Your dog needs a real romp, such as playing with other dogs at the dog park, an extended game of fetch, jogging or romping in the woods with you, or swimming in a pond or pool.
– Schedule an in-depth health exam to rule out pancreatic insufficiency or malnutrition (especially in a recently rescued dog).
– Dogs need to use their brains and their bodies in fun and challenging ways to stay emotionally healthy. If your dog doesn’t know basic good manners behaviors, teach these. In particular, focus on teaching your dog calm behaviors that promote self-control, such as:
– Sit to “Say please”
– Leave it or Off
– Drop it
Be sure to provide your dog with lots of interesting (to the dog!) chew toys, puzzles, and food-dispensing toys.
If none of the activities listed above work for your dog or your lifestyle, there are some excellent books available with ideas for fun ways to play with your dog, both indoors and out. Some of them include training simple tricks, and none require expensive equipment. See the box above for three excellent books on how to encourage and structure play with dogs. If you think your dog doesn’t know how to play, these books are definitely for you!
Despite the revulsion we bipeds experience at the thought of feces eating, coprophagy is not uncommon in dogs. The good news is that for most dogs it is a modifiable behavior. As with all canine behavior problems, implementing a careful and well crafted treatment plan will likely lead to diminishing or even ending this behavior. Consistency and a long-term approach applied with patience and planning will win the day.
Viviane Arzoumanian, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, PMCT2, CBATI, trains dogs professionally and for various rescue organizations. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.