If your dog eats dog poo then it might help you to know you are not alone. Known as ‘canine coprophagy’ new research has been released showing that between 16 and 23% of dogs are coprophagic.
The research consisted of two separate surveys and defined a dog as coprophagic where the owners had reported seeing their dog eating dog stools at least six times, and non-coprophagic when an owner reported to have never seen their dog eating stools.
Is it dangerous?
While the coprophagic syndrome seems to be medically harmless, it is very disturbing for many dog owners and can cause no end of frustration about what to do when their furry friend eats dog poo.
Whilst it is fortunate that there seems to be no reported health risk to your dog, unfortunately when it comes to understanding why they do it, or identifying some key physical or psychological reasons for it, there were no clears outcomes.
This makes it very difficult to identify appropriate training or behaviour modification techniques or medical treatments to assist.
The report found that there was no difference with regard to distribution among sex or neuter categories, age, diet, ease of house training or association with a compulsive behaviour, nor ascribed to a lack of normal mothering or weaning periods.
Some common themes found
Several factors did however distinguish between coprophagic and non-coprophagic dogs and can provide some insights.
Coprophagic dogs were much more likely to be described as greedy eaters (51% compared to 28.2% in non coprophagic dogs), and were more likely to be found in multi-dog households, where presumably there would be a greater concentration of stools.
Eating dirt and cat stools were associated with coprophagy, as was breed group with terriers and hounds being the most coprophagic. Specific breeds could not be identified in suitable amounts.
Mimicking wolf-like behaviour
One key hypothesis as to why a dog eats dog poo is that some domestic dogs could simply be displaying wolf-like behaviour. Noted wolf authority L. David Mech wrote that ‘wolves do commonly practice coprophagy, at least in captivity’ (Harrington & Asa 2003) and offered further support for this perspective in a personal communication with the researchers.
The research finding that being a ‘greedy eater’ is the strongest differentiating variable associated being a coprophagic dog would seem to support this wolf origin of coprophagy because one would expect greedy eating to be a common wolf characteristic when they come across a food source in the wild.
Another key finding to support this is that coprophagic dogs overwhelmingly consume fresh stools that are no more than 2 days old, which can be related back to how wolves living in nature defend their dens against parasites.
In the wild, the faeces of injured or sick pack members might be deposited in the rest areas near the den. As most of the reported intestinal parasitic larvae expelled in wolf faeces do not develop into infective forms for at least 2 days, if the faeces are consumed immediately or within this time the larvae will not yet have developed into infective forms, and the risk to the wolves is presumably much less.
Consuming the faeces therefore is the wolves’ first line of defence and, for some domestic dogs, consuming fresh dog poo could still be seen as a way to keep infection away.
Whilst for others, since intestinal parasites of domestic dogs are commonly prevented and/or treated by tablets or topical applications, some may have adapted with a more relaxed behaviour relating to the avoidance of internal parasites.
The selective breeding of dogs over centuries could also have played a part with dogs that do not exhibit this behaviour being chosen for breeding, along with other desired behaviour traits. Consistent with this perspective, the researchers found an apparent under-representation of coprophagy in Poodles and over-representation in Shetland Sheepdogs (based on US breeds being in the study).
Consequently, one would expect some dogs to be vigilant in consuming stools, others to have completely lost this behaviour and others to be stool eaters on a sporadic basis.
Behaviour modification /treatment
Based on the report findings, there is unfortunately no magic wand that can be waved when implementing a treatment plan to help stop a dog that eats dog poo and there is in fact little that we can do to stop this behaviour.
The success in eliminating the coprophagia with the various behavioural procedures reported in the survey ranged from only 1 to 4%.
With a reported 4% success rate the small window of opportunity seems to be the “leave it” technique. For this you need to catch them just before they are about to/or in the process of eating the poo and use a loud, sharp (aversive) “leave it” to stop them in their tracks, and then mark “yes” the moment they drop or leave it and reward this desired behaviour.
Remember, whenever we are correcting or praising a dog’s behaviour the timing is critical and must be whilst they are actually caught in the act of doing the behaviour, so that there is a direct association with the action and the outcome (within 2-5 seconds). You also need to ensure you aren’t inadvertently reinforcing the undesired behaviour by making a fuss, laughing, jumping excitedly (making it seem like a game).
Even less successful with only a 1-2% reported success was: chase away from stools; lace stools with pepper; and punish by electronic or sound-emitting collar. There was also little success reported for food additives or tablets marketed for treatment of coprophagy with a success rate of 0 to 2%.
Whilst the research results provide very little comfort for those of you who have a dog that eats dog poo on a daily or weekly basis, given that dogs with coprophagy mostly eat fresh stools (no more than 2 days old), then being vigilant about keeping your yard (their den) free from dog poo will obviously reduce the opportunity.
Feeding your dogs to a routine that helps regulate when they poo and/or being aware of their toileting routine will help you with this, as will ensuring that you do a check and remove the dog poo around your home a few times a day.
This, coupled with some consistent and firm “leave it” training, may also increase your chances of having some measure of success…every little bit helps!
About the Author: Lara Shannon is co-Host of Pooches at Play and has completed a Certificate III in Dog Behaviour & Training with the National Dog Trainers Federation. Lara also runs her own dog training, minding and walking business in Melbourne’s Bayside area.