Dog owners witnessing their pets eating their own fecal matter usually swoop in and make their dog stop eating poop immediately. However, if they knew why dogs eat poop, they might not view this behavior as something repulsive. In fact, learning about why dogs eat poop can provide insight into their dog’s health and prevent a potential disease or disorder from progressing by getting veterinary treatment for their pet.
What is Coprophagia?
The medical term for eating poop is coprophagia. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (2012), one out of every six dogs are diagnosed as chronic poop eaters and nearly 25 percent of dogs are caught by owners eating poop at least one or two times. From an evolutionary perspective, animal behavior experts theorize that today’s domesticated dogs eat fresh fecal matter out of instinct, speculating that ancestral dogs (canids) may have eaten their poop (if dropped in the rest/den area) to protect members of the pack from parasites.
Another theory regarding coprophagia is that coprophagia could be a survival response to ancestral dogs coping with periodic starvation. Other animals are known to eat their own poop as well, such as rabbits, dung beetles, guinea pigs and rodents, which may lend some support to this theory that eating fecal matter is an instinctual behavior.
Dog owners should know that coprophagia will not harm their dog. It may reinfect them with parasites and infectious pathogens but these entities are already in their system. However, eating another animal’s poop could cause harm to a dog that is not infected by pathogens in that animal’s poop. If a dog owner sees their dog eating poop that they know does not belong to their dog, they should watch their dog for signs of illness over the next few days.
Why Puppies Eat Poop
Puppies, like human babies, are naturally curious about their environment and will explore objects in their environment orally–biting, chewing, licking and, unfortunately, eating their poop. In addition, a puppy is more likely to eat poop if the poop contains more undigested food than digested food. Puppy owners should consider coprophagia in young dogs nothing more than a way for pups to learn more about their world. However, dogs that continue to eat poop beyond their puppy years may be suffering a medical or behavioral condition requiring veterinary attention.
Enzyme Deficiency and Coprophagia in Dogs
The natural canine diet is rich in protein and digestive enzymes essential for a dog’s gut health. Domesticated dogs today do not kill and eat a prey’s flesh and organs. Instead, they are given bowls of processed kibble containing too many fillers like corn, soy and wheat and not enough protein and enzymes.
Enzymes are microscopic catalysts causing chemical reactions. Digestive enzymes break down food so the body can absorb food nutrients. Although dogs produce enzymes naturally, they do not produce enough to fully support digestion. Consequently, they need to get extra enzymes from the food they eat.
Animal poop contains small but negligible amounts of undigested nutrients. Dogs with a digestive enzyme deficiency may “crave” these enzymes and start eating their poop. Other signs a dog could be suffering an enzyme deficiency include:
- Uncoordinated movements/balance problems
- Getting tired easily during physical activity
- Dehydration even though the dog is drinking water
- Recurring infections
- Appetite changes
- Eating fecal matter
Veterinarians diagnose a digestive enzyme deficiency by performing a complete blood count, urinalysis and, in some cases, ultrasounds to determine if an enzyme deficiency has provoked organ swelling. Vets also test stool samples for evidence of parasites that attach to the intestinal walls and drain the dog’s body of vitamins and minerals.
In addition to eating poor quality food, dogs can suffer digestive enzyme deficiencies and start eating their poop due to thyroid disease, diabetes, Cushing’s disease and being treated with steroids for inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) and Coprophagia in Dogs
Although collies and German Shepherds are more vulnerable to suffering exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, all dogs can be diagnosed with this disease even if they are not genetically prone to EPI. When a dog’s pancreas does not release enough digestive enzymes to properly break down proteins, fats and starches, the dog may develop EPI and begin to eat their poop to obtain nutrients they need.
Symptoms of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency include:
- Weight loss without change to appetite
- Chronic diarrhea/loose stools
- Larger than normal stool size/more fat in the stool
- Excessive flatulence/gurgling noises in the stomach
- Loss of muscle mass
- Poor quality skin and coat
Veterinary treatment for EPI involves giving dogs dietary supplements containing pancreatic enzymes. Although diet does not contribute to EPI, dog owners should avoid giving a dog with EPI food that is low in fat and high in fiber. About 4 out every 10 dogs diagnosed with EPI are also deficient in vitamin B12 (cobalamin) and possibly vitamin E. Vets will also prescribe special supplements to replace these vitamins if reduced levels exist.
Parasites and Coprophagia
Hookworms, roundworms and tapeworms are parasites that live and feed inside a dog’s intestines. Parasitical worms attach themselves to the inside walls of the intestines because they can easily absorb nutrients from digested food as it enters the intestines. Dogs suffering a parasitical infection often develop coprophagia because these worms remove nutrients from digested foodstuffs before the dog’s body can absorb and utilize them.
Hookworms feed more on blood than they do on food and can severely sicken puppies due to loss of blood. Puppies can be infected with hookworms via nursing while adult dogs eating another dog’s fresh poop can swallow hookworm eggs in the poop. Signs of a hookworm infection include weight loss without changes in appetite, diarrhea and general unwellness.
