Why do dogs eat faeces?

It’s a fact that disgusts most owners, but many dogs absolutely love to eat poo!

There’s nothing more tasty to an average dog than a nice fresh cat turd, as they are high in fat and protein. To many dogs it’s the ultimate delicacy.

It is common and normal behaviour for dogs to eat the faeces of other animals as well. If you live in the country, you may have witnessed your dog hoovering up sheep droppings or slurping at cow pats. Some dogs even eat their own. When my youngest child was being potty trained I had to be vigilant with my Golden Retriever as he’d wait patiently by her potty and sneak in to clean it out when she toddled away.

So why do they do it?

Eating faeces is known as copraphagia. It is not necessarily harmful to dogs generally and different dogs indulge in the habit to a lesser or greater extent. They can find useful nutrients in the waste of other animals, like vitamins and minerals in partly digested vegetable matter. Essentially many dogs eat faeces because it’s there and they like the smell of it. Very young puppies can pick up the habit from their mothers as mums eat up puppy waste for the first few weeks of their lives. Most grow out of it when they are a few months old but not all.

It may be that your dog is eating a low-quality diet and that the poo parcels he consumes contain nutrients that are absent in his normal food. It’s worth checking the label on your dog’s feed as, although there are many high quality balanced diets available, there’s a lot of very poor quality food out there, and not necessarily at the bottom end of the price spectrum. There’s also the possibility that your dog may be suffering from a condition resulting in malabsorption of nutrients, such as a pancreatic problem, so is eating faeces in an attempt to balance his system.

Dogs who spend a long time in dog crates may eat their own faeces for the same reason that crates are used to housetrain dogs. They do not like to soil their own den and therefore strive to keep the area clean. Having eaten the evidence once or twice it can become a habit. Copraphagia can be an effective attention seeking behaviour as many people will react quickly and loudly if they witness their beloved pet eating its own waste, so watch out for this one and don’t leave your dog crated for too long!

If your dog is bored, eating faeces could be a welcome distraction. Sometimes a dog will resort to eating its own waste if there’s not enough food to go round.

Out on a walk there’s a greater variety of tastes to try and some dogs unfortunately don’t know when to stop. I was walking with my Golden Retriever puppy a few weeks ago through the countryside and stopped to chat to a farming neighbour who was muck spreading the land between his fields and the local woods. Badgers, unlike dogs, don’t like the smell of manure and the scattering of it helps to prevent the spread of TB from the badgers to the farmer’s cattle in the fields. The pup took the opportunity of our conversation to scoff as much of the manure as she could force into her belly unbeknownst to me. I only discovered her greed when she deposited an enormous, black, slime covered stomach-sized dollop of cow manure on the sitting room carpet.

All the reputable dog training books you will read will tell you that dogs need to be rewarded or reprimanded within a second or two of doing something you disapprove of, otherwise they will not understand the connection between the action and your response. It seems that the eating of unpalatable foods is the only exception to this rule and most dogs will quickly learn that if something makes them sick they should avoid it in future. Sadly, my pup doesn’t understand that one. Cow manure isn’t poisonous after all, except in excess, due to the levels of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous it contains. It’s just that she ate so much of it and so she’s keen to repeat the process as often as possible!

If your dog is eating his own waste, get him checked out by your vet for health problems and investigate the quality of the food you give him. If you think he may be bored, ensure he has stimulating toys to play with when he is left alone. Clear up any waste as soon as you can but don’t rush to do it the second he performs, as you could start a competition. After all, if you’re that interested in it, it must be good!

So what do you do if your dog is gobbling at cow pats, sneaking into the cat’s litter tray or offering a free potty cleaning service?

At home the solution is relatively simple. Invest in a cat litter tray with a lid so he can’t get his nose inside it and keep litter trays and potties in rooms where your dog is not permitted to go.

Teach your dog to respond to the instruction ‘Leave it’ when he shows an interest in faeces by offering him a high quality snack like cheese in preference as soon as you see him even look at a cow pat. Keeping him on a lead for a while until you have established that he prefers the treat to the manure will help.  Offer him the treat intermittently until the habit of moving away is established. Always praise him warmly though when he obeys you.

Train your dog to drop what he has in his mouth on command, again using a high quality alternative. This may not work with particularly greedy dogs but even if it is not reliable in this situation it’s a very useful command to have at your fingertips for when your dog picks up unsuitable objects like stones or perhaps your favourite gloves!