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 you do that?”

Well, you are definitely not alone. Poop-eating 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.

Coprophagia: Dogs Eating Poop

The scientific term for the habit of poop-eating is coprophagia. In certain situations, it’s not uncommon for dogs.

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

2 Common Reasons Why Dogs Eat Poop

Poop-eating is normal in the following scenarios:

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

  • Eating 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).

However, there are dogs out there that eat poop outside of these scenarios, and you’ll need to figure out what’s behind the habit.

4 Abnormal Reasons Why Your Dog May Be Eating Poop

Eating their own poop or another dog’s poop is not a common behavior. 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 your dog when they are eating poop.

2. They’re Not Feeling Well

Some dogs may engage in this behavior when they are not feeling well.

When you have a puppy or dog that eats his own or other dogs’ stool, you should have your pet examined by your veterinarian. Coprophagy 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 may 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 a puppy 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 Your Dog From Eating Poop 

If you have a dog or puppy that has taken an interest in 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, 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 by you for 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 their poop-eating habit, 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 prevent dogs 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 eats 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.

By: Dr. Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB

Featured Image: iStock.com/bang

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