Eating poo, or ‘coprophagia’ is one of the most disgusting habits our dogs can have. It’s actually fairly common for dogs to eat their own poo. About 16% of dogs eating poo at least three times in their lives. There are lots of possible causes. We’ll work through a few to help you get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Is it normal for dogs to eat poo?
Whether or not poo-eating is normal depends on your definition of normal – lots of dogs do it – but on the whole, vets agree it should be discouraged. It’s much more likely for your dog to get parasites if they eat poo. The increased bacterial load in their mouths could cause problems, especially if they have damaged gums from dental disease. In addition, many dogs lick faces – and the last thing you need is Salmonella, E. Coli or Campylobacter spread on your face!
Which dogs eat poo?
One study suggests that dogs living in groups of two or more are more likely to eat poo. Dogs that are described by their owners as ‘greedy’ are also more likely to eat poo, too. Dogs are also more likely to eat poo if they’re very young and exploring their environment. They could have been incorrectly housetrained (i.e dogs that have had their noses rubbed in their business). Mother dogs often clean up after their pups – this is entirely normal and shouldn’t be discouraged.
While the vast majority of the causes or poo-eating are behavioural, there are a few medical conditions that might be a good idea to rule out first.
‘Pica’ is the medical term for the eating of non-food items, and that can encompass coprophagia as well as eating gravel and soil. Pica can be caused by many things, but the most relevant for our dogs is nutrient imbalance or deficiency. Dogs fed a poor diet may resort to eating stool in an instinctual attempt to get a vitamin or mineral they are lacking. So the first place to look is at your dog’s diet, to check that it is complete and balanced. Of course, some dogs fed a balanced diet have something wrong internally that causes a problem with digesting the diet. This can leave them nutrient-deficient.
In the same vein, dogs that struggle with digestion or absorption of nutrients sometimes produce poo that still contains lots of nutrients. This means their faeces are more attractive and palatable to other dogs. One example would be exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, where the body can’t properly digest fat. This results in faeces with lots of fat content – yummy!
The other main group of conditions that cause coprophagia is those that cause excessive hunger, like diabetes and Cushing’s. Very hungry dogs are much more likely to eat their own stool or that of other dogs. So if you notice an increase in appetite as well as eating poo, you should get your dog checked out.
Your vet will want to discuss a diagnostic ‘plan of action’ to rule out the most likely medical causes. Depending on your dog’s symptoms they may suggest that you try a change of diet first, or do further testing including blood samples, poo samples or even imaging.
Behaviour and Habit
Most dogs that eat stool don’t have a medical problem – eating poo is behavioural or down to ‘bad habits’. There are lots of theories as to why eating poo evolved in dogs. We do know it’s more common in dogs kept in a group of two or more, and dogs that are described as ‘greedy’. Some people thing that dogs habitually eat poo as it’s one way to keep the den clean and free of parasites. Dogs almost invariably eat poo less than a couple of days old- before parasites have a chance to become infective. So, the theory is that by eating the poo whilst the parasite isn’t ready to infect the dog they kill the parasites and keep the den clean. It’s quite normal for dogs that have recently had puppies to ‘clean up’ after them by eating the stool.
As puppies age, they often ingest poo when they’re exploring the world. Like small children, everything has to be tasted at least once! However, poo eating should be discouraged in puppies. At the first sign to try to ensure it doesn’t become a nasty habit.
It can be difficult to prevent your dog from eating poo, and there’s no definitive way to stop it. The most successful way appears to be by training a strong ‘leave it’ command, but there are some products that may help some dogs. It’s a good idea to seek professional help from a vet or behaviourist early, whilst the habit hasn’t fully formed, so that you can rule out medical causes and get the best advice for your pup.