Coprophagy, to put it bluntly, is the behaviour of…..eating faeces. I know, unimaginably awful for us to think about, but for our dogs it’s actually quite a common behaviour. But why exactly does it happen? And what exactly can we do about it?
Coprophagy is the consumption of faeces. It is surprisingly common and I have had many a puppy owner asking me how to solve this little delightful dilemma! There are a few explanations we can offer for this behaviour and if I’m honest, opinions do vary on why exactly this happens. One expert may say something different to the next, to the next, to the next. However, I’m going to outline some possible reasons as to why this may occur.
Firstly, it is important to mention a term called pica. This is essentially the desire to ingest non food items. Now, under the umbrella of pica, we find coprophagy, which is the eating of specifically faeces.
There are, amazingly, different types of coprophagy:
1. Autocoprophagy – dog eating own faeces
2. Intraspecific coprophagy – eating faeces within own species (other dogs!)
3. Interspecific coprophagy – eating faeces of other species ie. cats, horses etc.
So, you can see there’s actually quite a bit of variation within the whole process. So, why do dogs do this? Well there are as you may expect a number of suggestions out there. There is no one specific answer, well certainly none that are universally agreed upon, there are a number of factors to consider.
Here are some possible explanations:
- Opportunistic behaviour – puppies specifically, are extremely exploratory and investigative in their behaviour, and will pick up pretty much anything in their mouth in those early months! So, however unwittingly, it could merely start off as exploration of a novel item!
- Scavenging – it is not unusual for many dogs to be scavengers, indeed wild dogs scavenge for food!
- Taste – I’m sorry, I really am, but if the animal which produced the faeces has, for example, a meat rich diet…..well, whether it’s faeces or not it may seem appealing to a dog! Faeces will often contain certain amounts of undigested food matter.
- Reinforcement – specifically, from us! We give a LOT of attention to our pups if they start to eat faeces, we rush in at the speed of light to stop it! Whilst we may be saying ‘no no no!’ etc, it is in itself attention thus reinforcing.
- Innate grooming/cleaning behaviour – a pups mum will sometimes lick/clean a pups faeces up, this could be possible motivation?
- Gastrointestinal upset – quite simply, malfunction of the absorption of vitamins or nutrients due to a medical problem! Any medical issue that will increase appetite, alter normal appetite, cause gastrointestinal upset or increase the likelihood of coprophagy.
- Diet – this is a controversial subject which I am not keen to dive into! However, a dog on a restricted, or a suddenly changed diet, may begin to eat faeces.
So, some ideas there. However, the big question, how can we STOP our pups doing this?? This is something I can explain in my 1-2-1’s, however a few ideas may be:
- Ask your vet – if you feel there may be an underlying issue as to why your pup is eating faeces, always ask your vet in the first instance.
- Pick it up! – sounds too simple doesn’t it? Often the simplest answer is the best. Pick it up, pup can’t perform behaviour, behaviour ends! Why overcomplicate things?
- Remove reinforcement – do NOT rush up and try and ‘shoo’ your pup away! This provides further reinforcement and shows your pup that actually, eating faeces is fun because it gets you involved too!
- Diet modification – I won’t delve into this too much, some have claimed a dry diet which is quite rich may produce faeces which is equally rich! Ask your vet for advice regarding any dietary alteration.
- Use a long line/puppy pen – monitor your pup when outside! Remember I talked about management the other day? It’s just too easy to be true, use ie. a long line, call your pup AWAY from the faeces excitedly and reward reward reward!!
- Teach a ‘leave’ – I’ve covered this in my videos before, start early and build up the distraction level, the context in which is it practiced and keep increasing the criteria gradually to incorporate all sorts of stimuli, not just a treat on the nose! A ‘leave’ is something to be utilised in many different situations, including this one!
Not all puppies perform this behaviour and many will never do this throughout life! However, it is something I have been asked a fair few times so thought the subject worthy of some basic information. If you are eating your lunch, I apologise!!