Coprophagy- A Real Crappy Behavior Problem
Updated: May 24
Poop eating is a topic that comes up regularly from clients desperate to put an end to it. Coprophagy (pronounced ka-PROFF-ah-gee), or “the act of eating feces,” is quite normal and even sometimes necessary for many animals. So how should you deal with it? Well, that depends on what the root cause of the poop eating is.
So put down your sandwich - it’s time to talk about eating poop.
Dogs eat poop. They eat poop from cats, rabbits, deer, birds, horses, and many other animals. Warm or frozen, fresh or stale, poop appears to be a good time. So, in other words, your dog may be eating poop is because, brace yourself, it tastes….good? And they are not alone. Deer, gorillas, cats, pigs, rodents, pandas, koalas, hippos, insects, and many other animals all enjoy snacking on excrement. Some animals eat feces to obtain additional vitamins or minerals. For example, rabbits and Guinea pigs produce a special type of poo (called cecotropes) which they consume directly from their bodies in a sort of “second time around” process. Yum. Think of a cow chewing its cud, except the order of events is a little different. Baby elephants consume their mother’s feces and some monkeys consume the feces of other animals for the purpose of obtaining additional nutrients.
So what can you do about it?
See a vet. In the vast majority of cases, there is a medical or nutritional reason for your pooch's penchant for poo. Intestinal parasites may be stealing nutrients and calories. Your dog's fecal feast may be an attempt to meet their body’s needs or to satisfy hunger. Similarly, a poor quality diet may not contain the proper nutrients or may not be right for a particular breed, life stage, size, or metabolism. Further, some medical conditions prevent the body from properly processing and absorbing nutrients, resulting in deficiencies. The best solution? Schedule an exam with your vet or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist as soon as possible. Ensure your pet is getting the appropriate diet, a large enough quantity, and has no nutritional deficiencies or other underlying health concerns. Once this has been thoroughly addressed, you can start thinking about behavioral culprits.
Stop punishment. Much more likely is that your dog has inadvertently been taught to dine on dung. I have seen dogs consume urine or feces after repeatedly being punished for eliminating on the floor. Well, they should “know better,” right? Not quite. That presumes pets believe poop or pee to have some sort of negative quality. But, as you should know by this point in this blog, animals do not have a problem with poo at all. Humans are the ones who have the problem. So why does your pet have that guilty look on their low hanging head? Maybe, your pet knows: “I get in trouble when my person enters the room and there is a mess on the floor.” Don’t believe me? Try taking your pet out of the room, put the mess on the floor yourself, leave the room, and let your pet investigate the mess on their own. Wait a little while, come back in, and act just like you would if your pet had created the m
ess themselves. What you are seeing is very likely fear or stress behaviors due to past experience, as a result of not actually being properly house-trained. You can exacerbate this situation and damage your dog's trust further by rubbing their nose in the excrement. Then, there are the pets who have trained their humans! Maybe they licked or nibbled once or twice and it results. This negative attention-seeking can be perceived as an effective way to get humans to engage. If you suspect something like this may be going on with your pet, contact a qualified behavior consultant for help rebuilding your relationship.
Reward-based training. Teaching your dog to leave it, drop it, come with called, move away, and so on can be incredibly valuable. Though it takes time and money, this can be a great solution for many cases when done properly, with a skilled professional, using reward-based techniques. Contact me for assistance or a referral.
Management. Sometimes, managing the poop and the environment is much easier than training. For example, clean it up poop as soon as it happens, scoop litter boxes multiple times a day, let dogs out to eliminate one at a time, use gates or height to separate dogs from litter boxes, deter wildlife with fencing or other methods, leashing, and so on.
Walk away. If you know your dog is healthy, management just isn't a realistic option, you don't feel like training, and the excrement being eaten is from pets you know are parasite free - it is reasonable to just let nature take its course. Just remember, the next time your dog walks into the room licking her chops, check her breath. Just take a deep breath (through your mouth, of course), and think to yourself “This is normal. All dogs eat poop.” And look at the bright side – at least you can skip scooping the litter box a bit longer!
Deterrents. Sometimes, you can feed the poop “producer” something like pineapple, “Dis-tase” or “FOR-BID” to make the poop less, ah, palatable. Though this sounds like a really quick and easy option, it should only under vet approval. Be sure to check the indications to determine what species the products are safe for and know what you are putting inside your dog. I personally am not a big fan of this option, as there is a much greater chance something else is really going on.
A note on resource guarders. I have had plenty of cases where the poop was the least of the problems. believe it or not. The dog became aggressive when the humans tried to take the dog away from the poop or vice versa! It is difficult to just stand there and let your dog go to town on a pile of random wildlife scat because you know you'll need stitches if you intervene. Remember, dogs can resource guard anything: toys, bed, people, stolen trash, prizes found on the sidewalk, high-value foods, vomit, poop, or anything they deem valuable. This is an entirely different can of worms for another day. If you're dealing with any type of guarding behavior, one thing you can do right away is to check out my upcoming:
Wednesday 5/13 @6pm ET.
(recording will be available)
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