Poop-eating (coprophagia) is generally a natural behaviour in dogs but unfortunately one that can be more than a little disgusting. Let’s face it, dogs are renowned for their flexible palates, and to them, poop is just another taste sensation. Frozen feces, or poopsicles, are an especially alluring snack. Puppies are the most frequent culprits, and owners take heart, they will usually grow out of this habit with a few precautionary measures. Dogs over one year old that have developed this habit can be a little harder to discourage.
Why do they do it?
Dogs are hard-wired to explore any and all potential food resources in their environment. This is especially true of puppies. Feces is very similar in texture to the regurgitated food they got from mom. Breeding females, as well, are naturally inclined to do their own "scooping" as they would normally clean up after their pups in the den. In addition, most dogs feel some urge to keep their territory or den clean, especially if they have been scolded for leaving a mess before. For some dogs, it is also a way to garner attention from an owner or to alleviate stress.
A poor quality diet or one that a dog is unable to digest easily might encourage your dog to give his poop a second round. In households where both dogs and cats are present, dogs may eat cat feces. Cat feces is more nutritious than dog feces, since cats are less efficient at digesting their food. Cat food is also higher in protein than dog food and so cat poop contains many extra nutrients. That being said, there are some cases when coprophagia indicates a greater health problem, such as pancreatic insufficiency, specific nutrient deficiencies, or plain old starvation. A dog that is eating a lot of food can still starve if the food is missing important nutrients. In these cases the dog will lose weight or develop other symptoms over time.
Is it harmful?
On the whole, the biggest consequence of coprophagia is that we humans find it revolting. A dog eating its own poop is unlikely to have any harmful effects. Many owners worry about infectious diseases, but most healthy, vaccinated dogs are at a low risk for picking up illnesses this way. Snacking indiscriminately on neighbourhood poop does increase a dog’s chances of picking up worms (especially if there are cats that hunt in the area), but a standard preventative and treatment program will keep this from affecting your dog’s health. For example, many heartworm medications will also kill some types of intestinal worms, and fecal screening for intestinal parasites should be done twice a year at your vet’s office. Keep in mind that your dog will probably be exposed to most parasites in your community whether he is actually taste-testing or just sniffing around.
Something that is of concern when dogs eat cat poop is that they might end up regularly swallowing a side of kitty litter, which is serious in large quantities, especially if the absorbent (clumping) litter expands in the gut. A dog with a belly full of kitty litter can sometimes become severely ill and might end up at the vet with vomiting or diarrhea. The consumed cat litter can be difficult to remove even with surgery, as it can scatter throughout the digestive tract.
How do I stop it?
In all cases, reducing temptation is the quickest solution. Scoop your yard frequently, keep Fido on a short leash in that poop-riddled park, and put the cat box out of reach. The kitty litter may need to be moved onto a higher surface or put in a room with a baby gate. A covered cat box might be all that is needed if the dog is much larger than the cat.
Quite often, a change to a high quality, high protein, low carbohydrate and low fat diet will do the trick. Commercially available additives are sold in pet stores that claim to make poop less palatable. Many owners find that a teaspoon of canned spinach, pineapple, or a little meat tenderizer works equally well.
Some owners will sprinkle hot sauce or pepper onto the poop in the yard (not on the food!). Keep in mind that Fido can easily sniff out which poops are booby-trapped, so this method might not work as well for dogs that prefer to "eat out" while on walks. Of course it makes sense to get advice from your veterinarian or trainer for help in solving this issue if you cannot.
Although you may wish to train your dog not to use some areas of your house or yard as a toilet, never scold your dog for defecating. Promptly remove him to an appropriate location and praise him when he gets it right. Don’t scold him for poop-eating, either, as even negative attention can be seen as a reward. If stress is the reason for your dog’s new habit, hopefully an end to the stress will result in an end to the habit.
Above all, remember that your dog is performing a behaviour that is natural, and even rewarding to him: to a dog, potentially delicious. Punishment is not always enough to counteract his instincts, and can sometimes reinforce them. Removal of temptation and reward for preferred behaviours are always your best training tools.