We know that dogs enjoy playing in puddles of mud or inspecting the trash bin, but did you know that these dirty behaviors can go even further? For example, have you ever caught dogs eating feces?
Stool eating, or coprophagia, as it is scientifically known, is a canine behavior associated with dogs eating feces, both canine and belonging to other animals (dogs eat cat poop, too!). You might be surprised, but coprophagia in dogs is quite a regular occurrence. According to a 2012 study, one in four dogs has resorted to eating feces at least once, whereas 16% were classified as “severe” stool eaters due to the recurrence of the stool eating act. So, your dog may be a stool eater without even realizing it!
Is Coprophagia a Disease or a Symptom?
Dogs eat feces for a litany of reasons, and dog parents must take a closer look at what causes the behavior before passing judgment. Deficiencies in the gut microbiome, medical issues, intestinal parasites, deficient diets, an innate predisposition, anxiety, and attention-seeking are just a few reasons you're harboring a poop eater in the house. Eliminating coprophagia is possible as long as you, the dog owner, work to get at the root cause of the behavior when you see it happening. Once you rectify the underlying causes, your dog will say goodbye to poop eating indefinitely!
Today's article will address the main causes behind poop eating in dogs and why addressing this issue is mandatory for your dog's happy and healthy life!
Risks Associated With Coprophagia in Dogs
The main risk associated with coprophagia in dogs has to do with contracting harmful bacteria and worms. Animal feces might harbor dangerous parasites that can jeopardize your dog's health, such as hookworms, roundworms, Giardia, Whipworms, and Coccidia. Regular fecal exams will help you determine if your dog has intestinal parasites.
Your Dog Might Suffer From a Bacterial or Enzymatic Deficiency
Eating feces is a clear sign that your dog has a microbiome deficiency. The dog is smart and will seek out ways to correct imbalances in the body. A gut imbalance will prompt your dog to find alternative sources of good bacteria and enzymes, and eating feces is a natural way of replenishing lost bacteria since feces are 50% bacteria. Instinct tells your dog to go out and address his dysbiosis (i.e., an unbalanced gut microbiome) through poop eating. Either by eating his own poop or, for example, cat poop, your dog will find natural ways to supplement lost bacteria or nutrients.
Stool eaters are more than capable of balancing their gut microbiomes on their own, but to be sure that there's nothing else going on in the gut, a microbiome analysis is recommended. A gut microbiome test is easy to do at home and is a great way to see inside your dog and quickly realize how severe the dog's dysbiosis is and what steps should be taken to re-establish a balance in the gut.
Medical Causes and Coprophagia
The second reason potentially hiding behind your dog's stool eating behavior is medical issues, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is the main medical culprit. This disease is synonymous with the canine pancreas' inability to produce the proper enzymes and break down food. Unable to properly digest food, your dog will turn to alternative food sources, namely food that has already been digested.
Other telling symptoms of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency are polyphagia (i.e., insatiable hunger), weight loss, and a significant volume of loose stools. Affected dogs will also exhibit fat in their stools (i.e., steatorrhea). The occurrence of stool eating behavior simultaneously with the aforementioned symptoms could point toward exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, so be sure to consult yourself with a veterinarian before the disease worsens.
An interesting medical condition that sits at a crossroads between medicine and behavior is pica, a canine predisposition towards eating the most unexpected foods: from rocks and carpets to feces, no strange object is safe from the dog's ravenous appetite.
The issues associated with this condition are multiple and intricate. First off, there's no clear reason hiding behind pica, nor a necessary medical abnormality. Starvation, nutritional and hormonal imbalances, and thyroid disease can all hide behind this strange behavior. And the underlying causes go as far as anxiety, stress, and boredom. Second, your dog's awry food preferences may lead to poisoning and bowel obstruction, putting his life in serious jeopardy. Treating this disease begins by running thorough tests to identify any underlying medical conditions, addressing medical and behavioral issues, and preventing the behavior altogether.
A Poop Eater Might Be Predisposed to This Behavior
Yes, some dogs show a genetic predisposition toward consuming all kinds of weird things, including their own poop. Labrador Golden Retrievers, for example, are twice as likely to eat poop than any other breed, something that, obviously, is not a fine addition to their résumé. Terriers and Shetland sheepdogs fall into the same category.
Unfortunately, there's no clear explanation why certain breeds are more severe stool eaters than others. Although we do know that coprophagia is an evolutionary relic, the reason why it stuck more with certain breeds is beyond researchers.
