Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?

Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB
Feb 24, 2020
   |   7 min read
Image: Photo Grapher / via Image Bank

Have you ever caught your dog eating poop and asked yourself, “Ugh, why do dogs eat poop?”

Well, you are definitely not alone. Poop-eating, also called coprophagia in dogs, is not exactly a hobby that you would consider ideal for your furry family member.

Here’s everything you need to know about why dogs eat poop and what you can or should do about it.

Why Dogs Eat Poop

The scientific term for the habit of poop-eating is coprophagia.

Dogs eat poop for a variety of reasons. Some are normal and some are signs of an underlying issue. It’s normal and somewhat common for dogs to eat the poop of another species, but it’s uncommon for adult dogs to eat their own poop or another dog’s poop.  

Normal Reasons Why Dogs Eat Poop

A dog eating poop is normal in the following scenarios:

1. They Are Nursing

Nursing female dogs eat the poop of their young to keep their den clean.

2. The Poop of Other Animals Tastes Good to Them

Dogs sometimes eat the poop of another species. The stool of other animals, such as horses or cats, contains nutrients that can be beneficial (but it can also contain harmful bacteria, so it’s best to discourage this).

Abnormal Reasons Why Dogs Eat Poop

Eating their own poop or another dog’s poop is not a common behavior, and you’ll need to find out what’s causing it. Here are four reasons why an adult dog will do this.

1. They Want to Get Your Attention

Some dogs may have started eating poop when they are young because they feel like it’s a game. For example, when puppies are young, they may explore by grabbing their poop with their mouths. If your dog does this, you will probably run towards them and yell some form of “drop it.”  

When this happens, some puppies may be startled and will drop the poop and never touch it again. Other puppies may interpret the yelling as an excited invitation to play.

As a result, they dart away, and then suddenly, an impromptu game of chase occurs. These puppies have learned another way to get their owners to “play” with them.

Your dog may not even necessarily want to play but might simply want you to engage with them. This is then carried over as your dog becomes an adult as a learned behavior that gets them attention.

It’s really difficult to not pay attention to a dog that’s eating poop.

2. They’re Not Feeling Well

If your dog is eating poop, they may not be feeling well.

When you have a puppy or dog that eats other dogs’ poop or his own poop, you should have your pet examined by your veterinarian. Coprophagia can be associated with diseases of the intestinal tract and sometimes other parts of the body (liver, brain, etc.).

If your adult dog has never been a poop eater and suddenly develops the habit in association with symptoms of disease, like weight loss, lethargy, discomfort, other behavioral changes, vomiting, or diarrhea, make an appointment with your veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will need to perform diagnostic tests to determine if your dog has an underlying medical problem, such intestinal parasites, nutritional deficiencies, or gastrointestinal disease.

3. They Have Anxiety

Other dogs eat poop as a displacement behavior when they are anxious. If an anxious dog is confined, they may defecate and eat their own poop.

Possible sources of anxiety that can cause coprophagia include:

  • General anxiety

  • Worrying about being confined

  • You being away from them (separation anxiety)

  • Lack of enrichment activities when confined

4. They’re Scared of Being Punished for an Accident

Some dogs may learn as puppies to eat their poop if they have been repeatedly punished by their owners for defecating in the house.

The dog may eat the evidence because they’re worried about being punished.

How to Stop a Dog From Eating Poop

If your puppy or dog is eating poop, the best way to help them is to put systems in place that prevent them from practicing the habit.

After you’ve determined why your dog eats poop, you can try these solutions based on the reasons behind the behavior.

Dogs That Eat Cat Poop 

Even though it’s considered normal, you might not want your dog to be diving into the litter box for a snack.

For dogs that eat cat poop, make sure you put up a pet gate or door that allows the cat access to their litter box while keeping the dog out of that room. You can also place the litter box on a table that is longer than the box to allow a spot for them to jump up onto.

Keep in mind, dogs usually repeatedly eat things that taste good to them. Poop may just appeal to their taste buds.

There are dog chew products that are made to discourage dogs from eating poop that may change the taste of the poop.

Puppies That Start Eating Poop

For puppies that like to eat poop, you will need to control their access to poop. When you are housetraining your puppy, take them out on a consistent schedule.

Once your puppy has finished defecating, praise them and offer them a tasty treat. While they are eating the treat, you can quickly clean up the stool.

This way, you’re not allowing your puppy any access and preventing the problem from occurring. You’re also positively reinforcing their potty training instead of punishing them for accidents.

Dogs That Are Crated or Have Anxiety or Separation Anxiety

For confined dogs that eat their own poop, we need to determine how to change some aspects of their confinement to help reduce their anxiety.

Some dogs need a bigger space or quieter area or simply more puzzle toys to keep them occupied.

For dogs that exhibit anxiety and cannot be left alone, it can help to look into daycare or options for your dog to come to work with you.

These dogs can benefit from seeking the help of a veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behaviorist.

Adult Dogs That Have Learned to Eat Their Poop

If a dog has learned to eat poop because they are scared of being punished for having an accident, the first step is to stop using punishment and then take active measures to prevent them from having access to the poop. It might be the case that the dog was punished by past owners, and in this case, you will still need to restrict access to the poop.

Once the behavior has been established, it's crucial that you remain patient and consistently use positive reinforcement to encourage alternative behaviors for your dog to perform other than eating the poop.

Redirect Your Dog’s Attention 

When you have an adult dog that has been eating poop for a long time, then it’s very important that you go out with your dog whenever they need to defecate.

As soon as they are finished, call them over to you for treats and then either put them back in the house or toss a toy for them to chase while you pick up the stool.

If your dog immediately turns around to eat their poop and does not listen to you, then you will need to keep your dog on their leash and lead them away as soon as they have defecated.

To truly discourage your dog from eating poop, you will need to continue to manage your dog and restrict access to the poop to prevent a relapse.

Some people are successful in teaching their dogs a “leave it” cue and then a “come” or automatic “sit” by their owner’s using positive reinforcement.

The real key is to always offer plenty of praise and high-value treats to your dog when they choose not to immediately go for their poop. To help, you should find a super high-value treat that they only get in these scenarios.

Utilize Dog Training Tools

Using a head collar may be helpful to guide your dog’s head away from the fresh poop. Turn them away and then pick up the stool immediately.

Some people have tried placing basket muzzles on their dogs to deter them, but some very determined dogs may simply learn to smush the muzzle on top of the poop to eat it.

Another tool that can stop a dog from eating poop is the use of a foxtail field mask. The fabric mesh has tiny holes and makes it difficult for poop to be pushed through the openings.

Make the Poop Less Appealing

If your dog is eating their own poop because it tastes good to them and they’ve developed the habit, you can also try using dog chews that are made to discourage this behavior.

These chews can be given in conjunction with your efforts to keep your dog away from their poop by distracting them with toys or using training tools.

Featured Image: iStock.com/bang

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