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Pets Corner: Dogs that eat poo

Dogs that eat poo can be one of the most distressing and frustrating of behaviour issues.  However, although disgusting and anti-social for us humans, coprophagia is normal dog behaviour. The fact is, for many dogs poo is just another food source.

It is thought the ability to eat poo might be a hardwired remnant of ancestral wolf behaviour, where faeces of the young, old or maimed would be eaten by other pack members to stop parasite infestation in the den. In addition, dogs probably evolved alongside mankind precisely because human food waste and faeces presented an easy source of nourishment. In some cultures puppies are still used as ‘baby wipes’, licking bottoms clean! Studies even show that dogs prefer ‘fresh’ faeces; poo more than two days old is less likely to be consumed, probably because it harbours a greater parasite load.

There are various reasons where and why dogs learn to eat poo. Some pups learn in the nest by copying their mother. Whelping bitches are hardwired to eat puppy poo, to keep the nest clean and remove scents that might attract predators. Other pups see their owners handling and disposing of dog poo and become overly interested – a good reason to conduct clean-ups with minimum fuss.  Dogs punished for housetraining accidents may even learn to eat the evidence! Dogs can be attracted by the scent of their own poo, or that of other dogs and animals, and learn to enjoy the experience of eating it. Bored dogs will enjoy hunting for poo, it taps into instinctive scavenging behaviour, with a free ‘snack’ thrown in. Finally, it is thought that dogs on overly processed diets eat poo to try to compensate for missing enzymes and nutrients. This is especially true for dogs with underlying medical issues that cause malabsorption, or that have a parasite infection. Accordingly, a thorough vet check should always be the starting point for managing a poo eating hound.

Once the problem is triggered the owner’s reactions can be key in maintaining the behaviour. Attention seeking is a major component and owners that get angry, shriek in disgust or attempt to shoo the dog away, teach the dog that eating poo gets owner attention. For many dogs any attention, positive or negative, is desirable.

If your dog has a long-standing poo eating issue you are best to get expert help but here are a few pointers.

  • Check with your vet to exclude physical or diet-related reasons for your dog’s behaviour. A change of diet may help.
  • If your dog only eats his own poo, consider if this is a housetraining issue. Taking him back to puppy basics may help- especially if you became cross with your puppy for having accidents.
  • Evidence suggests taste deterrents or punishment are not effective.
  • Teach your dog a solid ‘leave’. Start to teach ‘leave’ against increasingly valuable food sources, eventually including poo.
  • Clear your garden of poo, including cat poo, ahead of your dog going out, each and every time.
  • If you have a cat that uses a litter tray ensure your dog does not have access to it.
  • Stay calm. Emotional owner responses intensify the issue.
  • Don’t chase your dog, chasing becomes part of an attention seeking game. At the very least, he’ll probably try to eat the poo more quickly.
  • Out in the park, have your dog on a long line to help break the habit of foraging for poo. Keep your dog focussed on you with games and appropriate reward.
  • Could your dog be bored? Does he have enough in the way of ‘thinking’ activities?

Leonie St Clair | www.londondogstraining.co.uk