We’re about to have a conversation about poop—more specifically, about why dogs eat poop. This peculiar pet behavior is a little unsettling, at least to first-time dog owners, yet very common, as longtime doggie parents know. It might make you feel better knowing a little bit about the dog psychology that’s at work in dogs that eat poop.
What It Is
Eating weird things isn’t a new phenomenon—we’ve certainly heard of people doing it. But in the canine world, dogs that eat poop aren’t seen as eccentric by their pack—in fact, the rest of the pack would probably want to join in. It’s even got its own name—coprophagia. It could be their own poop, another dog’s feces, or even droppings from the cat’s litter box. But unless you’re a dog, you probably don’t understand the motivation for this strange dog behavior.
So, why do they do it? The answer to why dogs eat poop could be one of several, and it could be a normal reason, or a sign of a behavioral or health issue.
Normal Dog Behavior
A Mother’s Duty. According to Dr. Allyson Harris of Woodlawn Animal Hospital in Chicago, “Female dogs (and cats) will lick the rectum of their young to stimulate bowel movements and, in turn, will ingest the feces during routine grooming of the young to keep them clean.” She explains that for a dog that’s just had puppies, it’s “part of the instinctive grooming and husbandry,” and therefore nothing to worry about.
It’s a Puppy Thing. A puppy eating poop can easily be understood as something he picked up from his mother. “Some vets feel that pups may learn this behavior by following mom’s lead,” says Dr. Harris. In fact, she points out that this pet behavior is most common in puppies. “They discover the world through their mouths—apparently, everything has to be tasted!”
Litter Box Diving. Does your dog have a taste for things they find in a cat litter box? This dog behavior is pretty normal, and you might often find your pooch hanging out near the litter box, waiting for their chance to scavenge. “Cat foods are extremely high in protein, and they typically have a very strong odor,” says Dr. Harris. “Consequently, cat feces have a strong odor. Some dogs feel if they can’t get the cat’s food on the way in, they’ll get it coming out!” Although this is the most likely reason for ingesting cat poop, be sure to check with your vet to make sure it’s not caused by an incomplete diet or not having enough food.
Signs of a Problem
Dietary Deficiency. Dogs that eat poop might not be getting everything they need in their diet. It could be a form of pica, “a condition where an individual will eat odd food stuffs, usually to satisfy a nutritional dietary deficiency,” notes Dr. Harris. The culprit could be a poor-quality food or one that’s not properly digested. It could also be that your dog is just not getting enough of his dog food. Being fed enough of the right kind of food is extremely important for your dog’s overall health. Dr. Harris adds that you should never try to decrease the amount of food you give your dog in order to have your him create less stool. Not providing the proper amount of food can lead to dogs that eat poop because they’re so hungry that they have to resort to this. The solution is to talk to your veterinarian about which dog food will give your pup complete nutrition, and to follow the feeding guidelines exactly for your dog’s weight. If the food you feed is of good quality with plenty of available nutrients and it’s easy to digest, then your dog’s body will usually produce less stool as a natural result. And your pup won’t feel so compelled to eat it.
Reaction to Punishment. Another reason why dogs eat poop—namely, their own poop—is that they might fear punishment for doing their duty in the house. In terms of dog psychology, if a dog is punished by being yelled at or having his nose rubbed in his mess, he will learn to fear the act of going to the bathroom in general. This can even be learned by showing dismay that your dog picks up on when you’re cleaning up a mess. “Some who have been punished for having fecal accidents will eat their poop rather than dealing ‘The Wrath of Mom or Dad’,’’ says Dr. Harris. Always give your pup positive reinforcement when potty training, and be sure to check with a vet about how often he should be taken outside to go potty. If you have an instance of improper elimination with an adult dog, contact your vet to find out what may be the cause.
What You Can Do About It
If it’s just a case of treasure hunting in the litter box, with no signs of health issues, then there’s an easy solution. Move the litter box to a place that’s inaccessible to dogs. Use the Carlson Pet Products Extra Tall Walk-Thru Gate with Pet Door, or try placing the box on a side table with steps leading up to it (so your kitty doesn’t have to jump right into the litter box).
If it goes beyond the litter box, Dr. Harris shares what pet parents can do for dogs that eat poop:
1. Be sure to feed an appropriate diet with nutritionally sound, balanced meals at regular intervals (2-4 times per day depending on age and breed).
3. Be consistent with potty breaks so your dog has a set schedule to go out.
4. Have your pet checked for intestinal parasites and vaccinated appropriately.
5. Watch for sudden or unexplained weight loss, NEVER finding poop, breath that smells like feces, loose stools or parasites in the stool.
6. Consult your veterinarian. They are there for you and your pet! Dr. Harris explains that “clients potentially waste valuable time and resources by making poor choices before getting counsel from a local veterinarian. Beware of ‘Dr. Google’!”
Additionally, you can try feeding your dog supplements to prevent them from consuming their own poop, like the Solid Gold S.E.P Dog Supplement, which will make your pup’s stool taste bitter. Or, try the NaturVet Coprophagia Deterrent Dog Tablets or the NaturVet Coprophagia Deterrent Plus Breath Aid Dog Soft Chews, which have a special formula blend that helps deter dogs from eating their own stool while keeping their breath fresh. The Four Paws Potty Mouth Coprophagia Prevention is also a useful deterrent with a fast-acting formula guaranteed to help prevent coprophagia in your pup.
Now that you have a little insight into why dogs eat poop, you’ll be able to spot when there might be a larger problem connected to the pet behavior and what you can do about it.
Nikki Naser, Pet Central Senior Editor
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their Pet Central blog.