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Why do dogs eat feces?

While most cases of coprophagia appear to be purely behavioral, there are numerous medical problems that can cause or contribute to coprophagia. These problems must first be ruled out before a purely behavioral diagnosis can be made.

What are some of the medical causes?

Any medical problem that leads to a decrease in absorption of nutrients, causes gastrointestinal upset or causes an increase in the appeal of the dog's feces, could lead to coprophagia. In addition to a complete physical examination, the dog's diet and the frequency and consistency of feces should be evaluated. If the feces are unusually soft or appear to be poorly digested, additional feces or blood tests may be warranted. Medical conditions that decrease absorption such as digestive enzyme deficiencies or parasites, could lead to malnutrition, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and therefore an increased appetite and possibly feces eating. Feeding a poorly digestible diet and underfeeding can have a similar effect. In addition, if the feces contain large amounts of undigested food material, there is an increased likelihood that the dog would eat the feces

When adult dogs suddenly begin to eat feces, it may be due to mal-absorption of nutrients or nutritional deficiencies. In addition, any condition that might cause an increase in appetite or an unusual appetite, such as diabetes, Cushing's disease, thyroid disease, or treatment with certain drugs such as steroids, may lead to an increase in feces eating. Some dogs that have been placed on a highly restrictive or poorly balanced diet may also begin to eat their feces It should also be noted that if a dog develops a taste for the feces of one specific individual, that dog should be tested for any type of condition that might lead to poor digestion of the food (and therefore excessive food elements remaining in the feces).

What are some of the behavioral reasons that a dog or cat might eat its own feces?

Coprophagia is a common problem in some puppies, and in most cases it resolves by adulthood. There have been many explanations suggested for this behavior. When left unsupervised, puppies may simply begin to investigate, play with, and even eat feces as a playful or investigative activity. Since coprophagia may attract a great deal of owner attention, the behavior may be further reinforced. There may also be an observational component (copy behavior) since the bitch cleans and ingests the puppy's excrement in the nest, and puppies may learn to mimic the behavior of their mother or playmates who perform this behavior. The owner that uses the outmoded, inhumane and useless training technique of "sticking the dog's nose" in its feces when it has soiled the home, may be further encouraging coprophagia. In adult dogs the innate behavior of grooming and cleaning newborn puppies and eating their excrement may explain some of the motivation for coprophagia. Early intervention can help reduce the possibility that the behavior will become a long-term habit.

Why do dogs eat the feces of other animals?

This behavior is akin to scavenging. It is not unusual for dogs to steal food items, raid bins, and chew on, or eat nonfood items that most humans would consider unusual or even disgusting. Cat feces and those of some other animals often have enough appealing attributes (odor, texture, and taste), to overcome the fact that they are feces In fact, feces themselves are seldom unpleasant to dogs. It is one of the scents that they are constantly attracted to when investigating their environment.

How can coprophagia be treated?

Coprophagia can best be corrected by preventing access to feces, by thorough and prompt cleaning up of feces in the garden, and by constant supervision when the pet is outdoors. If the owner is on hand when the dog relieves itself and teaches him to come and sit for a special food treat immediately following each elimination, the new behavior may become a permanent habit. Teaching the dog to eliminate on command can be particularly useful in these cases. Further training approaches include using a conditioned avoidance response to teach the dog that avoiding feces and staying close to the owner is more rewarding than indulging in coprophagia. Of course investigation of feces is normal and scent communication is important so simple sniffing or investigation of feces should not be actively discouraged. However, if the dog begins to open its mouth to ingest the feces a remote signal, totally unassociated with the owner, should be given. As soon as the dog temporarily interrupts its behavior it must be called by the owner and rewarded for withdrawing from the feces. If the dog is on a lead and head collar it can be helpful to gently guide the dog's head away from the feces and refocus attention on the owner. This approach can be very time consuming and will require a great deal of patience on the part of the owner. However, it runs far less risk of inducing secret coprophagia than other methods such as using punishment devices or a quick pull on the leash where association with the owner is a problem.

Dogs with medical problems should be treated to try and correct the underlying cause. A change in diet to one that is more digestible, or one with different protein sources may be useful. Dogs on restricted calorie diets may do better on a high bulk or high fiber formula. Some dogs may be improved by adding enzyme supplements to improve nutrient digestion or absorption. Specifically, the digestive enzymes in the form of food additives, may help increase protein digestion, resulting in a less palatable stool. In the case of dog's who eat their own feces other published remedies that have never been proven to be effective are to add substances such as pineapple, zucchini or iron tablets to the dog's food, the theory being that these items impart a less pleasant taste to the feces. When adding some items to dry dog food, it may be necessary to moisten the food first and allow the product to sit on the food for 10 - 15 minutes to increase effectiveness.

Unpleasant tastes can also be added to feces. that have already been deposited, for example the feces. of other animals, but this approach is unlikely to be successful unless the product is suitably noxious as well as odorless (so that the pet cannot detect its presence in the feces.). While the dog is out of sight, the feces. should be opened with a plastic utensil, the taste deterrent inserted into the center and the feces. closed and replaced for the dog to find. Many dogs however, either develop a tolerance to the taste, or learn to avoid those feces. that are pretreated. Experimentally, the only forms of taste aversion that are consistently effective are those associated with feelings of nausea but these have not proven to be very useful in practice in the dog.

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