In some cases, a mutation of the pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) gene, the gene responsible for sending messages to the brain concerning appetite, might be to blame. Once it suffers a mutation, the POMC gene no longer communicates to the brain that the dog has had enough food, so the dog pursues food even after a satiating meal. Research has uncovered that one in five Labrador Retrievers carries the POMC gene mutation, so if you catch your Lab eating a stool from time to time, there's a good reason!
Cleaning After a Litter Box Full of Puppies
Coprophagia in dogs also occurs during the first three weeks after whelping. Through stool eating, female dogs clean the litter box for their newborn puppies. During this time, the puppies themselves eat their own poop or even other dogs' poop in order to emulate their mother's behavior. The mother dog will cease from coprophagia during weaning.
Coprophagia As an Instinctive Behavior
A more instinctive reason for coprophagia has to do with the dog's wolven roots. The canine genetic material contains various behaviors that help protect the health and wellbeing of the pack. For example, canine ancestors refrained from pooping in dens through fear of spreading intestinal parasites contained in feces. However, old and sick dogs would leave their feces close to the den instead of in a more remote location. Although fresh stools are less likely to bring any harm to the pack, hardened stools are a haven for intestinal parasites and other disease-causing pathogens. Therefore, in order to avoid the risk of spreading diseases, dogs would eat feces found in and close to the den. The same behavior applied to dogs suffering from fecal incontinence.
The instinctive nature of canine stool eating has been subjected to scientific research, with a 2018 study bringing scientists closer to this conclusion. Aside from health-related reasons, canine ancestors would eat feces in order to protect their territories from other predators.
Your Dog Might Be Hungry for Your Attention
Dogs are known to exhibit mischievous behaviors in order to attract the attention of dog owners, even to the point of eating stools! All they're looking for is a reaction: if your dog knows that such behavior will be rewarded with attention (of any kind), he won't refrain from eating his own feces. In such contexts, coprophagia is akin to other behaviors such as nipping, jumping, and stealing things to cause a chase. If your dog suddenly resorts to coprophagia but hasn't received enough attention lately, don't punish this behavior. Instead, take him outside and spend some quality time together!
Dogs Eat Feces As a Sign of Anxiety
Research is adamant on this topic: dogs will eat stools as a sign of multiple anxiety types. Together with tail chasing, barking, and compulsive behaviors like licking or biting, coprophagia can become manifest when too many stressing factors are at play.
Stool eating is also triggered by improper treatment during house training. For example, a dog who fears punishment due to crate elimination will do his best to cover his undesirable deed; however, failure to remove the poop will result in additional punishment from the owner. This pattern can easily turn into a vicious circle, thus adding more to the dog’s anxiety levels. Such behavior can only be curbed if the dog is taught that elimination is not synonymous with punishment; otherwise, the vicious cycle will never end.
Is Your Dog's Food Quality Adequate?
Aside from behavioral or medical reasons, a dog will eat feces to tell his parents that his current diet lacks essential nutrients. And it's not just dogs who manifest such behaviors. For example, rabbits must resort to everyday coprophagia in order to supplement their essential nutrient intake. Of course, dogs do not have to eat stools to ensure an adequate nutrient intake. However, resorting to this behavior means that your dog has detected his necessary nutrients in other dogs or animals' poop. For example, dogs are quick to pick up sugar from foreign fecal material.
Although helpful as a short-term solution, coprophagia is nothing more than a patchwork. You can't expect your dog to obtain all of his key nutrients through poop eating. Furthermore, while eating his own poop might be innocuous to his health, eating other dogs or animals' poop can lead to the proliferation of viruses and parasites. Only through a healthier, nutrient-rich diet will your dog's nutritional deficiencies be brought under control and coprophagia vanish.
Dogs Eat Poop for Various Reasons!
Dogs eat poop—their own poop or even cat feces—for a litany of reasons, But unfortunately, not all coprophagia occurrences have to do with innate canine behavior. Instead, medical reasons, bacterial and enzyme deficiencies, anxiety, boredom, and a poor diet might be the culprits poop eating seeks to uncover. Your dog might be asking for more nutritious food but doesn't know how to voice this necessity!
We hope that today's article has brought answers to your coprophagia questions and equipped you with practical methods to curb this unpleasant behavior. For more advice on dog nutrition, health, and training, make sure that you contact us and check out our blog!
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