Roundworms and tapeworms are the most common worm parasites infecting dogs. Veterinarians detect roundworms and tapeworms by examining stool samples. Signs of a roundworm or tapeworm infection in dogs include diarrhea, coughing, malnourishment, vomiting and frequent poop-eating. Dogs with long-term roundworm/tapeworm infections typically suffer extremely reduced nutrient levels and dehydration. After treating a roundworm or tapeworm infection with prescription medication, veterinarians urge dog owners to start their pets on parasite preventives to avoid recurring worm infections.
Heartworms in Poop-Eating Dogs
A heartworm infestation damages the lungs and heart while sapping a dog of vital nutrients. Not all dogs with heartworm will eat their poop but it is something a veterinarian will check if a dog is diagnosed with coprophagia. Signs of a possible heartworm infection in dogs include:
- Fits of coughing
- Sudden lethargy, sleepiness and inactivity
- Loss of appetite and rapid weight loss
- Chest swelling or bulge
- Difficulty breathing, straining to breathe
- High blood pressure
- Appearing dizzy or unsteady (dogs in advanced stages of a heartworm infection may faint)
To diagnose heartworm in dogs, vets use a heartworm antigen exam kit that detects heartworm proteins in a pet’s blood. Veterinarians need a small sample of blood for detecting heartworm proteins in the blood of an infected dog. Results of heartworm tests are obtained within 24 hours so that if the test returns a positive result, your pet can start heartworm treatment immediately.
Since it takes about six months for a heartworm infection to show a positive test result, puppies under seven months old should begin taking heartworm medication even if a heartworm test produces a negative result. Your pet should then be re-checked six months later to ensure they do not have heartworm.
Malabsorption and Coprophagia
Malabsorption in dogs and other small animals is a digestive disorder interfering with an animal’s ability to absorb nutrients. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is a type of malabsorption disorder causing dogs to suffer malnutrition due to lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the body. Any infection or inflammation affecting the small intestine can induce malabsorption and chronic, poop eating in dogs.
Other diseases associated with malabsorption include inflammatory bowel disease, enteric (diarrhea) infections, food sensitivities/allergies and lymphosarcoma. Symptoms of malabsorption disorders include weight loss despite eating constantly, diarrhea/loose stools three to four times a day and possibly vomiting. Pet owners may notice hair around their dog’s anus appearing oily or greasy. This is because fats are not digested as easily as other materials and will remain largely undigested in stools.
Underfeeding and Coprophagia
Nutritional guidelines for dogs provided by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) list the type and amount of nutrient dogs need to have to maintain their health. Some of these nutrients include:
- Protein – 18 to 22 percent (of dietary intake)
- Crude fat – 5 to 8 percent
- Linoleic acid – 1 percent
- Calcium – 1 to 0.6 percent
Food fed to dogs should also contain less than one percent of phosphorous, potassium, sodium, copper, zinc, thiamine and vitamins A, D, E. Depending on a dog’s size, activity level and overall health, these guidelines should be adjusted to meet a dog’s individual needs.
Anytime dogs fail to receive adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, they can resort to eating their poop or another dog’s poop because they instinctively crave these nutrients. In addition, dog owners may be feeding their dog high-quality dog food containing adequate nutrients but are not feeding their pet enough food. This can result in malnutrition and coprophagia as well.
Stress and Poop-Eating in Dogs
In response to living in stressful environments (isolated from humans, restrictive cages/confinement, overcrowded shelters), dogs may engage in coprophagia because they feel anxious, bored and depressed. Owners who use harsh methods for house-training dogs may also be the reason a dog suddenly starts eating poop. Just like people turn to unusual or unhealthy behaviors when stressed, dogs also seek an outlet for unpleasant, fearful feelings.
Diagnosing Medical Causes of Coprophagia
A noninvasive procedure used to diagnose a variety of gastrointestinal disorders affecting dogs, an endoscopy allows veterinarians to view the interior of a dog’s digestive tract using an imaging sensor device introduced via the mouth or anus. Detailed images of a dog’s esophagus, stomach and intestines are then transmitted through a small digital camera attached to the endoscope for the purpose of making an accurate diagnosis.
An endoscopy procedure is given to dogs suffering from chronic vomiting, diarrhea, blood in the stool or if the dog has swallowed a foreign object. Instead of doing exploratory surgery, veterinarians rely on an endoscopy to detect esophageal or stomach ulcers, tumors, polyps or exactly where a foreign object may be located in an animal’s GI tract. Vets will also be able to identify inflammation, scarring or any abnormal narrowing or swelling of a dog’s intestines and colon without having to operate.
If a suspicious lesion is detected during an endoscopy, veterinarians may perform a biopsy of the area to accurately diagnose the lesion. Endoscopes have tiny channels through which your vet passes a biopsy tool capable of taking tissue samples. These samples will then be submitted to an animal pathologist for evaluation.
