Why Do Dogs Eat Poop? I Finally Know the Answer!

It has been right in front of me all along. How could I not have seen it until now?


Readers of Catster know that Denise and I recently acquired a cat named Abby. My pal Buster gets along with her reasonably well. He mostly ignores her, but he is very interested in two things that go along with her: her food and her poop.

Everyone knows that cat food is a delightfully forbidden fruit for dogs. I therefore was not surprised when, for the first time, we caught him at Abby’s food bowl.

I was, however, taken aback the first time we busted him up to his shoulders in the covered litter box munching down kitty rochas. I was also ashamed. My dog is a confirmed cat poop eater. What did I do to to deserve such a fate?

Several weeks ago I wrote about cerebellar hypoplasia on Catster. One of my coworkers is raising a foster kitten who, coincidentally, within a day or two of the article’s publication, was diagnosed with the syndrome.

The kitten, like most individuals with the syndrome, is a cute little guy. His behavior is erratic and uncoordinated. He is not a “normal” kitten. A while ago on an overnight shift during a lull in the caseload, we decided to introduce him to my pal Buster. (People who work at vet clinics often bring their pets to work.)

As our experience with Abby has shown, Buster generally is good with cats. However, he got a little weird with the kitten. He introduced himself, as usual, by sniffing the kitten. Buster usually takes a few sniffs and then moves on. Not this time. Buster immediately became obsessed with the kitten. He sniffed and sniffed and sniffed. He couldn’t stop.

I watched this spectacle for a while and ultimately began to wonder what was going on. What was the smell that was driving my dog to distraction? Ultimately, I decided to find out. I nudged Buster aside and took a deep whiff.

It was unfortunate that I did not approach the matter more cautiously. The kitten was rank. He smelled strongly and disgustingly of fishy cat food. I retched but I managed not to vomit.

Once I was out of the picture Buster moved back in. He continued to sniff the kitten, and began gently to roll the uncoordinated little fellow across the floor as he sniffed. Then Buster started licking the kitten. Finally Buster couldn’t take it any more. Ever so delicately, he took a tentative nibble.

The kitten was unharmed, and Buster was restrained. My thought process thereafter went something like this:

“Heh! Buster was going to eat that kitten because he smelled like cat food. I guess a dog will eat anything that smells like cat food. Holy shit! That’s why dogs eat cat poop. It smells like cat food. It’s made from cat food originally, after all.”

Then I had an epiphany.

People often use the word epiphany to describe relatively bland realizations. My epiphany was more of a classical one in which the heavens opened, the clouds parted, and a formerly blind man saw the light for the first time.

It’s not just cat poop. All poop is made from food originally. Dogs eat poop because it smells (somewhat) like food, because poop is made from food. Originally. And dogs, or at least some of them, will eat anything that smells in any way like food.

Readers at this point might be somewhat skeptical. First, why would anyone consider the revelation of the cause for coprophagia to be a nearly religious experience?

The answer is simple. For my entire career, but especially since I started writing for Dogster, I have been hounded by the question of why dogs eat poop. It’s not only the most common dog-related question that I have received over the years in person and on the Internet. It’s also one of the most commonly Googled dog-related questions.

Over the years I have attempted and, until now, failed miserably to answer the question. When people have asked why dogs eat poop I have put forward such lame answers as “because they’re dogs,” “because it smells interesting,” and “because it technically contains a very small amount of nutritional value.”

Now that I know the true answer, I feel like I have found one of the Holy Grails of veterinary Internet writing. The answer is so simple and so blindingly obvious, and it has been right in front of me all along. How could I not have seen it before?

A second cause for skepticism among readers might boil down to this: Poop doesn’t smell like food. It smells like poop.

That is true — for us. We humans have a miserably poorly developed sense of smell. Dogs experience smell in a completely different fashion, which we cannot fathom. Their noses are exponentially more powerful. They are also differently tuned.

Poop contains some odors of food because poop actually contains some food. If you doubt that I encourage you to eat corn on the cob tonight.

When we humans are around poop all we smell is poop. But dogs, in their infinite wisdom, smell it differently. They can smell the food that was the original essence of the poop.

That’s why dogs eat poop.

Read more on dogs eating poop:

Read more about dog poop on Dogster:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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