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Poop Eating is a Natural Canine Behavior: Doggy Bag Anyone? 



Image of a real dog in a vector art (cartoon)  with doggy poop bags as wallpaper in the back ground.



Introduction


Dogs eating their own or other dogs' feces, also known as coprophagia, is a relatively common but perplexing behavior for many dog owners. Though the habit may seem gross to humans, poop-eating is a natural canine behavior. 


Wild dogs and wolves eat feces as part of their natural behavior. Some reasons that wolves in the wild engage in coprophagia include keeping the den clean, preventing the spread of parasites, learning about new food sources or surroundings, and establishing territory. For domestic dogs, the behavior likely stems from their evolutionary history as descendants of wolves.


Though natural, coprophagia in our pet dogs can still be undesirable. Understanding the common causes of stool eating in dogs is the first step to correcting this behavior. Possible motivations include instinctual behaviors, nutritional deficiencies, stress, attention-seeking, health problems, and more. With patience and by addressing the underlying issue, it's often possible to curb a dog's poop-eating habit.


Normal Behavior


Two Realistic Dog images in a vector cartoon scene Dog One: "don't Judge." Dog Two: "Bro, I'm Judging."

For dogs, eating poop is a normal behavior that stems from their ancestry as wolves. Wolves are known to consume the feces of other animals in order to gain vital nutrients and additional calories. This instinctual behavior was then passed down genetically through domestication. 


While less than 25% of dogs regularly eat poop, the behavior is still considered normal, especially during puppyhood when young dogs are exploring the world with their mouths. Most dogs will grow out of it.


For some dogs, eating poop is simply a part of their innate programming. It's an instinctive behavior linked to their wild wolf ancestors. Research shows that free-ranging wolves will eat the feces of other animals in order to maximize calorie intake from available food sources. This poop-eating allows them to gain nutrients they may have missed the first time around. 


During domestication, dogs retained some of these wolf-like tendencies, including poop-eating. So while unpleasant to owners, the behavior has an evolutionary explanation. It's a remnant of their ancestral days as hunters focused on survival.


Nutritional Deficiencies 


Dogs may start eating their own poop due to a lack of proper nutrients or vitamins in their diet. Their bodies recognize that poop contains partially digested food, so they may turn to it as a source of sustenance if their regular food is not supplying them with the building blocks they need.


Some deficiencies that can trigger coprophagia include:


Vitamin B: B vitamins help support nerve function and cellular metabolism. Having a B vitamin deficiency can cause a dog to feel chronically hungry, even after eating.


Vitamins A and D: These fat-soluble vitamins aid bone development and immune health. Without adequate levels, a dog may eat poop trying to obtain them.


Amino acids: Proteins are made up of amino acids, the building blocks that makeup muscle and tissue. An amino acid deficiency will lead to muscle wasting and abnormal appetite.


Fatty acids: Essential fatty acids like omega-3s support skin, coat, brain, and immune health. Dogs with a shortage may eat poop to supplement.


Minerals like zinc, copper, and calcium: Minerals enable enzyme reactions and physiological processes. Deficiencies can cause numerous health issues.


If a dog is exhibiting poop-eating tendencies, it's advisable to review their diet with your vet. Blood tests can identify nutritional gaps that need correcting through dietary changes or supplements. Ensuring your dog gets all the nutrients they need will likely stop poop-eating behavior.




Two cute ral dogs in a cartoon scene with poop and poop bag background. Saying "bro?"

Stress or Anxiety 


Many dogs turn to eating poop as a way to cope with stress or anxiety. This could stem from separation anxiety when left alone, changes in routine, a new home, loud noises like thunderstorms or fireworks, or even interacting with strangers or other dogs. 


Poop eating can become a self-soothing behavior for stressed pups, similar to how some people bite their nails or chew on pens when nervous. The act brings temporary comfort. Some theories suggest dogs may be attracted to the specific scents or bacteria in their own poop that is familiar.


