Coprophagia: Why Dogs Eat Poop and What To Do About It
If your pit bull is in the habit of eating feces, chances are you want the behavior to stop--the sooner, the better. This is all the more true if your companion is fond of giving you kisses after indulging in poop eating.
The good news is that the most problematic types of coprophagia can usually be eliminated. The bad news is that--depending on the cause--it may take some commitment and work on your part.
Types of Coprophagia
There are three types of coprophagia:
- Autocoprophagia - Occurs when dogs eat their own feces
- Intraspecific Coprophagia - Occurs when dogs eat feces from other dogs.
- Interspecific Coprophagia - Occurs when dogs eat feces from other animal species such as horses, deer, goats, sheep, rabbits, cats, etc.
Eating the stools of herbivores such as horses or donkeys is part of the dog's normal scavenging behavior and even has health benefits. Autocoprophagia and intraspecific coprophagia, on the other hand, are issues you will probably want to deal with, even though these behaviors aren't abnormal from your dog's perspective.
Causes of Coprophagia
Why does your pit bull eat poop? The reasons could be medical or behavioral.
Medical causes typically involve nutritional deficiencies that may occur for a number of reasons:
- Not feeding enough. This is pretty straightforward. Your dog is hungry and seeks to supplement his diet by eating stools.
- Feeding a low quality food. Cheap dog foods are poorly digestible and contain lots of empty fillers that can leave your dog lacking important nutrients and his stools rich in undigested food particles.
- Intestinal parasites. Worms, especially tapeworms, can rob your dog of nutrients, thereby causing nutritional deficiencies.
- Digestive enzyme deficiency. Digestive enzymes are necessary to break down foods into nutrients the body can absorb. They are abundant in raw foods but destroyed during cooking. If your dog's body produces inadequate levels of enzymes, decreased nutrient absorption could be the result.
- Drug treatment. Certain drugs such as steroids as well as some psychotropic medications used in the treatment of behavioral problems can cause increases in appetite that may result in stool eating.
- Illness. A number of health problems including thyroid disorders, diabetes, Cushing’s disease, and Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency have increases in appetite or nutrient malabsorption among their symptoms. However, in these cases, symptoms besides coprophagia will be present.
When healthy dogs on high quality diets engage in poop eating, the reasons are usually behavioral:
- Attention-seeking behavior. Pit bulls, in particular, thrive on human attention. In these cases, coprophagia may have started for other reasons but continues because it attracts a great deal of attention from the dog's human guardians. Some dogs may even run up to you to show you the stool they're about to consume in order to turn the whole thing into a fun game of keep away.
- Mimicking behavior. When your puppy was very small, he watched his mother eat her puppies' excrement in order to keep the den clean. Later, he may have seen you pick up stools in the yard or watched other dogs in the pack or the neighborhood engage in poop eating, so he mimics the behavior.
- Investigative behavior. In puppies, coprophagia often begins as a playful, investigative activity. While most pups outgrow this behavior on their own, it's best to intervene early to ensure that it doesn't develop into a long-term habit.
- Boredom-alleviating behavior. Dogs who are left alone in the yard for long periods of time with nothing to do sometimes start to experiment with stool eating out of boredom.
- Owner-encouraged behavior. Individuals who use the cruel and ineffective "training method" of punishing dogs for soiling the house by forcing their nose into the mess are inadvertently encouraging their dog to eat stools.
- Self-reinforcing behavior. Coprophagia is considered self-reinforcing when dogs eat poop for the simple reason that the taste, smell, and texture of the stool itself is appealing to them. Hence the act of consuming feces becomes a pleasurable activity. This is the most common reason dogs eat the stools of other animal species.
- Feeding behavior. While some dogs do fine with one daily feeding, others begin to look for ways to supplement their food intake if made to wait 24 hours between meals. These dogs are not necessarily underfed or underweight; they just prefer to eat more frequently.
It is not unusual for coprophagia to have multiple causes or origins. For instance, a rescue may have started to eat feces for survival, but the behavior may continue in her new home because it is reinforced with lots of attention from her guardians.
Treatment Options for Coprophagia
Since it may be difficult to determine the exact cause of coprophagia in your pit bull's case, you may need to experiment with a variety of treatment approaches.
- Switch to a high quality dog food. If you are not already feeding a balanced home-prepared diet or a quality commercial dog food that's high in animal proteins and fats and low in carbohydrates, switch to one right now. The benefits will stretch far beyond your dog's poop eating issues. Check out our reviews of the best dry dog foods and the best canned dog foods for specific recommendations.
- Check for intestinal parasites. Have your dog's stools examined for the presence of intestinal parasites and use a dewormer if indicated.
- Try an enzyme supplement. If coprophagia persists despite a high quality diet, it may be that your pit bull is having difficulties absorbing the nutrients in her food. In those cases, adding a digestive enzyme supplement such as ProZyme can help.
- Feed twice a day. If you're currently feeding one meal a day, try switching to an AM meal and a PM meal to see if it makes a difference.
- Feed enough. Make sure you're feeding enough for your dog to maintain a healthy weight. If your dog started eating feces after you put him on a weight loss diet, switch to a high protein/moderate to low fat/low carbohydrate food. The high carb/high fiber diets typically used for weight management often result in coprophagia.
- Get a veterinary check-up. If your dog has other symptoms besides coprophagia, take him to the vet and have him checked for medical conditions that cause nutrient malabsorption or increased appetite.
- Keep your dog active and occupied. Pit bulls have high exercise requirements and can quickly get up to all kinds of mischief if bored and left unsupervised. Make sure your pit bull gets plenty of exercise and don't leave her alone in the yard for long periods of time. When you can't supervise your dog, keep her indoors and occupied with a stuffed Kong, safe chew treat or treat-dispensing puzzle toy.
- Don't reward coprophagia with attention. Pretend to ignore your dog's poop eating but shower him with attention when he acts appropriately. Pit bulls who get plenty of affection and interaction with their people don't need to resort to coprophagia for attention.
- Try a taste deterrent. Products such as Dis-Taste (a chewable tablet) and For-Bid (sprinkled over food) are designed to make stools less palatable to dogs. Of course these products will work only in cases of autocoprophagia. Moreover, if your dog is eating stools due to a nutritional deficiency, he will most likely learn to cope with the less pleasant taste and continue his poop eating endeavors.
- Clean up after your dogs immediately. Keeping your yard poop-free by cleaning up after your dogs as soon as they have a bowel movement is the surest way to stop coprophagia dead in its tracks. If your dog can't access stools, he can't eat them; it's as simple as that. What's not so simple is following through on the immediate cleanup every single time your dog defecates--particularly if you have multiple dogs and a big yard.
People have added everything from yogurt and papaya to meat tenderizers and breath mints to their dogs' food to make stools less appealing. Some have gone so far as to open stools and fill them with hot sauce or something equally unpleasant. In many cases, however, a change to a high quality, species appropriate diet is all that's needed. It should certainly be your first step.