One of the most disgusting habits our dogs can have is one of eating faeces – their own, another dog’s or even that of another species. Coprophagia, as the condition is known may be repulsive to us humans, but to our dogs it is a perfectly normal behaviour. In fact, most dogs given half a chance, would grab a mouthful of animal manure when out for a walk in the countryside. In spite of being a common behaviour, few owners will mention it to their vet or seek help because of the disgusting nature of the problem. Coprophagia can be triggered by various circumstances; it may stem from a behaviour problem or be secondary to a medical problem.
Certain medical conditions that can increase appetite in canines include diabetes, hyperthyroidism and Cushing’s disease. The additional food the dog craves can come in the form of stool. A lack of digestive enzymes, inflammatory bowel disorder and intestinal parasites can also trigger off coprophagia. Before starting any behaviour therapy, it is best to get your dog checked by your vet to rule out any underlying medical problem. The only circumstance in which coprophagia is normal is when a mother eats the faeces of her young in an effort to stimulate the pups to defecate and keep the nesting area clean. As the pups grow, the behaviour fades on its own though the habit can persist in some dogs. In some cases, the pups too can ape their mum and learn to snack on the faeces.
A poor quality diet can pass through the dog’s digestive system virtually unabsorbed. The dog then eats the partially digested food to keep the hunger pangs at bay. In this case, the dog will pass prodigious quantities of stool and it will bear a close resemblance to the food consumed. A meaty diet tends to produce aromatic stool containing a higher amount of undigested protein, making it more appealing to the coprophagic dog. Making sure that the dog’s food has a digestibility content of 80% helps, as does increasing the fibre intake of the animal.
Coprophagia can also be taught to a puppy during housetraining. Hitting a young dog or rubbing its nose in its mess in an effort to toilet train it is not only a cruel outdated practice but it can also boomerang on the owner. A pup that has its nose pushed into its mess repeatedly can start to think that the owner wants it to consume the faeces. A dog can also come to understand that it will be punished if the owner finds it in the same room with the faeces. To avoid the owner’s anger and punishment, the pup may learn to hide the stool by eating it. These methods serve to break the bond of trust between the young dog and the owner. There are kinder and more effective ways to toilet train a pup.
A dog can stumble upon the plan of eating its own faeces in order to get the owner’s attention. Such dogs crave attention that is not available on a regular basis. Coprophagia is one of the many tactics it will use to get the owner to interact with it. Spending quality time with the dog (take it for a walk, play fetch, groom the animal) should cause a decrease in the behaviour. It would also help to distract the dog with a toy or call it off and immediately clean up the stool to prevent the animal from eating it. Adding grated courgette or pineapple chunks to the dog’s food can produce stools that are foul in taste. Sometimes treating faeces after they have been deposited, by coating them with chilli powder or Tabasco sauce can deter some dogs, but most dogs quickly learn to differentiate and avoid the treated stools. Before adding anything to your dog’s diet do consult your vet about whether the additive is safe for your particular dog.
A young impressionable dog housed with a dog that exhibits coprophagia is likely to imitate the behaviour. The best option here is to make sure the dogs are supervised when they are toileting and to call them away or clean up the mess immediately. Feeding foods that make the stool foul in taste can help set this problem right. A dog with a high possessive drive or guarding instinct could learn to eat the stool in order to prevent another human or canine, it sees as competition, from getting to it. Correcting the behaviour problem should cease the coprophagia.
Coprophagia needn’t be a problem that an owner has to live with. It can be easily put right with a bit of time and effort. The simplest way of curing a coprophagic dog is to make sure that the stool is picked up immediately or the dog’s access to it is blocked, either by putting the animal on a leash and gently pulling it away once it has cleaned itself or by luring the dog away using a tasty titbit.