Dogs sometimes eat poop out of boredom, for attention, to avoid punishment, or due to health issues. However, stool eating, also known as coprophagy, is actually quite normal behavior for a puppy. And though you may find it utterly gross, the behavior does have an underlying cause. Moreover, if the cause is not addressed appropriately and in a timely manner, it does have a good chance of becoming a recurring habit.
To begin, do not be immediately alarmed when you see your puppy doing it. Reacting in a way that is alarming to the puppy can do more harm than good, and may even lead to more coprophagy and other behavioral problems.
Puppies may begin eating poop while still in the litter. At this stage, it is natural for the mother to eat the stool of her puppies. She does this both to keep the “den” clean and to protect the puppies from predators that might be drawn by the scent. (It doesn’t matter that there are no predators in your home, this is primitive evolutionary behavior -- other animals do the same thing with their young.) The mother does this from the time the puppies are born until they are weaned, and since puppies are in the process of learning how to be dogs, they may naturally follow her lead and do what she does.
The mother usually stops eating her puppies’ feces around the time that they have begun eating solid food and can leave the den to defecate, but the puppy may still continue the behavior until he becomes more mature. It is learned behavior along with natural puppy curiosity that leads them to smell, taste and even eat their own or other dogs’ stool.
To begin discouraging this behavior before the puppy is ready to go to his new home, it is the breeder’s responsibility to always clean up after the puppies, before they have a chance to eat it. However, this may not have been the practice used in your puppy’s first home.
Other Reasons for Stool Eating
As previously stated, it is not uncommon to find your puppy eat its own or other dogs’ stool. However, dogs who are receiving a well-balanced and nutrient-rich diet should grow out of this behavior. If your puppy continues to eat poop despite all your attempts to stop the behavior, you will need to consult a veterinarian or behaviorist in order to identify the problem.
Here are several reasons that may explain why your puppy is eating poop:
- Poor digestion: Your puppy may not be digesting his food properly. This may be because the food is low in digestible nutrients and is coming out basically the same way it went in, or because the puppy has a problem with his digestive system. In these cases, the puppy’s stool tastes pretty much like the food he just ate. For the former, switching to a higher quality food can solve this. For the latter (if switching foods has not helped), you will have to have the puppy checked by a veterinarian.
- Boredom: Boredom is another cause for stool eating. If a puppy is left alone for a long time, he may find relief from boredom by playing with and eating his own stool.
- Stress: Stress will often drive puppies, and adult dogs, to eat their own stool. This may be stress from being brought into a new home, or from any of a number of reasons. Therefore, you should not induce further stress in the puppy by punishing him for eating his stool.
- Hunger: Worms and other intestinal parasites can leach nutrients from the puppy’s system, causing him to try to supplement his diet with whatever he can find that appears remotely edible. On the same note, your puppy may simply not be getting enough to eat during the day. Puppies are growing and most need to be fed two to three times a day. If you have any questions regarding how much or how often you should feed your puppy, talk to your veterinarian.
- Attention: If you have already responded several times to this behavior by getting upset, your puppy may continue to do it just for the reaction. Even though the reaction is a negative one, all the puppy knows is that he is getting extra attention from you.
Conversely, your puppy may eat his stool to avoid negative attention. If you have been responding angrily to “accidents,” his response may be to effectively “hide” the evidence by eating it.
Finally, some puppies, and adult dogs, will eat their own stool just because they like to do it. There is not always a satisfying explanation for the behavior, and the best you can do is to try to prevent your dog from doing it by distracting him and getting the stool picked up as quickly as possible.
How to Stop a Puppy from Eating Poop
- Always feed your puppy a good quality puppy food so that you can be sure that he is getting all of the protein, minerals, vitamins and other nutrients he needs for normal growth. Observe your puppy for signs that he may be suffering from poor digestion, such as poor growth, insufficient weight gain, vomiting, watery stool or stool with large particles of undigested food. If you see any of these signs, consult your veterinarian. This can become a serious issue if not resolved.
- Make sure that your puppy is getting all the exercise, playtime and attention that he needs. Then when you have to leave him alone for a while, he will likely sleep rather than trying to relieve his stress, boredom or loneliness by eating feces.
- Be diligent in cleaning up after your puppy eliminates. Do not give him the chance to play with or eat his stool. Try placing the puppy on a leash when you take him outside to relieve himself, and do not allow him to inspect his stool after he has defecated. Distract him from the stool by calling him to you, and when he responds appropriately, reward him with a training treat and verbal encouragement and then take him inside, away from the stool, before you go back to pick it up.
- Some experts have found that adding meat tenderizer, digestive enzymes, or natural additives to the puppy’s food makes a big difference. Stool eating deterrents cause the feces to have a particularly unappealing smell that will discourage him from eating it. If you cannot immediately clean up the stool, or if there are some old stool piles in your yard, you can spray it with hot pepper sauce or mouth wash. However, it is still more effective to just clean up after the puppy each time he eliminates.
- Always keep your puppy on a leash whenever you take him out for a walk. This will prevent him from eating the stool of the other dogs that are left lying around in the streets. Note that some parasites and illnesses can be transmitted through stool, so you don’t want your puppy to come into contact with stool (of course, this is not always possible). If the puppy begins to sniff at a stool pile, gently pull on his leash and lead him in another direction. Use immediate distraction techniques as soon as he begins to show curiosity for his or another dog’s stool, and reward him with verbal praise and a training treat when he responds appropriately.
- If he is consistently discouraged each time he tries to play with or eat his stool and rewarded when he behaves appropriately, he will learn to let go of this habit in a short period of time. Soon enough, you will be able to give your dog a little bit more freedom and not have to worry about him eating stool when you are not looking.
What About Adult Dogs?
As was already mentioned, most puppies eventually outgrow their desire to eat their own or other dogs feces, but there are some dogs that either continue to eat poop or seemingly develop the habit out of nowhere as adults. What’s an owner to do in these cases?
First of all, 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. Coprophagy can be associated with diseases of the intestinal tract and sometimes other parts of the body (liver, brain, etc.).
Once you are convinced that your adult dog is healthy, all the techniques mentioned above for treating puppies with coprophagy are also appropriate for adults. These include switching to a high-quality, highly digestible diet; increasing the amount of exercise, play and attention the dog is getting; being diligent about immediately cleaning up feces; walking your dog on a leash; using stool eating deterrents; and distracting your dog when he shows interest in feces and rewarding him for leaving feces alone.
Finally, some types of feces are simply too enticing (from a dog’s point of view) to pass up. Most dogs will eat cat stool or horse poop when given half a chance. Owners simply have to prevent dogs from having access to “treats” like these.