If your dog seems anxious, destructive or has new problematic behaviors like poop eating, it's important to identify and address the source of stress. Creating a calmer environment, sticking to a routine, and providing enrichment toys can all help lower anxiety levels. Medication or training may also be needed for severe cases. Reducing overall stress will diminish the urge to turn to poop for soothing.


 Attention Seeking 


Some dogs may eat poop to get a reaction from their owners. If the dog learns that eating poop results in attention, even if it's negative attention like yelling or chasing the dog away from the poop, this can reinforce the behavior. The dog eats poop because they've associated it with receiving attention from their owner.


To curb attention-seeking poop-eating, it's important not to react when you catch your dog doing it. Simply clean it up without giving your dog any attention. Also, make sure your dog is getting enough positive attention and playtime so they don't need to resort to misbehaving to get a reaction. Exercise can also help reduce anxiety that leads to attention-seeking behaviors. Giving your dog puzzle toys when they're home alone can keep them mentally stimulated as well. If the attention-seeking behavior persists, consulting with a veterinarian or dog trainer may be warranted. The key is to limit your reaction so your dog no longer associates eating poop with receiving attention. Be patient and consistent, and eventually, your dog will learn that poop-eating no longer achieves the result they want.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder


Some dogs may develop an obsession with eating feces as part of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Yes, dogs can have OCD. This type of behavior is not well understood in dogs, but it appears to be related to anxiety and stress. 


Obsessive-compulsive disorders in dogs can manifest in repetitive behaviors like tail chasing, licking themselves excessively, or eating strange items like rocks or feces. The underlying cause is thought to be related to a chemical imbalance in the brain.  


With poop eating, the obsession seems to focus on the dog's desire to keep its environment clean. By immediately eating feces, the dog aims to keep its space free of poop. This becomes a compulsive behavior when the dog feels like it needs to eat every single stool right away.


Dogs with obsessive-compulsive disorders need medication and behavior therapy to try to correct the imbalance causing the repetitive behavior. Anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed, along with counterconditioning to teach the dog to perform another behavior instead of eating feces.


If your dog seems obsessed with eating poop to the point that it cannot control the behavior even with correction, an obsessive-compulsive disorder could be the cause. Consult your vet for advice on medication and training approaches.


Health Issues



Real Dog wearing sunglasses in a cartoon image "it wasn't me."

Some dogs eat poop as a result of an underlying health problem. Issues with the endocrine system, like diabetes or thyroid disorders, can cause pica and other abnormal eating behaviors in dogs. 


When a dog is deficient in a certain nutrient, they may try to compensate by eating feces. Diabetic dogs who aren't regulating insulin properly may eat poop to make up for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 


Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid gland, is another disorder that leads to abnormal appetite and cravings. Dogs with hypothyroidism don't produce enough thyroid hormone, which regulates metabolism. As a result, they tend to gain weight, have less energy, and develop unusual eating habits.


Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is also associated with stool eating in dogs. IBD causes chronic diarrhea, vomiting, and malabsorption of nutrients. The inflammation reduces the ability to digest and absorb food properly. Dogs with IBD may eat poop in an attempt to compensate for the nutrients their body isn't absorbing efficiently.


Any underlying illness that affects a dog's digestion or nutrient absorption could potentially cause poop-eating behavior. Consulting a veterinarian to diagnose and treat the underlying disorder is key to stopping this behavior. Bloodwork and other diagnostics can check for issues like diabetes, hypothyroidism, or IBD. With proper treatment of the health problem, the poop eating will likely resolve on its own.


Boredom  


Some dogs eat poop out of boredom. If a dog is left alone for long periods of time without adequate mental stimulation or physical activity, they may turn to inappropriate behaviors like eating poop to pass the time. 


Dogs are intelligent, social animals that need daily exercise and interaction to stay happy and healthy. Dogs that are understimulated can become stressed and restless, leading to problem behaviors.


Poop eating can become a habit for bored dogs that are confined to a crate or small area for many hours, without toys or activities to keep them engaged. Without outlets for their energy, dogs may develop obsessive behaviors like consuming poop.  


