Friday, May 29, 2009

Dog acting like poop scoop: Coprophagia

This is a common question I am being asked frequently: "It’s disgusting, why does my dog eat his poop and how can I get him to stop?"

Have you ever watched the comedian Ron White when he talks about his wife asking him to clean up the yard from the presents their dog has left there? His solution to the problem is having the neighbor's dog come over, he will be glad to help out.

Joking aside, it is actually more so a problem for dog owners than for the dog itself. Ever watched your dog taking in some of this stuff and then trying to show you that he/she loves you by giving you a kiss? Enough of this, you got the picture.

Some dogs don't just eat their own but also eat other dog's poop. It may be hard to believe but stool eating is not uncommon or abnormal. And, it may even have its benefits. In fact, the mother dog will naturally eat the feces of her puppies as she cleans them and her nest. Puppies often eat feces as they explore their environment, just like babies and small children will put just about anything in their mouths.

Eventually, most puppies figure out that they are better and tastier things to eat than poop and move on to consume food. Other dogs never learn and will continue this behavior.
Other dogs are thought to do it out of boredom. It is also possible some dogs will eat feces in an attempt to correct nutritional deficiencies form a poor quality diet. That makes it even more important to ask why a dog is eating feces to determine what can be done.

The medical term for eating feces is "Coprophagia" (from the Greek copro which means feces and phagy which means eat).

There are quite a few theories as to why dogs behave this way. Some suggest it may be the diet. Though the general take on this theory is that this is usually not the case and dogs eating their feces usually don’t have dietary deficiencies. However, related to this, some medical problems may contribute to the behavior. They include severe disorders of the pancreas ( i.e. pancreatic insufficiency) or intestines, severe malnutrition from a massive parasitic infestation or starvation. However, these are rare cases.

Some suggest Food allergies, creating malabsorption and over feeding leading to undigested fecal matter may be the cause.

Very often eating feces may coincide with a feeding change that an owner feels should be made during growth by cutting down from two meals per day to one. Dogs retain food on their stomachs for only 7 to 9 hours after eating, after which they experience an empty tummy. Many dogs try to fill this gnawing void by drinking copious amounts of water. Others, while still defecating twice a day, turn on the stool that is passed at the time they formerly would have eaten their second feeding on the old schedule. More often coprophagia is caused by stress or anxiousness, like for example is the case with kennel kept dogs. Another theory suggests that dogs having been punished by their owners for defecating inappropriately start to think any defecation is wrong, so they try to eliminate the evidence.

Others say coprophagy is a trait passed down through the ages. Canines in the wild, like wolves and coyotes, may often eat feces if food is in short supply. Feces from herbivores (animals that eat plants for food) contain many of the B vitamins. Some researchers suggest that wolves and some dogs may eat feces to replenish their vitamin supply. Now this suggests that there may indeed be a relationship to dietary deficiencies.

In some instances, coprophagy may be a behavior learned from watching other animals. It may also become a habit in the course of play and puppies having to try out the taste of everything.
Also, another possibility, allelomimetic behavior, i.e. the dog watching its owner picking up stools and takes up the practice as well.

There is even a stage of life during which coprophagy is common and expected. Bitches and queens normally eat the feces of their offspring. This not just is presumed to occur in an attempt to hide the presence of the litter from predators but also to keep the nest clean and prevent unhygienic conditions from developing in the nest as they could lead to disease.

And finally, the most simple theory: Some dogs do it just because it tastes good to them.

How can you prevent the problem? Dr. Holly Nash, DVM, MS offers a couple ideas on

“The best way to prevent the problem is to keep yards and kennels free of feces. Some owners find it successful to use something to make the feces taste horrible. … Some people try putting Tabasco sauce or cayenne pepper (chili powder) on the feces (not the food!). Unfortunately, some dogs have acquired quite a taste for Tabasco. These methods work best if the behavior has just started. Once coprophagy has become a habit, it is very difficult to break.

Dogs should be on a leash when walking, so you have control over the dog in case a luscious pile of feces is found along the way. Sometimes, the only way to prevent coprophagy is to fit the dog with a wire muzzle. The dog will be able to sniff, pant, and do most things dogs do, but the dog will not be able to eat with the muzzle on. DO NOT LEAVE A MUZZLED DOG UNATTENDED.
Adding toys and other diversions to the environment may be helpful. We need to find something that is more fun for the dog than eating feces. A dog may find a Kong toy laced with peanut butter a better alternative. Also give the dog lots of exercise to help it ultimately relax.

In situations in which the behavior may be linked to stress, the cause of stress should be eliminated or at least reduced. In some instances of extreme anxiety, or if the behavior becomes obsessive compulsive, medication may be necessary to try to break the cycle.

One researcher recommends checking the dog's diet to make sure he is getting enough B vitamins and is not getting an excess of carbohydrates.

Some dogs will improve if they are fed more often, so you may want to increase the number of meals but keep the total daily intake about the same.

For dogs attracted to litter boxes, you may need to be quite creative. Using covered litter boxes and placing the opening towards a wall may help. Some people put the litter box up high. Others put the litter box in a closet and secure the closet door so that the opening is big enough for the cat but will not allow the dog to enter. Keep in mind that if we make the litter box too difficult to reach, the cat may not go to it either.

Above all, do not punish the dog for eating feces. This may reinforce the behavior. General work on obedience is sometimes helpful. If the dog knows what is expected of him and looks to you for cues, he may be less anxious and less likely to start or continue the behavior.”

While further looking around the Internet for info, I also came across the following advice, which I absolutely did not like:
“Despite all these modifications in environment and training, some dogs persist in the habit of coprophagia. For these dogs, the compulsive disorder diagnosis may be worth considering. Some obstinate cases respond to the judicious use of human anti depressants”. I rest my case on this one and only suggest to stay away: Throwing meds at a behavioral problem in my opinion are certainly no answer, for both, neither humans nor animals.

Are there any health risks coming with the behavior? You bet. As Dr. Nash explains: “Many parasites can be transmitted through eating stool. Generally, herbivores have parasites specific to them; these parasites will not cause disease in carnivores. But dogs eating the feces of other dogs or cats can infect themselves repeatedly with parasites such as giardia, coccidia, and if the feces are around for 2-3 weeks or more, roundworms and whip worms. Such dogs should have regular fecal examinations and de-wormings with the appropriate medications depending on the parasites found.”

The bottom line is that it sounds like nobody is sure why dogs eat their own feces or the feces of other animals. However what we do know is: If a dog starts this behavior, the sooner you implement prevention measures, the better the chance of success.

To end this on a funny note: My problem now is should I file this under nutrition or general topics? Talk to you later...

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