This is a new column, which will run periodically, focusing on pets and their problems. It is a question and answer format, covering a wide variety of topics.
DEAR DIDI: I have a dog that eats his own poops. I try to clean the yard up on a daily basis but it is not helping. How do I stop it? Horrified Mom in Ripon, CA
DEAR HORRIFIED MOM: Copraphagia (eating feces) is definitely one of those behaviors that rates a TEN on the Gross-O-Meter! Although our canine companions have a far superior sense of smell, they are lacking in the taste department compared to humans. Many dogs like to eat feces and they don’t stop at their own. Cat poop is especially tempting for them. We are not entirely sure why they do it.
First things first! Let’s rule out medical reasons. Malabsorption Syndromes prevent a dog from fully extracting all the nutrition from food that was ingested. This basically makes the dog feel like he is starving despite having eaten. The nutrients that were not absorbed in the intestinal tract come out the other end and, to a dog’s keen nose, still smells like food. Your vet can run some tests and once medical reasons are ruled out we can look at behavioral reasons.
A popular theory is that the quality of dog food can effect what comes out the other end. Those cheap fifty pound bags of dog food rely on corn and by-products for the bulk of the diet. Dogs are not vegetarians and can’t absorb much more than about 60 percent of that type of food. What comes out the other end may still smell like food to them. Deciphering ingredients lists on dog food bags almost requires a degree in nutrition plus some legal knowledge to understand what must be divulged and what could be lurking behind the labels. It never hurts to upgrade your food choice and see if things improve.
Another interesting theory is that, behaviorally speaking, some dogs are more fastidious and clean up after themselves. Some studies show that this is particularly noted in dogs that came from puppy mills or pet stores. I have personally seen cases where the dog owner, in an overzealous attempt at potty training, always showed such excitement when the dog performed a No 2 that the dog began focusing on the little item that got mom so excited.
Whatever the reasons, it grosses us humans out! Prevention is 95 percent of the battle. Cleaning up daily does not prevent Fido from cleaning up sooner. The other 5 percent is about having rock solid obedience. Take the time to step outside with him each time. The minute he is finished doing his job call him to you with enthusiasm and have a yummy treat waiting. If your obedience is not strong enough for this, then put Fido on a leash so that you can physically prevent him from turning around to inspect his business. Behaviorists know that random reinforcement is actually the most powerful type of motivator. So if Fido ingests his poop just one out of ten times, he will continue to try it.
Notice I am not touting the benefits of home remedies or commercial ‘taste deterrents.’ Plenty of dogs feel perfectly fine about a dash of hot sauce on poop or an after taste of pineapple! Medically speaking it doesn’t do much harm other than some intestinal upset or transference of parasites if your dog eats another dog’s poop. Prevent access as much as possible, teach a strong ‘leave it’ cue and chalk it up to dogs are very different than humans!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University, owner of California Canine, and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Dear Didi. Just email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.