It does? Then you are not alone. It's a common behaviour. Many dogs do it, and in certain contexts it's completely normal. In some parts of the world, dogs are still used to clean baby's bottoms. And for the populations of village dogs around the world, a smorgasbord of poop undoubtedly forms a substantial part of their daily diets.
Poop eating - or 'coprophagia' to give it the correct term - is classed both as a normal behaviour and an abnormal behaviour in dogs depending on type and context.
Firstly, the types of coprophagia:
Firstly, the types of coprophagia:
- Inter-coprophagia (eating the poop of other species)
- Intra-coprophagia (eating of the poop of the same species)
- Auto-coprophagia (eating of own poop)
The first type, inter-coprophagia, is considered to be a completely normal canine behaviour. The poop of other species varies in content. Poop from herbivores will contain varying amounts of partly digested plant material. For the dog, this provides a source of energy. Unlike herbivores, the dog's digestive system is not geared up to convert the cellulose from green plants into glucose, however, by eating partly digested plant matter either in the form of excreted poop or stomach/intestinal content, the dog is able to continue to breakdown the plant matter and benefit from the resulting glucose. Poop from carnivores may contain all manner of things - undigested vitamins, minerals and proteins, and bacteria from the animal's own gut. In fact any poop is teaming in bacteria of various types, and so is essentially full of 'live prey'.
The second type of coprophagia, intra-coprophagia, is under the control of different neurochemicals to inter-coprophagia, and is a normal behaviour for a bitch with puppies. She will lick her puppies anogenital area in order to stimulate the puppies to pee and poop, which she consumes and so keeps the nesting area clean, as well as gaining another food source for herself.
The third type, auto-coprophagia, along with intra-coprophagia, are normal, exploratory behaviours for puppies – a passing phase, which most will naturally grow out of. Why some puppies engage in this behaviour and other don't is unclear, but those who do may gain various nutritional benefits such as essential gut bacteria, enzymes, B vitamins and protein that are needed either for the maturation and function of the puppy's own digestive system, or for development in general.
And so on to ‘not normal’ coprophagia …
Except for bitches with puppies, intra- and/or auto-coprophagia in adult dogs is not normal behaviour. Because it is abnormal, I will now refer to the behaviour as ‘coprophagia’ meaning ‘eating of dog poop’ in general, regardless if own or other dogs’. The possible reasons for coprophagia are as follows:
- Medically related causes of coprophagia include poor diet, pancreatic enzyme deficiency, intestinal parasites, malabsorption of nutrients (particularly protein and B vitamins), and hydrocephalus.
- Coprophagia is also an alliomemetic behaviour, meaning that it is a copied behaviour – a dog watches another dog eating poop and so copies the behaviour. This is especially evident in a kennel environment.
- Stress, anxiety and boredom can all be causal factors of coprophagia in adult dogs.
- There is a genetic predisposition in some dogs, often affecting entire litters. There is no research yet to suggest that coprophagia is a form of CCD (Canine Compulsive Disorder) but I suspect that in some cases, it is. CCD is usually associated with stress or brain neuro-transmitter imbalances, and has recently been found to have a genetic cause, within the neural cadherin-2 gene (CDH2). This is the same gene responsible for autism in humans. In other cases of genetically predisposed coprophagia, a different gene may be responsible, possibly the gene that controls hunger and satiation (feeling full). Certainly, many coprophagic dogs are hungry dogs, so this would make sense.
So ... what to do about it?
Nothing if your dog is a puppy or a bitch with puppies, or if your adult dog is partial to the occasional mouthful of horse, cow, sheep, rabbit, fox or deer poop.
If your adult dog is regularly eating its own or other dogs' poop, firstly consider the possible reasons for the behaviour outlined above. If you suspect a medical or dietary cause, this must be addressed - if dietary, supplementing the dog's usual food with seaweed, alfalfa, wheatgrass, spirolina or Brewers Yeast (a good source of B vitamins) can be helpful. If your dog has just returned from a break in a boarding kennels, it may have copied the behaviour from other dogs. If your dog only poop eats in the presence of other dogs, the cause could be anxiety related.
By far the best way to control a dog's poop eating is prevention. If your adult dog eats its own poop, please don't waste your money (or risk your dog's health) by adding any of the various off-the-shelf poop-eating preventative additives to your dog's food - just clean up immediately after your dog poops. If you must add anything to Fido's food in order to make his poop taste bad to him, try a safe dietary option such as pineapple, pumpkin or courgette (zucchini). If your dog regularly eats the poop of other dogs, your options could include keeping it on a lead in 'high poop' areas, working on a positively reinforced 'leave' command, and carrying something with you that you can use as a distraction and to keep your dog otherwise engaged in 'low poop' areas. These options could also apply if your dog is an excessive horse or cow poop eater.
One thing is for certain - poop eating, once it starts, is a notoriously difficult behaviour to stop. Eating in itself is possibly the ultimate behaviour that a dog can engage in, so poop-eating, particularly for hungry, stressed or anxious dogs is a highly desirable and rewarding behaviour. In our eyes though, it is understandably one of the most repulsive behaviours that our dogs can possibly engage in - after all, the thought of eating poop ourselves is utterly disgusting, and coprophagia in humans is considered an insanity. It all comes down to perspective and learning to accept that when Fido has been tucking into a fresh pile of deer poop or a frozen fox-poopsicle it's normal behaviour, and that it's better to avoid his kisses for a while.