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Dogs can be goofy and cute but the minute they chomp on stool, all that cuteness shatters. Eating one’s own faeces or even some other creature’s is seen by us humans as one of the most disgusting acts alive.
Different theories abound as to why dogs do this, and just as many theories are out there on how to stop dogs from doing it. This article attempts to sieve through all that information and give the most reasonably effective solution to frustrated dog owners.
The scientific name for this habit is coprophagia. This deplorable habit was listed as one of the top 10 reasons that dogs are surrendered to shelters. Although this problem has been annoying dog owners for decades, little conclusive research has been done on the topic. The most recent one published in 2018 was based on a study completed in 2012.
Here is a compilation of facts thus far discovered about coprophagia:
Coprophagia is actually a natural – and even necessary – thing to do among certain animals. Rabbits, for example, regularly eat a few special nuggets a day to retain lost nutrients. If they are prevented from doing so, they become sickly.
However, not enough research has been done on the reasons for this funky issue among dogs. What we do know is that the act is instinctive and is part of the natural behaviour of puppies and nursing dogs.
Very young puppies mimic everything that their mother does. That is how most animals learn about their world. However, when it comes to excrement, most of them will just take a sniff and walk away.
Some may actually eat it. The assumption is that the pup confuses the mom’s poop-tainted breath with food, and continues to associate the smell of stool with something edible.
Just as how human babies tend to put everything they see in their mouths, puppies learn about their world the same way too. It’s not just their own poop, but they may mouth any other poop or object that they see. This behaviour usually fades before puppies reach 9 months of age.
Female dogs which have delivered litters tend to have a higher likelihood of becoming coprophagic. Their natural instinct compels them to lick the puppies’ private parts. This is to stimulate the pups to urinate and defecate. Without doing this, the puppies will have difficulty in eliminating waste.
The act of lapping up puppies’ urine and faeces is also a natural instinct to keep the den clean. The smell of the litter’s waste could attract unwanted predators. This instinct remains strong even though domesticated dogs no longer face such a threat.
Eating one’s own stool is called coprophagia but the consumption of other dogs’ or other animals’ stool is called allocoprophagia. Several theories have been presented to explain this phenomenon:
According to a 2012 study by Dr. Benjamin Hart et. al., wolves will wolf down their own stools to keep their dens clean from any possible parasitic infection arising from their faeces. However, there has been no solid evidence to prove this. It was just a hypothesis.
It is a fact that domestic dogs do not usually soil their sleeping or eating quarters. That is why crate training works for house training dogs. The crate is their den.
The hypothesis made by this research contradicts the above fact and does not explain why some dogs eat other animals’ faeces.
Dogs evolved as scavengers, eating whatever they found on the ground or in the garbage for the sake of survival. Thus, their ideas of what is tasty is somewhat different from ours. That is true. However, this explanation does not support the situation of current pet dogs which are quite well fed.
Certain illnesses or health conditions may cause the desire to snack on some unpredictable things. For instance, parasitic infection, malabsorption, deficiency in diet, diabetes, Chushing’s disease and so on.
One study conducted by James Butler on a large population of stray dogs in Zimbabwe showed that human waste (including excrement) and animal carrion formed the main portion of their diets. Faeces (other animals and humans) contributed to 25% of their diet but these dogs did not eat their own stool.
Here is a list of methods from the most effective to the least effective.
Data from studies showed that the most effective treatments for coprophagy require active and consistent action from dog owners. For instance, preventing access to any kind of faeces by keeping the dog on a lead during walks, rewarding positive post-elimination behaviour and distracting the dog from the faeces.
Living area includes the house compound, so that there will be no stool for him to pick up. Those who have cats should keep litter boxes clean and out of the dog’s reach.
Work hard on the commands “leave it” and “no”. Give the dog a food treat immediately after it has done its business then quickly remove the stool. Hopefully it will look forward to the treat instead of its own poo.
If attention deficit could be the problem, giving a dog more quality time might just work. Grooming, daily exercise like long walks, playtime, cuddle time and even teaching them new tricks are perceived by dogs as being given attention.
This might work for puppies to prevent any forms of malnutrition which might trigger the foul habit. For adult dogs with existing health issues, vitamins or enzyme supplements have been applied. There is no guarantee of success but at least you can rule malnutrition out if the habit occurs.
There are a variety of products in the market to deter dogs from poop-eating. These come in the form of tablets and sprays. Hart’s study revealed that effectiveness of such products ranges from 0 to 2% only. Furthermore, some of them are actually not safe for dogs as they contain MSG and garlic.
Another study found that punishing attempts at eating stools with a citronella spray reduced the behaviour by about two‐thirds during the 3‐week trial, but the long‐term success was not reported.
The least effective treatment according to studies is ignoring the behaviour in the hope that it will go away.
So far there has been no conclusive, definitive method to instantly stop a dog from coprophagia or allocoprophagia. What a dog owner can do is be persistent in creating an environment where the dog has no opportunity to eat it, by giving consistent training and by keeping the dog active.
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