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OMG, My Dog Is Eating Poop

What to do when your dog has questionable tastes.

by Colleen Stinchcombe
May 12, 2021
Labrador retriever licking their lips
Mike Fusaro / Adobe Stock

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My dog has a problem. My husband and I have come up with euphemisms for it over the years — ‘cooking her own dinner’ or ‘cleaning up the yard’ — but the reality is my dog eats poop. Lest we hesitate for a second after she takes a dump, she’ll spin around to sample it. And if we deny her that, she’ll eye our other dog’s as if to ask, Are you gonna finish that? I know, it’s disgusting.

Apparently, poop eating is super common with dogs.

Turns out I’m not alone. “I wouldn’t say all dogs eat poop but a decent amount eat poop,” says Dr. Ashley Rossman, DVM, a veterinarian at Glen Oak Dog and Cat Hospital. A study published by The University of California at Davis on poop eating (scientifically known as coprophagia or coprophagy) found that 24% of dogs have tried it, while 16% eat it regularly. Worse, much like my poop-eating pup, many typically eat it fresh. Yuck. In fact, researchers learned that eating poop less than two days old was far more common than consuming older poop. Dogs who savor eating poop also enjoy eating dirt and cat stool. A previous study found that dogs with anxiety disorders or oral disorders such as pica and plant-eating were more frequently coprophagic.

But why do dogs eat poop?!

Coprophagy is a bit of a paradox because dogs can be housetrained easily due to their aversion to poop. It is also one of the reasons that some advocate crates when housetraining — dogs rarely defecate where they sleep. So, then why do some dogs eat their poop?

Inherited survival behavior

One theory: it’s in their DNA. Not only did the study suggest it’s a survival mechanism that dates back to our dogs’ wolf ancestors some 15,000 years ago, it’s also not uncommon behavior at certain life stages even today — mother dogs will clean up after their puppies for the first few weeks of their lives, and pups themselves don’t really refine their palates until they’re about nine months old. It is thought that wolves would consume “fresh feces of injured or sick pack members that might be deposited in the rest areas near the den. If wolves were to remove the feces from rest areas where infective larvae from intestinal parasites would become more numerous over time, consumption is the only method available.” If this idea is correct, then poop-eating dogs might just be showing off their wolfish roots, a more imaginative and less worrisome explanation than the other options.

They get a kick out of it

Or, “Some dogs will eat their poop because they think it tastes good,” Dr. Sara Ochoa, veterinarian at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital, says matter-of-factly. The UC Davis veterinary researchers did find some solid evidence: the habit is more common in multi-dog households, among females, and — no surprise here — pets that are considered food greedy in general by their parents.

Underlying medical condition

While there are no conclusive links to medical conditions, your vet should test your dog for parasites, nutritional deficiencies, or other diseases that can cause an increase in appetite, such as diabetes or Cushing’s. You should also consider environmental triggers. Does your dog suffer from anxiety or separation anxiety? Do they spend much of the day alone, crated or otherwise confined? Stress can lead to all sorts of deviant behaviors.

Tips to stop your dog from eating poop.

Once you’ve ruled out medical or behavioral causes, you’ll want to work on diversion tactics, especially since this habit could put your dog’s health at risk. Their own poop is full of bacteria, but worse, “other dogs’ poop may contain parasites that can infect your pet,” cautions Dr. Ochoa. The best way to stop this unwanted behavior is by cleaning up all poop in the yard and trying to avoid it when out on walks or in other areas. “If you [train them] when they’re young, it’s a behavior you can get rid of,” adds Dr. Rossman.

But let’s say you (ahem, I) didn’t catch them in the act till they were older. Both veterinarians suggest spicy or bitter food additives designed to make your dog’s poop less palatable — apparently, that’s possible. At the very least, Dr. Ochoa explains, “it will break the cycle for a few weeks and, usually, this will stop your dog [in the long run].” You can also supplement your dog’s diet with vitamins or enzymes to ensure they’re getting a complete and balanced diet from their food…and food alone.

While the focus of the UC Davis study was not on determining how to stop poop-eating pups — the results showed that behavioral management, enzymes, and taste-aversion products did little to alter the desire. The “leave it” command scored the highest rate of 4%. Training can be helpful, so if you haven’t started, work on improving your dog’s “leave it” cue. Should all else fail, the only other option is on you — pick up your dog’s poop ASAP. Well, shit.

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Colleen Stinchcombe

Colleen Stinchcombe lives near Seattle, WA, where she works as a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her two rescue pups wish she were a professional ball-thrower.