Question from Jayne Whybrow:
Why do dogs find cat poop so alluring ? How can I stop my pup sticking his head in the cat litter?
Answer from Shanika Winters:
Thank you Jayne for your question regarding your puppy and his interest in the cat litter tray. I will answer your question by discussing why your dog is interested in the cat litter tray and possible methods to stop this unwanted behaviour.
Why does my dog find another animal’s poo so interesting?
Animals in general leave a scent marker where they pass faeces (poo) and this helps to mark out their territory. Therefore faeces are naturally interesting whether it is of your own species or another. The scents could indicate a possible mate, a possible threat to your territory and even predators/prey.
Even our domesticated pet animals have not lost these instinctive behaviours. Unfortunately as humans/pet owners we find our dogs interest in the faeces of other animals very off putting especially when they may lick or eat it. Not only do we worry about them passing germs onto us humans but also we are concerned about them getting ill from infections or even parasites.
So what we are dealing with when a dog is interested in e.g. cat poo is a bad habit/unwanted behaviour.
How can I stop my dog from investigating the cat litter tray?
In order to try and change a behaviour we have to firstly understand why it happens and then try and redirect the behaviour in a direction we are happy to encourage. The first section of my answer goes into why the behaviour happens and now we can address possible solutions.
Types of litter tray:
Simple open litter tray-this is just a shallow plastic tray with sides but no cover
Covered litter tray-this is a shallow plastic tray at the base but then has a cove over the top, with an opening at one end to allow your cat in and out.
Covered litter tray with a door-this is as above but the opening has a door on it, this can help reduce the amount of litter that gets flicked out of the tray as well as helping to contain odours.
The more difficult it is for your dog to access the cat litter tray, the more masked/hidden the scent of the cat faeces are then the less likely he is to show interest in the tray and its contents. Therefore if you place the cat litter tray in a place that is easy for your cat to reach but not your dog, use litter that helps to mask the smell of the faeces/urine and ideally use a covered litter tray with a door then this will all help to discourage your dog from being interested in it.
It is also advisable to clean out the litter tray as often as you can, at the very least once daily but if possible after each time the tray has been used. This will reduce the smells present which will mean that the litter tray will be far less interesting to your dog.
How to discourage your dog from his interest in the cat litter tray:
Distraction and deterrents are the next area I will discuss!
Generally when it comes to trying to modify an animal’s behaviour we try and focus on positive reinforcement, this is where you praise and reward a behaviour which you want you’re pet to show rather than punishing them for unwanted behaviours.
It would be great if you can provide your dog with as much distraction as possible to help lessen his interest n the cat litter tray and its contents. Methods of distraction can include play, toys and training. Playing with your dog whether it be throwing a ball or rolling around and tickling his tummy will give your dog mental stimulation as well as strengthen the pet owner bond. Toys such as squeaky balls treat stuffed puzzles and chews are also good to give your dog something more attractive and interesting than the cat litter tray to investigate. When choosing toys, make sure that they are safe, regularly inspect them for damage and replace before they become dangerous e.g. possible risk of them being eaten and getting stuck. As regards food stuffed toys keep in mind your dog’s overall energy requirements and how you may need to reduce how much food you give him if he is getting extra calories from his treat stuffed toy.
Training either in the form of organised classes or quality dog and owner time can really help to give extra mental stimulation to your dog, build up the dog owner bond as well as distracting your dog form unwanted behaviours. It is really important to remember that the more we put into our pets the more we will get back from them in terms of good behaviours and owner enjoyment.
Deterrents are verging on negative reinforcement to try and avoid/stop an unwanted behaviour. If the deterrent is used carefully and we try and follow up other good behaviours with positive reinforcement then there is a place for this. Most owners will have already told their dog off/shouted at him for unwanted behaviours. The problem with this is that the negative focus then is directed at the owner. If possible it would be better to remove yourself one step from the deterrent; one possibility is the use of a high pitch sounds device or a spray. Ideally these negative reinforcement behaviours should be used as a last resort and under the close direction of either your vet or a trained animal behaviour specialist.
It is really important to remember to positively reward/praise your dog for all the times he does not show interest in the cat litter tray. The reward can be in the form of kind words, a pat/cuddle and at times treats.
I hope that my answer helps you to understand your dog’s behaviour and that you can make a start on discouraging his unwanted behaviour.
Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)
If you have any worries about your pet, please make an appointment with your vet, or try our Symptom Guide.