Dogs That Eat Cat Poop

A few weeks ago, a couple of comments were made about dogs eating cat poop. Bloomlarry mentioned, “A gastroenterologist I know had a dog with a chronic case [of diarrhea]. After a couple of visits to the vet he decided to try a “probiotic.” His answer? A bit of cat stool. The chronic case cleared right up.”

But TheOldBroad countered, “However, I would assume that eating cat stool wouldn't be good for the dog, especially on an ongoing basis” adding, “Dr. Coates, could you address what problems might occur if a dog snacks on treats from the litter box (other than possible malnutrition because I assume it wouldn't be balanced...)?”

Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?

Dogs eating cat poop is in no way a new phenomenon. It's actually a documented habit with a scientific name to go along with it - coprophagia. There are a few behavioral and psychological justifications for why dogs eat cat poop (and other animal poop). According to a 2012 study by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, dogs eating poop is a reflection of thier ancestral instinct to protect other pack members from the parasites found in poop that's dropped in their den or resting areas.

Another possible reason why dogs eat cat poop and poop in general is they may be dealing with an environmental stress or behavioral trigger. Things like isolation, restrictive confinement, living with other sick or elderly dogs, and anxiety can all trigger poop-eating behavior in dogs. Sometimes puppies will get confused by sniffing their mother's breath after she cleans them and detecting fecal matter on it. This "appetite inoculation," can set a puppy up to develop a habit of eating poop.

But none of this information is new, and neither is the behavior.

Here’s my take on the cat poop controversy (such as it is).

First of all, I could never recommend feeding a dog cat poop as a way of treating diarrhea. While commercially prepared probiotics are living microorganisms that are found in feces, a random sample of poop is hardly produced with the benefit of the same quality control measures. Veterinarians do sometimes practice something called transfaunation, which is essentially taking the feces of a healthy animal and feeding it to another individual of the same species to colonize its gastrointestinal tract with normal bacteria, but feeding a dog cat poop doesn’t qualify on many levels.

I don’t worry about malnutrition when a dog eats cat feces. I typically tell my clients that 10 percent of a pet’s diet can consist of treats. These could be commercial products, healthy scraps from the kitchen, essentially anything that is not downright dangerous for dogs to eat. As long as 90 percent of a dog’s diet is nutritionally balanced, we can get away with 10 percent being somewhat random. I certainly hope that even the most dedicated canine poop-eaters out there are not getting more than 10 percent of their calories from feces! If they are, the situation definitely needs to be addressed ASAP.

My biggest health concern with regards to coprophagia (the fancy word for poop eating) centers on potential pathogens. Feces contain a lot of bacteria. Yes, some of them can be considered “good” bacteria that promote normal digestive function, but others are not so benign. A large dose of Clostridia, Salmonella, Campylobacter, or other disease-causing bacteria has the ability to make a dog quite ill. Parasites are another potential problem; a few have the ability to cross species boundaries. And just because a cat does not appear clinically ill, we can’t assume that his or her feces are incapable of passing on disease. Some individuals are asymptomatic carriers, but still shed microorganisms that are capable of making other individuals sick.

Now I don’t want to make too big of a deal of this. Dogs eat cat feces all the time and the vast majority of them never develop any problems. In my opinion, the number one reason to stop the behavior is the “ick” factor. Do you really want your dog to snack from the litter box and then give you or your kid/grandchild/friend a big old smackeroo? I didn’t think so.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Thinkstock