To curb poop eating, be sure your dog gets plenty of exercise, playtime, training, and enrichment. Make sure they have access to puzzle toys and chews when you are away to keep their mind active. Puppies and high-energy dogs require even more stimulation. 


Increasing your dog's daily physical and mental exercise can reduce inappropriate behaviors that develop from inadequate stimulation and boredom. A tired dog is a good dog! Try providing interactive toys, changing up their toys regularly, going on new walks, or providing food puzzles like frozen Kongs to keep your dog happily occupied.


Introduction of Dog Healthy Foods


Lastly in the list of why is my dog eating dog poop,  comes a newly introduced theory. In recent years dog owners have come to an understanding about healthy diets for their dogs. Couple that with food allergies and the necessity for better diets. Dogs are eating more raw food diets and pet owners are feeding more ‘real foods’ as opposed to store-bought bag foods. Unfortunately, this makes poop more appealing to dogs. Therefore even if your dog was never a poop eater as a puppy, he may become slightly more interested in the poops he’s sniffing out at the dog park, or on his daily walks. 


Fixing the Behavior


If your dog eats poop regularly, there are some steps you can take to curb this behavior. Here are some tips:


Increase Exercise: Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise every day. Adequate exercise prevents boredom and provides mental stimulation. Tired dogs are less likely to eat poop. Take your dog for longer walks, play more fetch or tug-of-war, or try a dog sport like agility.  


Manage the Yard: Pick up poop promptly before your dog has a chance to eat it. Also, keep the yard free of things that smell like poop, like cat litter or compost piles. This removes temptation.


Distract and Redirect: When you see your dog approaching poop, get their attention with a fun distraction like a squeaky toy or treat. Praise them when they leave the poop and come to you. This positive reinforcement helps curb the behavior.  


Supervise: Don't give your dog the chance to eat poop unobserved. Keep them leashed when in the yard until the behavior improves. Constant supervision lets you redirect.


Supplements: Some supplements may make poop less appealing, shop for probiotics or vitamins specifically marketed for poop eaters. Ask your vet before adding anything to your dog's diet.


Train Command ‘Leave It’: Use treats to train your dog the "leave it" command. Have them leave treats on the ground untouched. This impulse control transfers to poop.


Food Deterrents: Sometimes adding foods can deter your dog from consuming poop. Foods like pumpkin, bananas, pineapples, and broccoli, taste good the first time…but not so much the second time. So by supplementing these foods, your dog might not be interested in eating the poop. 


With consistency and patience, you can break the poop-eating habit. Try different tips and stick with what works for your individual dog. If the issue persists, consult your veterinarian.


When to See a Vet


Many dogs eat their own poop as normal behavior, but in some cases, it could signal an underlying health issue that requires veterinary attention. Here are some signs that a dog eating poop points to a more serious medical problem:


Sudden Onset or Drastic Change in Behavior: If your dog has never shown interest in poop eating before but suddenly develops an obsession with it, that warrants a vet visit. Likewise, if your dog has always nibbled at poop but now consumes large amounts voraciously, seek medical advice. 


Weight Loss: While poop doesn't have many calories, dogs that start eating large quantities can fill up without eating their normal diet. This can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. 


Change in Energy Levels: Lethargy, weakness or generally acting sickly along with increased poop eating could mean your dog has a nutritional deficiency or absorption issue that needs medical attention.


Vomiting: Some dogs end up vomiting after eating poop, especially cat poop, which can contain parasites and pathogens. Consult a vet if this occurs.


Diarrhea: Loose stools can be caused by intestinal infections or parasites transmitted by consuming waste. Seek treatment if diarrhea accompanies poop eating.


Loss of Appetite: If your dog stops eating normal food and only craves poop, this loss of appetite needs to be addressed by a vet. It could signal an enzyme deficiency or metabolic disorder.


If your dog is displaying these signs along with inappropriate poop eating, schedule a vet appointment. With treatment of any underlying condition, the poop eating will likely resolve as well. Don't hesitate to seek medical advice if your dog's behavior seems abnormal. If there are no underlying issues, and once you get past the human association with this practice being totally gross, remember poop eating is a natural canine behavior.

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