Diseases promoting coprophagia like gastrointestinal inflammation or cancer can be diagnosed during an endoscopy procedure. However, if cancerous tumors are embedded too deeply (beyond the inner lining of the animal’s colon or stomach, for example) to be detected by an endoscopic biopsy, it may be possible to miss the cancer. If dog continues to suffer clinical signs of cancer after the endoscopy, biopsies may need obtained through exploratory surgery.
How is Coprophagia Treated?
The quickest and easiest way to prevent dogs from eating poop is to prevent access to poop by keeping yards and other areas clean of fecal matter. However, this does not treat medical problems often suffered by dogs with coprophagia. Taking a poop-eating dog to the veterinarian should be the first thing a dog owner does before trying other methods to stop their dog from eating poop.
Dietary Supplements for Dogs with Coprophagia
If a veterinarian performs a complete physical exam on a dog that eats poop and does not find evidence of parasites or intestinal disorders, they may prescribe one or more of the following:
Containing precise mixtures of bacteria beneficial to gastrointestinal health, probiotics for dogs can help restore a healthy balance of bacteria in a dog’s gut and improve digestion and absorption of nutrients. The intestines are home to billions of bacteria-both good and bad–that, under healthy conditions, keep each other in balance. If an imbalance occurs (more “bad” bacteria than “good” bacteria), dogs can suffer numerous health problems ranging from diarrhea, infections, malabsorption and, unfortunately, poop-eating behavior.
Dog owners giving their pets probiotics should make sure they buy probiotics specifically formulated for dogs. Human probiotics are ineffective and could even worsen coprophagia.
For poop-eating dogs suffering vitamin deficiencies due to illness, disease or parasitical infections, vitamin supplements can eliminate a deficiency and promote release of digestive enzymes essential for breaking down food. Vitamin B12 is especially important to a dog’s digestion. In some cases, veterinarians will give B12 injections to dogs severely lacking in this vitamin. Thiamine (vitamin B1) is another B vitamin essential for healthy carbohydrate metabolism, normal growth from puppy to adult dog and for transmission of nervous system signals in a dog’s musculoskeletal system.
Manganese is a nutrient dogs need to utilize carbohydrates and proteins for producing fatty acids and enzymes vital for intestinal health, energy and brain functioning. Found in the liver, pancreas, bone and kidneys of dogs, manganese is particularly needed to make all types of enzymes, including digestive enzymes. Dogs eating poop that do not present symptoms of illness may benefit from enzyme supplements as directed by a veterinarian.
Enzyme Supplements for Dogs
Veterinarians may prescribe canine enzyme supplements for dogs with digestive problems accompanied by coprophagia. In addition to improving digestion and intestinal health, enzyme supplements also provide support for the immune and respiratory system while promoting cellular metabolism to increase energy levels. Enzyme supplements may also help relieve constipation, gas and bloating.
Importance of a Healthy Dog Diet
Domesticated dogs are not strictly carnivores but omnivores, or animals with the ability to adapt to a variable diet that includes grains and vegetables. Diets composed of 100 percent meat are not recommended for dogs since meat lacks iron and calcium, two minerals essential to good dog nutrition.
A healthy dog diet that significantly reduces the risk of a dog becoming coprophagic should include:
- Plenty of fresh water to support normal functioning of the canine urinary tract system
- A balanced mixture of wet and dry food. Dry dog food is packed with energy and may offer dental benefits while wet food provides the fat and protein dogs need
- Required vitamins that include vitamin A, vitamin C, dietary fiber, and more from food (like apples).
- Minimal amounts of carbohydrates. Too many carbs may promote diabetes and obesity in less active dogs
- Essential fatty acids, or omega-3 fatty acids (coconut oil is a good source), for proper cell functioning, maintaining a shiny and healthy coat and reducing the risk of vision problems as dogs age
Another important part of good dog nutrition is protein. Not only does protein nourish and support body tissues but it also:
- Supports skin, hair, nail and eye health
- Converts to glucose in the dog’s body. Glucose is a primary energy source that also can help reduce fat storage in older dogs
- Powers enzymes needed for hemoglobin synthesis and immune system functioning
Advice for Entertaining Bored Dogs (So They Leave Their Poop Alone!)
If a dog is given a clean bill of health by a veterinarian, poop eating may simply be a sign of a hyperactive, bored dog. Since being outdoors makes all dogs happy, making sure dogs prone to eating poop for no medical reason spend as much time as possible outdoors can help eliminate this behavior. Depending on the breed of dog an owner has, walking a dog at least twice if not three times a day is probably the best kind of exercise for dogs.
Indoor activities for dogs that pay too much attention to their poop include building a tunnel out of old cardboard and placing objects in it for the dog to find, wrapping treats in an old rag and hiding the bundle somewhere that the dog can find without much trouble and letting a dog watch their owner put a treat under a bowl or other container and encouraging the dog to figure out how to get the treat.
Poop eating in dogs can be stopped but only after owners have had their dogs undergo a complete physical exam, blood and urine testing. Determining if poop eating is psychological can then be considered by veterinarians and worried dog owners.
Disclaimer: the advice and information in this article is not intended to be used as a replacement for professional medical advice from a veterinarian.