It’s a running gag among dog owners that sometimes, hey!, dogs eat poop! It’s gross, yes, but is the practice of “coprophagia” unhealthy? And why on earth do they do it? Let’s talk about the (many) reasons dogs might eat poop – their own or other dogs’ – and what you should do about it.
A lot of vets have studied the relatively common practice of dogs eating poop. What they generally agree on is that the practice is somewhat normal, stemming from behavior among the earliest dogs who lived in packs. Eating each other’s feces was a way to protect the pack against parasites and other contagion, and dogs aren’t the only ones who do it! Rabbits, in fact, must be allowed to eat feces or they develop nutritional deficiencies that can cause serious health problems.
Puppies are particularly prone to eating poop, both their own and other dogs’. The behavior generally goes away by the time they’re a year old and is usually pretty harmless. That said, it’s problematic when dogs of any age, particularly puppies, eat the poop of other animals such as geese or rabbits. Other species’ feces can contain bacteria and toxins a dog’s system isn’t cut out for and can actually make them quite ill.
Food Isn’t Nutritious Enough
Poor quality food can result in digestive issues in dogs, specifically malabsorption of essential nutrients. A dog can usually sense when it’s nutrient deficient and thus may eat its own poop to try and re-absorb some of the nutrients it missed the first time around (gross.) Higher quality food can usually remedy this reason for coprophagia.
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Boredom and/or Anxiety
Mental health issues can cause a lot of behavioral problems in dogs, not least of which is eating poop. Dogs who lack stimulation sometimes eat their feces when they’re bored, particularly if they’re trapped in a cage or small area with their poop for hours on end. Similarly, anxious or obsessive dogs sometimes develop repetitive behaviors that help them cope with their emotions. Poop-eating can be one of them.
Worms, Parasites, or Other Illness
Last but lot least, some dogs who eat poop are ill. Parasitic infections can cause your dog to feel hungry all the time. Other illnesses such as Cushing’s disease, diabetes, and thyroid disease can also result in this behavior. If any other symptoms such as lethargy occur alongside the behavior, consult with your vet immediately.
What Can You Do?
Like most canine behavioral issues, it’s best to treat the cause of the behavior, not the behavior itself. Work with your vet to rule out any medical causes for poop eating. From there, employ techniques such as additional cleaning, strict supervision during walks, and behavioral training to try and quell the behavior.
If all else fails, try to remind yourself that eating poop is, however disgusting, normal for dogs. As long as your vet is aware of the issue and you’re careful not to allow your dog to eat other species’ poop, everything will probably turn out fine.