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"Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?" Is a Tough Question to Answer

Canine coprophagia (better known as dogs eating poop) continues to puzzle us. Here's what we know so far.

 |  Dec 20th 2013  |   3 Contributions


Why do dogs eat poop? It is an eternal question, one that we ask as frequently, and with as much continuing bewilderment, as any of the great conundrums. We've all seen it. We've all been overcome by horror when we realize that our dog eats poop. Whether you're in your home, the yard, out for a walk on the city streets, or watching your dog frolic with others on a beach, no place is safe from the stomach-churning but altogether commonplace phenomenon of dogs eating poop.

Coprophagia may not be the sort of thing that pops up often in polite conversation or at family get-togethers, but eating poop is more common than you’d think. I shudder when I recall it, but once, when she was very young, my dog Tina jumped into my arms to lick me. This sign of affection was marred immediately by the appalling scent of her breath as she planted the kiss. Recoiling, I shouted, "Tina! You've been eating poop!" at which point I raced to the bathroom to wash my face. 

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We find it unsavory, but some dogs lick their chops at the thought of eating poop. Chihuahua by Shutterstock.

Maternal coprophagia: a mother’s love

The close relationship we have with our dogs is one reason we are taken aback when a dog eats poop. In nature, however, the love of a mother dog for her puppies provides a solid explanation for dogs eating poop. Maternal instinct causes a dog who has recently whelped to eat the dung of her own young. A dog eats poop to mask or mitigate the scent of her puppies’ poop from potential predators.

Dogs who are new mothers also lick their puppies to stimulate and encourage them to poop on their own for their first few weeks of life. Of course, if your dog is pregnant and giving birth in the home, maternal coprophagia is easy enough to control or manage by fastidiously cleaning up after puppies when they do defecate. This kind of coprophagia is largely instinctive, and is much more common in the wild.

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For the first few weeks, a mother dog might be eating poop to protect and nurture her puppies. Siberian husky with a litter of pups by Shutterstock.

Why does my dog eat poop?

There are a host of possible explanations for why a dog eats poop. They run the gamut from social to symptomatic, from dietary to disciplinary, and from habitual to hereditary. Some people speculate that eating poop is a social or learned behavior. If you own several dogs and one or more happens, from time to time, to be eating poop, it may be simply something they will see and try themselves. "Ah," you can imagine a dog thinking, "That looks quite good; I’ll have that as well." Young puppies can also pick up the behavior from observing their mothers performing the task of cleaning up after them.

The most common reason given for dogs eating poop is nutrient deficiency or lack of dietary variety. When you see your dog eating poop, one instinct is to wonder whether your dog isn’t totally satisfied with the food she’s getting. It is said that puppies should be fed three times a day, and that if they’re not getting fed adequately, they’ll turn to excrement to supplement their diet. Another theory one comes across frequently is that a strict diet of dry dog food will cause a dog to begin eating poop. In any event, it is a good idea to change up your dog’s food from time to time for the sake of variety. I used to eat ramen all the time at school, and I will extol the virtues of a varied diet forever more. I wouldn’t treat my dog any differently.

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You can ask your dogs why they are eating poop, but it's likely to draw only blank stares. A group of dogs listen to the commands of the dog trainer by Shutterstock.

Health issues are usually not the problem

The other usual suspects we round up when we ask, “Why do dogs eat poop?” are parasites. This goes both ways. Certainly, if your dog eats poop, it puts them at greater risk of ingesting intestinal parasites, and exposes them to any number of other unsanitary and unhealthy agents. On the other hand, if your dog has intestinal parasites, which can affect the dog’s ability to take in and absorb sufficient nutrients, she may look to poop to provide what the parasite is denying her. However, if your dog has a parasite problem, like Coccidiosis, it’s far more likely you’d notice the frequent diarrhea and dehydration before you’d comment upon your dog’s predilection for eating poop.

If your dog eats poop, it might be, in severe cases only, a symptom of a serious disorder. Coprophagia has been described as a symptom of Cushing’s syndrome, which occurs when the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol. Eating poop has also been linked to hyperthyroidism, a condition in which certain hormones are overproduced. A dog eating poop could be suffering from digestive issues like intestinal malabsorption or have issues with his pancreas. These links are tenuous and unreliable at best. As with parasites, other symptoms of these conditions would be more conspicuous than coprophagia.

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This fine-looking dog has found some poop on the beach. Dog on a beach by Shutterstock.

There is no one reason why dogs eat poop

In the end, “Why do dogs eat poop?” is a question that has no fixed or certain answer. As much as it unnerves and unsettles us, and as often as we scrunch our noses at the thought, dogs will continue eating poop. Why do dogs eat their own poop? The question will continue to linger until dogs acquire the power of speech and can answer it for themselves.

Dogster has a number of resources on the subject. Feel free to peruse them for recommended solutions and methods for dealing with coprophagia. Do you have an amusing story to share about the time your dog ate some poop and then licked you? Do you have other thoughts or theories on why dogs eat poop? Share them with us!

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