Help! My puppy is eating its poo
Although a disturbing and unpleasant behaviour, eating faeces, or coprophagia, is a common problem in puppies and young dogs. Fortunately, with a balanced diet, supervision and training they tend to grow out of it by 12-18 months of age. Early intervention, however, is recommended to prevent this behaviour from becoming a long-term habit. Our vet shares their advice here.
This article was written by a FirstVet vet
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Why do some dogs eat faeces?
There are numerous theories as to why coprophagia occurs. Whilst behavioural reasons may explain this problem, potential medical reasons must be ruled out first. Medical problems are rare in puppies that are fed a complete and balanced age-specific diet. Complete diets are legally defined and provide all the nutrients that a dog needs. Puppy diets provide the essential nutrients that a growing animal requires.
Sniffing faeces is a normal behaviour for animals. A dog’s scent glands (anal glands) are situated beside the anus and the ‘scent’ is emptied onto the poo as it is passed out of the anus. This is an important source of signals and information that pass from one dog to another.
One theory is that coprophagia is a way of developing foraging behaviours as a puppy investigates its environment and learns to play. Eating the faeces of other species is a normal scavenging behaviour. The faeces of cats and other animals are attractive to dogs due to their different odour, texture and taste. In addition, puppies may learn the behaviour from their mother as she ingests her young puppies’ faeces when she is cleaning them.
Another theory is that lack of mental stimulation likely also plays a part in the development of coprophagia.
Coprophagia as a behaviour may be reinforced if a lot of fuss and attention is made when the puppy is observed eating faeces; they will continue to associate eating faeces with attracting attention (even if negative). Alternatively, they may become anxious and scared when they eat stools, and thus they try to hide evidence of their bowel movement. It is for this reason, as well as being inhumane, that the traditional approach of “rubbing a dog’s nose in its faeces” is strongly discouraged by veterinary professionals and trainers.
Coprophagia should be discouraged as faeces may contain harmful parasites, such as worms and bacteria, which can cause tummy upsets, medications or chemical residues that could lead to toxicity.
How do you investigate coprophagia?
If your puppy starts to show signs of being excessively interested in its faeces, or has coprophagia, a visit to your vet is recommended for a health and body condition check and a discussion about diet. Blood tests and faecal analysis to look for potential causes, such as parasites or excess protein, can also be carried out to narrow down the list of possible diagnoses.
Adult dogs may also have coprophagia. An adult dog who shows this behaviour for the first time, should be given a full health check by your vet. This may include faecal analysis and blood tests to look for underlying medical causes, as described above. Reasons for adult dogs to eat faeces may include:
- Inadequate nutrition or under nutrition; especially if pets are on a restrictive diet
- Diseases of the intestine: certain diseases prevent absorption of vitamins and nutrients, leading to nutritional deficiencies
- Diseases that cause an increase in appetite: examples include Cushing's Disease, diabetes mellitus, thyroid disease, neoplasia, or treatment with certain forms of medication, such as steroids
- Behavioural: a habit that originated in puppyhood, such as anxiety over leaving faeces for the owner to find
Preventing and managing coprophagia
The most important way to limit or prevent coprophagia in puppies and young dogs is to minimise access to faeces:
- Familiarise yourself with your puppy’s toileting behaviour and times. Supervise their toileting and clean up their faeces as soon as they have been – you may have to be quick!
- Clean out cat litter trays regularly, or as soon as you are aware that your cat has used it. Minimise or restrict puppy’s access to litter trays
- Keep your puppy on the lead whilst walking through parks and countryside until they have good recall
Preventing coprophagia in adult dogs:
- Identify and treat the underlying cause
- Feed a more digestible diet, or a diet with a different protein source
- Dogs on restricted calorie diets may benefit from diets high in fibre
Once your puppy has toileted, praise them and offer them a distraction, such as a treat or toy whilst you pick up the stools.
If your puppy shows more interest than simply sniffing faeces, saying ‘No’ or ‘Leave’, followed by offering a distraction and training recall will help to prevent them from learning this behaviour in the first instance.
Taste deterrents can be added to faeces to discourage coprophagia, but they will not stop your puppy eating faeces of other animals. However, this method should not be relied upon in place of correct training, and may cause an upset stomach.
When to call your vet?
- If you are concerned that your dog has coprophagia
- If you need advice about training your puppy or dog
Book a video appointment to have a chat with one of our vets.