By Christine D. Calder, DVM, DACVB
Many see their dogs as part of the family, their “fur babies.” Our dogs eat from our plates, sleep in our beds, and even lick the baby’s face — which is why we get concerned when these same dogs go out and eat their own or another animal’s feces (poop) in the yard. The technical term for this behavior is coprophagia.
Why do they eat feces? The mystery is still unsolved. Some wonder if it is due to age since many feces eaters are puppies or young adult dogs and others wonder if it is due to poor diet. Could it be a compulsive behavior or maybe an underlying medical condition? All of these are possibilities, but there is no scientific evidence to give us those definitive answers.
Regardless of the why, the question becomes how do we stop it? Currently, there are many different commercial products on the market specifically targeted for feces eaters. None have been found to be particularly helpful at stopping this behavior. In fact, the only way to ensure this behavior stops is to never give your dog the opportunity to have access to the feces in the first place. Easier said than done!
Walking dogs on leash or accompanying them into the backyard can reduce their access. Cleaning up feces immediately is ideal. If they are eating their own feces, twice daily feeding can increase predictability of when they will eliminate so you are ready to scoop the feces. Teaching cues such as “leave it” can be helpful, but make sure you have something of higher value to reward your dog with to ensure they will comply. A game of “find it” (sprinkle food in the grass) can give you extra time to pick up the feces. A quick game of fetch or round with a flirt pole can also be useful to distract your dog from their feces eating mission.
What if we can’t stop it? Feces eating can be frustrating and unpleasant but often is not harmful. Intestinal parasites and certain viruses, like parvo, are the biggest concern when your dog eats feces; however, monthly heartworm prevention medications often treat intestinal parasites. Regular fecal examinations and recommended vaccinations can also further reduce the risk for disease. Routine toothbrushing (at home) and dental cleaning (by your veterinarian) can help with the bad breath and tartar.