While most cases of coprophagia appear to be purely behavioral, there are indeed numerous medical problems that can cause or contribute to coprophagia. These problems must first be ruled out before a purely behavioral diagnosis can be made.
Q: Why do dogs eat the stools of other animals?
A: This behavior is akin to scavenging. It is not unusual for dogs to steal food items, raid garbage cans, and chew on, or eat non-food items that most humans would consider unusual or even disgusting. Cat feces and those of some other animals often have enough appealing attributes (odor, texture, taste), to overcome the fact that they are stools. In fact, stools themselves are seldom unpleasant to dogs.
Q: What are some of the behavior reasons that a dog or cat might eat its own stools?
A: Coprophagia is a common problem in some puppies, which usually clears up by adulthood. There may be an observational component (copy behavior) since the mother dog cleans and ingests the puppy’s excrement in the nest, and puppies may learn to mimic the behavior of their mother or playmates who perform this behavior. In adult dogs, the innate behavior of grooming and cleaning newborn puppies and eating their excrement, along with the well documented fact that dogs tend to be attracted to sniff and lick infection or discharge of their pack-mates, may explain some of the motivation for coprophagia.
Q: How can coprophagia be treated?
A: Coprophagia can best be corrected by preventing access to stools, by thorough cleaning of the pet’s property, and by constant supervision when the pet is outdoors. At the first indication of stool sniffing or investigation the dog should be interrupted with a loud noise. Yelling at your dog may only teach him not to do it in front of you or to avoid you after eliminating. Consider teaching your dog a new sequence to follow after eliminating. For example, if the dog is taught to come to the owners and sit for a special food treat immediately following elimination, the new behavior may become a permanent habit.
Dogs with medical problems should be treated to try and correct the underlying cause. A change in diet to one that is more digestible, or one with different protein sources may be useful. Dogs on restricted calorie diets may do better on a high bulk or high fiber formula. Some dogs may be improved by adding enzyme supplements to improve nutrient digestion or absorption. Specifically, the digestive enzymes in the form of meat tenderizers or food additives may help increase protein digestion, resulting in a less palatable stool.
• Sam Kabbel, CPDT-KA, is owner and president of Valley-based Pet Behavior Solutions, serving the Phoenix area. For more information, visit www.petbehaviorsolutions.com.