Feasting on Feces: Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?
Written by Katie Dalhausen, PhD
Published on February 4, 2022
If your dog eats poop, you’re certainly not alone: about half of all dogs will eat poop at some point in their lives. Poop eating, also known as coprophagia, is believed to be far more common in domestic dogs than their feral counterparts.
Other than being a bad habit that disgusts some dog owners, it can also be a sign of an underlying medical problem or behavioral issue. Furthermore, eating infected feces from other animals can expose your dog to unwanted intestinal parasites, such as parvovirus or worms.
While we have yet to fully understand coprophagy, there are several ongoing theories as to why dogs eat feces. Whether it's snacking on some cat poop from the litter box, droppings in a dog park, or their own poop - we dive into the 5 most common biological and environmental reasons why dogs eat poop and what dog parents can do about it.
Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?
1. Bacterial Deficiencies in the Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome is a term that describes the community of all of the bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbes that live in your dog’s intestinal tract. There are hundreds of different species of bacteria in the gut microbiome and they play important roles in your dog’s overall health from digestion to immune system function.
If your dog is missing too many beneficial bacteria in their gut, they may be instinctively driven to eat poop in order to introduce more good bacteria back into their intestines. Another theory points to bacteria-related nutrient malabsorption. Specific gut bacteria not only help absorb nutrients from your dog’s diet, but also make the nutrients your dog needs. If these bacteria go missing, then your dog is no longer getting these specific nutrients from their gut bacteria and may turn to poop as a way of getting these missing nutrients.
Bacterial imbalances in dogs are common. The symptoms can start as digestive issues (such as diarrhea and vomiting) and progress into much more serious medical conditions.
Luckily, you can test for any gut microbiome issues with a DoggyBiome™ Gut Health Test before symptoms even arise. Should the test detect bacterial imbalances, the test report will offer personalized recommendations for restoring your dog’s microbiome back to a healthy state. For example, the report may recommend that you feed your dog more fiber, which is an essential nutrient for beneficial bacteria to thrive in the gut.
2. Behavioral Reasons
There are few circumstances where coprophagy is a normal behavior in dogs, such as mother dogs who clean up after their puppies until they are weaned. But for most adult dogs, there may be an underlying behavioral explanation for why your dog is eating poop.
Anxiety: Coprophagy is thought to be a coping mechanism for some dogs with anxiety because it is significantly more common to see the behavior in dogs with anxiety than without it. Eating feces - like tail-chasing, excessive barking, and over-grooming - are behaviors that are thought to serve as temporary distractions from anxiety-related discomfort. Ensuring your dog has a calm, safe place to relax and lots of enrichment toys are the best solutions for anxious poop eaters. For anxiety-related issues, talk with your veterinarian (DVM) about what suggestions they have.
Attention-Seeking: Some dog parents are surprised to learn that eating poop can be an attention-seeking behavior. To test this theory on your own dog, change your reaction when they eat poop and see if you notice any behavioral changes in your dog.
If you think your dog has a behavioral basis for their stool eating, limit their access to fresh poop, experiment with distractions, and use positive reinforcement to try to break their habit.
Ancestral Instinct: Eating poop may also stem from an ancestral instinct. One study conducted by researchers at the University of California Davis found that today’s poop-eating dogs very rarely consume poop that is more than two days old, which hints at the way dogs used to live before they were domesticated.
It is thought that dogs would eat fresh poop to not just keep their dens clean, but also prevent the spread of pathogens. The eggs of parasites found in feces can take days to weeks to reach a stage where they are infectious. By eating fresh poop, they may prevent parasites from becoming a threat to the pack.
3. Nutritional Deficiencies
We touched on bacterial-related nutrient deficiencies above, but such deficiencies can still trigger poop eating in dogs regardless of what is happening in the gut microbiome. There is a lot that goes into making sure your dog’s diet is meeting all of their nutritional needs, which change as they get older.
Dogs that are lacking sufficient supply of various nutrients are more likely to be coprophagic. For example, a lack of fiber in their food can cause your dog to seek supplementation from feces. DoggyBiome™ S. boulardii + FOS Powder is a great option to supplement your dog’s food with important dietary fiber (prebiotic) and a beneficial yeast (probiotic) optimized for canine gut health.
Each dog’s gut microbiome is unique and therefore so are their nutritional requirements. For this reason, microbiome testing is an invaluable tool for dog owners. Not only can the test let you know if the food you give your dog supports their gut function, but also it gives you simple diet recommendations based on your dog’s individual results to help balance their gut microbiome.
4. Medical Reason
While most cases of coprophagy aren’t linked to a medical condition, there are a few diseases that increase a dog’s tendency to eat poop. One such condition is called Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI). The pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes that help break down food into nutrients that can be absorbed into the body. Dogs with EPI don’t produce the proper enzymes and therefore can’t break down their food properly. This causes some dogs with EPI to develop an insatiable appetite for pre-digested material - poop.
Hypothyroidism, diabetes, and Cushing’s disease are other conditions that may increase a dog’s tendency to eat stool, although the reasons for this are less understood in veterinary medicine.
If your dog has a sudden increase in coprophagic behavior combined with weight loss, it may be a warning sign that they have a medical issue. Regular checkups with your veterinarian are important to catch these medical conditions early.
5. Genetic Predisposition
Like many dog behaviors and conditions, coprophagy is much more likely to occur in some dog breeds rather than in others.
Research has found that Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers are nearly twice as likely to eat poop compared to any other breed of dog. One theory as to why this is relates to a common genetic mutation in retrievers that prevents them from turning off their ‘hunger switch’ after a meal. This results in excessive food-motivated behaviors and food obsession; retrievers will eat anything, including poop.
While there is still much to learn about why some breeds are more likely to eat poop than others, there is still a lot you can do as a pet parent to discourage the behavior. Gut microbiome testing is a great tool to let you know if your dog has an imbalance or if they may benefit from diet changes to support their health.
It’s recommended that owners of coprophagic dogs limit access to poop: clean up after them immediately, keep the cat litter in a place they can’t access, and observe them while on paths and in parks. Especially for retrievers, distractions and positive reinforcement are effective methods to steer your dog clear of eating poop.
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