Indeed, it’s not a very agreeable thought (or sight), but it’s a common problem.
Many dogs engage in the not-so-pleasant activity of eating their own faeces or those of other dogs (or even cats!). The question is, why do they do it and how can it be solved?
What is coprophagia?
Coprophagia is defined as the ingestion of any type of faeces, and is a common complaint of dog owners. A dog may eat its own faeces, those of another dog or the faeces of another species. Dogs commonly eat the faeces of cats with whom they share a household or farm animals.
The only circumstance in which coprophagia is considered a normal behaviour is when a mother dog (bitch) eats the faeces of her pups from the time of their birth until about 3 weeks of age. It is felt that the bitch does this to keep the nest area clean until the pups are able to move away from it to defecate. A clean nest area may be less likely to attract predators in the wild.
It may also be considered a natural, although not normal, behaviour for dogs to consume the faeces of large herbivores (cows, sheep, goats etc.) containing significant amounts of nutrients remaining after large intestinal fermentation. This may have helped to sustain dogs in the wild when no other food source was available.
What causes coprophagia?
Coprophagia may be a behavioural problem or secondary to a medical problem.
Coprophagia may be a type of behavioural coping mechanism for an animal that is caught in a stressful situation, such as a sudden environmental change. It can be a tactic to avoid punishment for having a bowel movement in an inappropriate area. Coprophagia can be taught to a puppy during housetraining; if the puppy is scolded or he sees the owner ‘cleaning up’ the bowel movement in the house, the puppy may learn to ‘hide’ the bowel movement by eating it. Some dogs may simply just enjoy it!
Coprophagia may be a sign of an underlying medical problem. Internal parasites or diseases that affect major organ systems (such as the pancreas or thyroid gland) may cause an animal to exhibit coprophagia. Internal parasites and some diseases can prevent the absorption of dietary nutrients; therefore, the animal may remain hungry even after consuming a meal and it may turn to eating bowel movement. Also, when undigested food is excreted it includes undigested carbohydrates, protein and fat, which may still seem palatable to eat.
Many have theorized that in some animals, coprophagia may be caused by dietary deficiencies, but there is little information to support this theory.
What are the signs of coprophagia?
Coprophagia or eating faeces is a sign. Some common clinical signs associated with coprophagia include bad breath, vomiting, diarrheoa, frequent urination (polyuria), and increased drinking (polydipsia).
How is coprophagia diagnosed?
While coprophagia often is diagnosed on the basis of the pet owner’s complaint, a thorough history regarding the animal’s environment, diet, and handling must be taken. It is important to determine whether the coprophagia is of behavioural or medical origin. Therefore, an evaluation of the pet’s diet, physical examination, blood and urine tests, and analysis of specific organ function may be required to diagnose coprophagia.
How is coprophagia treated?
The treatment of coprophagia depends on whether it is a purely behavioural problem or whether it is a sign of an underlying medical disease.
As the mechanisms and reasons for behavioural coprophagia are poorly understood, there is no single recommended treatment for individual cases of coprophagia. The most successful treatment appears to be a combination of eliminating access to faeces and using behavioural modification techniques to reward the dog for desired behaviour (positive reinforcement).
Coprophagia caused by an underlying medical disease usually resolves if the disease can be treated successfully.
Is treatment usually successful?
The prognosis for an animal exhibiting behavioural coprophagia is excellent, if the owner is able to follow the recommendations provided by the veterinarian consistently. The prognosis for coprophagia caused by a medical problem varies, depending upon the severity of the underlying disease and the response to treatment.