There is a lot of speculation on what causes animal to eat their own poop. Disgusting as it sounds to us humans, many animal species indulge in this questionable pastime and the general consensus is that it isn’t always something to fret about – at least as far as our animal companions’ health is concerned. Of course, medical conditions such as Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) should be ruled out via a medical exam, to ensure that copraphagia isn’t the result of something that requires medical intervention.
To our pets, in most cases, feces consumption isn’t too different from any other sort of scavenging that is part of their natural hard-wired instinct, and no more problematic than grazing on a bit of fresh spring grass. Some experts contend that consumption of dung from herbivores such as cows, horses and sheep may actually be beneficial for dogs, and provides a rich source of good bacteria and other nutrients. The risk of course is the consumption of medications or chemical de-wormers with which these herbivores may have been treated, or the contraction of intestinal parasites as a result of eating worm-laden dung.
Of course most of us don’t want an animal who eats his poop (or anyone else’s for that matter) and those of us with small children certainly don’t want kisses from an animal family member who has consumed feces of any kind. There are some things that can be done to manage and prevent the problem, from a holistic perspective – which means taking all aspects of the issue into consideration and treating the being ‘as a whole’.
The Nutritional Element
Nutritional factors may play a role in the incidence of copraphagia and many experts agree that animals on a poor quality diet may be more susceptible to picking up the poop-eating habit. In many cases, transitioning to a fresh, whole-foods diet with lots of raw and minimally processed ingredients will help to ameliorate the problem. Food allergies and mal-absorption issues can also be a factor.
Supplementation with minerals in the form of kelp, spirulina or other high-nutrient foods is recommended. Digestive enzyme supplementation is also a good idea to help improve absorption and assimilation of the nutrients in Fido’s food. Several companies now make supplements specifically designed to discourage copraphagia. A couple of notable examples are Forbid and an aptly names supplement called Stop Eating Poop (S.E.P.) made by Solid Gold. These products cause the feces to take on a foul taste, which deters dogs from consuming it.
Training is a vital component in the holistic approach to preventing copraphagia. Management begins with prompt cleanup of the yard to remove temptation, and use of a leash to prevent access to or contact with feces that might have gone undetected, out on walks.
Teaching the command ‘Leave it!’ is also immensely helpful. Start on a leash, and reward with a well-timed click, treats and lots of praise each time you successfully call your pup away. Don’t reward for coming away after eating poop – the reward should only come for successfully averting the undesired behavior.
Take care not to turn the task of preventing your dog from getting to his much desired fecal treat, into a fun game of ‘keep away’ which you might risk losing and which can turn into even more of a rewarding experience. Other commands such as ‘Stop!” or ‘Look (at me)! Can also be used with some success to divert a dog’s attention and allow you to intervene.
The use of aversives such as punishment for stool eating is not recommended as a general rule. Some pet owners report success with the application of hot sauce or chili powder to stools, to provide a negative experience when they are consumed but in the time it takes to apply these seasonings, it’s more efficient to actually pick up and remove temptation.
Some cases of copraphagia result from a learned behavior – copying or joining in with another hound who’s doing it at the dog park, for example. Copraphagia does seem to be more common in dogs who co-habit with cats. They start off unable to resist the high-protein delicacies in the litter tray and move on to other types of feces later on.
In other instances, stool eating can begin in an animal’s attempt to alleviate boredom, loneliness, anxiety, which results from being left alone for long periods of time, or other stressful situations. Stuffed Kongs, raw meaty bones and other ‘interactive’ puzzle toys filled with treats can provide a useful management tool to address the emotional causes.
Whatever the cause, a multi-pronged approach that takes into account all aspects of copraphagia is more likely to yield success than focusing on one factor alone.