Why Does My Puppy or Dog Eat Poop?

By Karen A. Soukiasian

We don't know why there are dogs hell-bent on eating poop. We do know some are more discriminating than others. There are the ones that prefer only their own. There are those that prefer the tasty tidbits of other species; namely cats! Then there are those that are more than willing to try anything!

There are as many theories as there are Animal Behaviorists on why some puppies and dogs are so drawn to what we consider a repugnant behavior. There are the ones who believe it is a primal instinct of survival. Others theorize it is a learned behavior. Then there are those who evaluate cases of coprophagy (eating feces) and pica (craving non-food items) as a deliberate, habitual behavior disorder.

What we do know is, several of the behaviors our pets exhibit are ancient memories embedded in their genes. They do them unconsciously. Those behaviors are purely instinctive. Being descendants of wolves, puppies and dogs still rely on various natural feelings that have allowed them to evolve and survive for thousands of years.

Even though we regard wolves as hunters and predators, when food is scarce they too have to become scavengers. That means eating whatever they can find, including eating the scats of other animals, or recycling their own.

We also know, it is a means of fending off other predators. Females eat the feces of their pups to prevent the odor from attracting other hunters and to keep their dens clean. She will also lick her pups to keep them odor free and clean.

Gross as it sounds, it is a source of nutrition for her. Since guarding her pups until they can fend for themselves while she hunts, is her priority. Food may be scarce, but she knows she has to stay alive to care for her pups, so she will do what she has to do. The pups watch and emulate their mother's behaviors. Dogs learn by association.

Today, many female dogs intuitively believe it is their responsibility to keep their "den" clean. This may be why they seem to be a bit more predisposed to this unpleasant behavior; especially once medical, physical and psychological possibilities have been eliminated as a cause for it.

Stronger members in a pack of wolves have been observed consuming the feces of ill or weaker pack members as a way to protect their pack from predators that are tracking them. Dogs may still carry this pack preservation impulse.

Submissive animals exhibit this behavior. Who gets to eat, how much you get to eat and when you get to eat depended on your status in the pack. Being at the bottom of the pack, it is not uncommon to eat the feces of higher status pack members as a means to fend off hunger to survive.

Many puppies, especially those from pet stores and puppy mills have to resort to that ancient form of survival. Being hungry and left in filthy cages and kennels, they have learned it's the only way to keep their belly full and environment clean.

There are those who theorize some puppies and dogs learn the behavior from us. They watch us pick up their waste. They don't understand what we do with it. To them, if it's so valuable to us, it must be important! There are dog trainers who recommend not letting your dog see you clean up after them.

Then there is hiding the evidence. We may be giving our pets more credit than they deserve. If they associate their owner flipping out of control or being punished when the pile is found, there are those that will, well, "destroy the evidence."

We all know dogs love attention. It doesn't matter how you give it, as long as you focus on them. Some have figured out the only way they get attention from their person, is an inappropriate behavior. To avoid that happening with your pet, constantly praise them for all their appropriate behaviors. Ignore inappropriate behaviors so as not to encourage it.

There are medical and emotional reasons why some puppies and dogs find their poop so appealing. It could be signs of underlying medical issues such as: malnutrition, diabetes, parasites, pancreatic problems, neurological problems, thyroid issues, vitamin deficiency and anemia to name a few.

Add to that, stress, boredom, hunger, low quality food, lack of exercise, separation anxiety, loneliness sense of abandonment and just the fact some like to carry things in their mouths...anything! Remember, puppies and dogs explore with their mouths. It may not taste all that unpleasant to them as we think.

Behavior modification is not as easy as they show on TV. It takes a serious commitment of time, energy and patience. Suggestions to help your dog overcome this behavior are:

Obedience training - Use positive reinforcement, punishment free methods. Reward them with praise and/or treats, whenever their behavior is appropriate. If they sniff and walk away, praise them immediately! If they seem too interested, give a "leave it!" command and reward them with praise or a treat immediately, when they leave it.

Keep your dog on a leash during walks. That way you can control their access to things they should not be sniffing or eating. A quick pop of the leash with a firm "leave it," followed immediately by praise or a treat may help those that like to "eat on the run" before it becomes habitual.

Distractions. Dogs can only do one thing at a time. This suggestion may also help with stress, separation/abandonment issues and boredom. Give them a few time-consuming distractions to keep them occupied while you are gone.

Mix peanut butter with a various favorite treats, stuff the mixture into Kongs or other safe toys and freeze them. Casually toss them around the house a few minutes before you walk out the door. First, they have to "hunt" for them. Being frozen, they have to work a bit harder to get their reward. Having different treats in them, keeps them interested in seeing what the next toy is stuffed with.

Try mixing tiny pea size pieces of chicken or turkey hot dogs that have been microwaved until they are hard, into your peanut butter doggie dip. Most dogs love them!

If your dog is not particularly fond of peanut butter, make a frozen treat using plain yogurt, mixed with a little of their own canned or dry food. Stick a few treats in it to make it interesting.

Management. Keep their environment clean. Pick up piles left around the yard. It could be nothing more than supply and demand. You have not only removed the supply, it will also help to avoid parasites such as roundworms and whipworms. Eating feces is a source for giardia and coccida.

It has been claimed adding a little pineapple, fresh or canned, pineapple juice, pureed pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling), or spinach to their food helps. Theory is, it doesn't taste bad going in, but there are dogs don't like the taste of what comes out. It could be worth a try.

Feed them less, but more often. Give them the highest quality food you can afford. Try foods with higher protein, less carbohydrates and more vitamin B.

Talk to your veterinarian about supplements. It may be as simple as that.

Acidophilus may contain the enzymes your dog needs to better digest their food. The attraction to poop in some cases is that the food, especially lower grade dry food, exits your dog only partially digested. Try a little plain yogurt mixed in their food.

There are commercial products for this problem you can get online or in pet stores. Some work, others don't. It depends on the dog.

Exercise, exercise, exercise! Keep them busy and tire them out. A dog that is too tired to move stays out of trouble.

Supervision is imperative. If you know your puppy or dog is developing or has this problem, don't leave them unsupervised. When you cannot watch them, crate them in a crate that is not too big. The majority of dogs will not soil where they sleep or eat. If the crate is too big, they will find a space to relieve themselves.

Finally, cat litter boxes are like an all-you-can-eat buffet to some. There is something about those litter covered, kitty tootsie rolls they can't resist! Keep the cat box out reach! The problem can be solved with something as simple as putting the litter box someplace with a kitty door the dog cannot squeeze through. Your cat will appreciate the privacy.

Bottom line: Eating feces is one of the hardest behavioral problems to correct. If your pet is still a puppy, it will be much easier than working with an older dog that has been doing it for years. The first step is managing their environment. Next, have them tested by your veterinarian for medical issues. Then, work on their house breaking and obedience skills, changing their diet, giving them more exercise, spending positive time with them and crating them when you cannot supervise them. The change won't happen overnight. Punishment doesn't work. With due diligence, and positive reinforcement, you can find ways to assist them in modifying their yucky behavior.

Karen A. Soukiasian
Article by Karen A. Soukiasian
Karen A. Soukiasian, GOOD DOG! - DOG TRAINING and BED-n-BISCUITS dog boarding and training - Owner/Trainer, St. Augustine, Florida - AKC CANINE GOOD CITIZEN and S.T.A.R. PUPPY Evaluator. Visit my website at: www.freewebs.com/gooddogsite and my page at Facebook.

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