Coprophagia, or eating faeces is a common complaint we see in practice. While behaviour is often blamed as the only reason pets eat poo, however nutritional and medical causes can also contribute to coprophagia. Coprophagia is largely harmless to the pet displaying the behaviour, but can be very distressing to owners so looking at ways we can reduce the behaviour is important for the owner and the pet’s health.
In today’s blog, I discuss the current research we have on canine coprophagia and what you can do about it.
Why do they do it?
Gastrointestinal diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease can reduce the ability for the gut to absorb nutrients through damage, scarring and inflammation. While the diet may be complete and balanced, sick patients have limited ability to make use of nutrients in the diet and so may develop deficiencies unintentionally or be unable to digest their food appropriately. Patients then seek to replace these nutrient losses by re-ingesting their waste to try and reclaim any lost nutrients in the stools. Coprophagia can also be a sign of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which is treated by replacing the digestive enzymes that are lacking and not secreted appropriately. Other studies have shown intestinal worms infestations and parasitic infections also triggered coprophagia, as it again impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This is why it is important that before we begin treating the behavior, we must rule out any physiological or medical reason for the behaviour.
With the rise of pet owners wanting to home cook or feed alternative diets, there has been an equal rise in nutritional diseases and disorders as a result of inappropriate diets. Pets on balanced diets do still display coprophagy but to a lesser extent (and often it can be attributed to behavioural or obsessive-complusive disorders) rather than diet. Research shows that certain nutrient deficiencies (or excesses) can trigger coprophagia; Reed and Harrington (1981) reported that Beagles started to show coprophagia after deprivation of thiamine (vitamin B-1), while an unbalanced microbiome also appears to play a role in coprophagia.
Unfortunately some dogs will eat poo if they live with another dog that does it too – essentially learning the behaviour. Others may have anxiety or an obsessive compulsive behaviour that drives them to coprophagia. In many studies, it is shown to be common in puppies and then they begin to grow out of it into adulthood – a limited few studies have linked nutritional deficiencies as a puppy triggering the behaviour, and then it becomes a habit they are unable to break in adulthood. In these cases, it is often necessary to seek the help of a vet or a veterinary behaviourist for some techniques to reduce or eliminate the behaviour.
How do I stop it?
First, we must investigate if there is any medical or nutritional reason for the behaviour. For this, you will need to seek the assistance of your vet; it will usually be necessary to conduct some diagnostics such as blood tests and faecal samples, and potentially ultrasounds or biopsies if a gastrointestinal issue is suspected. A full dietary history and assessment must be taken aswell, including any supplements or medications the pet might be on and a timeline of when the behaviour first started. There are products on the market that claim to stop coprophagia but their efficacy is mixed – they appear to work best in puppies, but their effectiveness is limited in adult dogs. Once it has been established that nutrition and medical conditions are not the cause, or if they are and have been addressed, we can move on to behavioral causes.
Coprophagia is a very common, natural behaviour that dogs display in the wild for a variety of reasons. Sometimes there may be no reason other than habit that dogs eat poo, and in these cases a veterinary behaviourist may be employed to provide some tools and techniques to reduce and eliminate the behaviours – I would recommend seeking a specialist in behaviour, your vet can provide a referral.
What can I do to prevent it?
Don’t have a dog that is coprophagic? Prevention is better than cure. While the behavioural components are hard to avoid, the nutritional components are simple. Always feed a balanced diet from a reputable company that follows the WSAVA guidelines. If your pet still displays this behaviour on a balanced diet, you can try moving to diets with a better prebiotic fibre blend and add probiotics. Worm your pets regularly, and pick up droppings in your yard as soon as you see them. Do not ignore the behaviour or punish your pet if you see them eating faeces, instead seek the assistance of a vet. If it continues after dietary or medical therapies, or has started recently with no apparent trigger, it’s important to intervene as early as possible, because the habit is easy to form and hard to break.
Does your pet eat poo? Have you discussed it with your vet? Let us know in the comments below!
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Boze, B., 2008. A comparison of common treatments for coprophagy in Canis familiaris. Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior, 2(1), pp.22-28.
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Skírnisson, K. and Duszynski, D.W., 2020. Presence of eimerid oocysts in faeces of a quarantined dog in Iceland is explained by coprophagic behaviour prior to its importation. Case report. BMC Veterinary Research, 16(1), pp.1-5.
van der Borg, J.A. and Graat, E.A.M., 2006. Pilot study to identify risk factors for coprophagic behaviour in dogs.