Dogs do a lot of weird, sometimes silly, often unexplainable things—but perhaps there's no stranger (and grosser) canine behavior than when dogs decide to eat poop. Though it can be upsetting to deal with as a pet owner, veterinarians and dog behaviorists agree that, surprisingly, it's "normal" behavior.
In fact, there's even a name for it: coprophagia. While not all dogs do it, it's definitely common, with studies showing one in six dogs do the disgusting deed.
"The ingestion of feces—called coprophagia—is most often seen in dogs and is rarely seen in cats," Dr. Matthew McCarthy, DVM and founder of Juniper Valley Animal Hospital explains to Parade. "Dogs may ingest their own feces or those of other animals, including humans. While this behavior rarely results in serious health problems, it can lead to parasitic and possibly viral infections and is considered fairly repulsive by even the most committed dog parents."
Keep reading for more information on one of the less glamorous parts of being a dog owner: why do dogs eat poop, can they get sick from eating poop, and more feces-related questions—answered.
Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?
It's a fact of nature, albeit a disgusting one: Dogs eat poop from time to time. Even though it's common, it's still curious, and you may be wondering what exactly causes coprophagia. Why do dogs eat poop, and if your dog is doing it, what does it mean?
"As for why dogs love this tasty snack, it breaks down into either medical or behavioral reasons," Dr. McCarthy explains. "Medically, it is usually because these dogs are hungry. Sometimes it is just because you are feeding your pup too little and they need more calories, whereas in other cases your dog may have an excessive appetite due to an underlying medical issue."
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Medical Issues Indicated by Dogs Eating Poop
As Dr. McCarthy explains, medical issues can sometimes cause pups to eat poo—but sometimes, the simplest answer is the right one; your dog could simply just be hungry. If it is a medical condition, however, causing your canine to feast on feces, you'll want to consult a veterinarian.
"One such medical issue would be Cushing's disease in which the dog's adrenal glands are churning out an inappropriately high level of natural steroids which make them want to eat, eat, and eat everything," Dr. McCarthy says. "Some oral medications, such as prednisone or anti-seizure medications, can cause identical behavior. Other dogs can have underlying digestion issues that prevent them from breaking down and absorbing nutrients from their food adequately, so they seek additional nutrients from whatever they can find."
Other medical reasons a dog may also eat their own poop is if it contains undigested food or if your dog doesn't feel well. It can also be a sign of anxiety in dogs, particularly if they're cleaning up their own messes made indoors.
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Behavioral Issues Indicated by Dogs Eating Poop
Then, there's the dog who's eating poop due to behavioral issues—another potential cause of this behavior. However, some of the behavior is considered normal, such as a nursing mother dog who's eating her puppies' poo.
"Behavioral issues are a little more varied, with some being relatively normal, whereas others need to be addressed. One such normal behavior is a maternal behavior in which nursing moms lick the pup's anus and private areas to stimulate the pups to defecate and urinate during the first few weeks of life," Dr. McCarthy explains. "Mom then consumes the fecal and urinary excrement as the pups eliminate. This takes motherly love to the next level for sure! This instinctual maternal behavior serves to keep the nest area clean until the pups are ambulatory, as well as keep bacterial and parasite levels down around the pups and their fledgling immune systems. As these pups grow, they begin to use all their senses to gather information about their environment, and tasting small amounts of feces may be part of this normal exploratory behavior."
Though it's totally normal—after all, we all have a habit of emulating our parents!—it shouldn't last long, Dr. McCarthy says. If your pup continues to taste poop as they grow older, you may want to stimulate and enrich your doggo in other ways, such as playing, taking them for long walks, and making sure they get enough exercise and enough to eat.
"Although it is difficult for humans to appreciate this, some dogs just love the smell, flavor, and texture of stool. This may be particularly true of cat fecal material, which dogs often seek out preferentially for consumption," Dr. McCarthy adds.
Lastly, it's totally possible that your dog is doing it for attention. After all, it causes quite the reaction out of you, doesn't it?
"Some dogs discover that coprophagia results in them immediately receiving attention from their owner, and they may subsequently use the behavior to seek attention from the owner," Dr. McCarthy adds. "For other dogs, coprophagia may be part of a coping mechanism for anxiety, while for others, it may be an oral manifestation of a compulsive disorder called pica."
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Can Dogs Get Sick From Eating Poop?
It's the question dog owners everywhere want the answer to: Can dogs get sick from eating feces? While it is possible, it's very unlikely. In fact, digesting poop has even been shown to be healthy for young puppies. (So weird, but so true!)
"Interestingly, feces contain high levels of the amino acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which has been shown to be beneficial to brain development," Dr. McCarthy says. "It is thought coprophagia in pups may have a positive effect on their brain development."
However, it's important to reiterate that there is always a risk, especially if your dog is eating another animal's poop. This habit could spread an infectious disease or parasite or even cause vomiting and diarrhea—a health issue known as gastroenteritis.
Why Do Dogs Eat Cat Poop?
Dogs have also been known to eat cat poop from time to time. They may also roll in cat poop, which makes for a very disturbed and frustrated pet owner (speaking from experience). But to the dog, it's totally natural. In fact, though we humans may think that cat poop would smell—and likely, taste—like poop, American Kennel Club(AKC) says it's more likely cat poop actually smells like cat food to the dog.
And let's not forget dogs are scavengers by nature. Cat poop is just one more thing to scavenge!
How to Stop My Dog From Eating Poop
If only it was easy. The simplest answer is to keep your dog away from access to poop though we all know that can be easier said than done, especially if you let your dog do their business out in the yard on their own. Still, limiting the availability of poop will definitely keep them from ingesting it as frequently.
It's also important to provide stimulation. Make sure your dog is getting long walks (about an hour a day), an appropriate amount of exercise, and is partaking in some playtime. When dogs are bored or under-stimulated, they tend to fall back on "bad" behaviors to occupy themselves. Eating poop may be one of them.
You can also consult your veterinarian about the option of adding enzyme supplements to your dog's diet. Anecdotally, some pet owners have found that it makes the taste of the dog's poop less appealing to them. Other dog owners have added crushed pineapple, cottage cheese, or papaya into their dog's food in order to curb their poop-eating habit, too, according to PetMD.
When to Call the Veterinarian
It's always wise to consult your veterinarian and get a professional opinion. According to Dr. McCarthy, "In all cases—except for the really conscientious mama dog keeping her pups clean—if you notice your doggie has developed a taste for the brown stuff, you should contact your veterinarian to help get to the root of the problem."
Next up, Parade investigates—can dogs actually cry tears?