Help! My dog is eating poo
Coprophagia is the medical term for eating poo. Although an unpleasant behaviour, eating faeces is a problem behaviour we see in both puppies and adult dogs. It mostly occurs in puppies and young dogs and is commonly related to a behavioural problem. Early intervention is recommended to prevent this behaviour from becoming a long-term habit. Read our advice here.
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Fortunately, with a balanced diet, supervision and training, puppies tend to grow out of it by 12-18 months of age. However, there are also some medical diseases that may cause a dog of any age to eat its stools. It is important that any medical issues are ruled out by a vet first, before a behavioural diagnosis is made, especially in adult dogs that become coprophagic for the first time.
In this article we will look at:
Why your dog is eating poo
Why you should prevent your dog from eating poo
What medical conditions could cause coprophagia
Tips on how to prevent and manage coprophagia
Why is my dog eating poo?
Coprophagia in young dogs is most commonly a behavioural problem. While it is disgusting to us, exploring and even eating faeces is a natural behaviour for dogs and helps young dogs explore their environment. For example, it is thought 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, and dogs do not necessarily register other animal’s faeces as excrement. It is also normal for female dogs to ingest faeces of newborn puppies to stimulate toileting and keep the den clean. A puppy may learn this behaviour from its mother. Other initiating reasons may include a lack of mental stimulation leading to boredom, hunger due to an imbalanced diet or improper absorption of nutrition within the gut.
Why should I prevent my dog from eating poo?
Although a natural behaviour in some instances, coprophagia is a behaviour that should be discouraged because it increases the risk of a dog passing infections and parasites to humans as well as itself.
When training your dog out of this behaviour, it is important not to reinforce the unwanted behaviour by showing any fuss or attention when your puppy is observed eating faeces, even if this is ‘negative’ attention such as telling your dog to stop. He/she will begin to associate eating faeces as something that attracts attention and therefore a positive behaviour. Alternatively, your dog may become anxious or scared and try to hide evidence of their bowel movement. It is for this welfare reason that the traditional approach of “rubbing a dog’s nose in its faeces” is strongly discouraged by veterinary professionals and trainers. See our ‘tips on how to prevent coprophagia' section below.
What medical conditions could cause coprophagia?
Whilst behavioural reasons are the most common cause of coprophagia, potential medical reasons must be ruled out before a behavioural diagnosis is made.
Medical causes in puppies
The main medical causes of faecal ingestion in young dogs is poor nutrition from a poor diet or poor absorption of nutrients from the gut. This causes coprophagia because malnourished puppies will try and gain more nutrition by eating faeces that may contain undigested food.
However, this is rare in puppies that are fed a complete and balanced age-specific diet. Any diet that is labelled as ‘complete’ must legally provide a well balanced diet. In puppies that have other signs such as diarrhoea, it is important to rule out a high gut parasite burden which may be causing poor absorption of nutrients.
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 reasons such as parasites or abnormal protein levels may also be carried out to help diagnose a medical issue.
Medical causes in adult dogs
Adult dogs may also develop 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 poo may include:
Inadequate nutrition or under nutrition; especially if pets are on a restrictive diet for another disease
Diseases of the intestine: certain diseases prevent absorption of vitamins and nutrients, leading to nutritional deficiencies
Diseases or drugs 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 that manifests again in adulthood
Tips to help prevent and manage coprophagia
Behavioural vs medical
Always make sure you talk to a veterinarian and check for underlying medical diseases
Ensure your dog is fed a well balanced complete diet
Feed a more digestible diet, or a diet with a different protein source
Increase the amount of fibre in the diet using supplements or a high fibre diet
Speak to your veterinarian or book an appointment online with FirstVet if you need more advice on nutrition
Minimise access to faeces
Familiarise yourself with your dog’s toileting behaviour and times
Supervise their toileting and clean up their faeces as soon as they have been – you may want to keep them on a lead initially so you can move them away while you pick up the faeces
Keep your dog on a lead whilst walking through parks and countryside until they have good recall
Try to stay calm - if you rush to pick up the faeces your dog may begin to think this is a game which will make the behaviour worse!
Make sure you are providing your dog with a good amount of mental stimulation. This includes teaching them commands and tricks, taking them on walks in stimulating and varied environments and giving them access to games such as puzzle feeders
Train your dog to come to you for a treat or toy as soon as they have toiletted. Praise and give lots of attention to any movement away from the faeces. Working on good recall will help with this
Completely ignore your puppy when they are showing interest in the faeces to prevent reinforcing the unwanted behaviour
Train your dog to respond to a ‘No’ or ‘Leave’ commands
For help training your dog, a trainer such as The Dog Coach, or a veterinary behaviourist may be helpful - sometimes a deep rooted behaviour requires some expert help to unravel, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can find a registered behaviourist in your area on the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) website, or through a recommendation from your vet
There are a number of ‘taste deterrent’ products out there that you either add to your dog’s food or put into their faeces. There is anecdotal evidence that taste deterrents make the faeces taste unpleasant and may discourage coprophagia, however, this has not been proven by research. Taste deterrents will also not stop your dog eating faeces from other dogs or animals. If you have another dog and your dog is also eating their poo, you must use the taste deterrent in both animals. Dogs can become conditioned to the taste or just avoid the faces with deterrent, but continue to eat untreated faeces. Therefore, this method should not be relied upon in place of correct training.
When to call your vet?
If you are concerned that your dog has coprophagia
If you would like advice about nutrition
If you need advice about training your puppy or dog
If you are worried about your pet, always contact a vet. You can book an online video consultation with one of our behaviour vets at FirstVet to get an initial assessment of your animal.