April 21, 2010
Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC
Coprophagia is classified as an appetitive problem and is considered so distasteful by many dog owners that in many of the more unresponsive cases euthanasia if frequently suggested especially when the “owners bond with their dog [is] irreparably damaged” (McKeown et. al.,1988) cites Lindsay (2002) who suggests this is a “rather extreme and questionable practice.”
In spite of the distasteful connotations this repulsive behavior may cause dog owners; coprophagia is considered ‘normal” among puppies only representing small health risks (Hubbard, 1989) however, we can risk exposing puppies to “viral pathogens” such as parvovirus and “parasitic infections” that may be shed in other dogs feces (Lindsay, 2002).
A study conducted by Baranyiova’ et al., (1999) using a 305 dog owner survey indicated “36%…ate feces” and found to be more common among female dogs (45%) with males representing only 30% cites Lindsay (2002).
Unfortunately, dog owners are quick to punish this behavior in spite of more acceptable means such as training, management and in some cases adjustments to diet and exercise. Owners who are experiencing this problem should get a thorough veterinary examination to rule out any medical or dietary causes before implementing any behavioral training or modification. Coprophagia can be a serious problem due to associated health risks and its effect concerning the human-animal bond therefore, it is suggested by Lindsay (2002) that it not be “summarily dismissed as a normal” behavior or something the owner should “get over and learn to live with.”
Unfortunately, the causes are unknown but several “etiologies” have been suggested including a “connection between excessive coprophagy and nutritional deficiencies, stress, boredom, unsanitary rearing conditions, and restrictive housing” according to Lindsay (2002).
On the other hand, according to Dodman (1999) “genetics provides some of the answers” to why dogs may engage in eating feces. He says “most canine behaviors that trouble owners have their foundations in innate tendencies” suggesting “coprophagia is not an exception.
Finally, Beaver (1999) says, dogs eat feces from other sources that include other dogs, cats, ungulates and this variation in selection may be associated with “special types of nutrition” i.e. “enrichment from the large intestinal fermentation, partially digested vegetable matter…or B vitamins.” In addition, she suggests the behavior may be influenced by different “neurochemicals” depending on the feces being consumed. It is also her recommendation for one to consider any “medically related causes such as poor diet, pancreatic enzyme deficiency, intestinal parasites, malabsorption, or hydrocephalus.”
Unlikely concoctions that may be considered or questionable
In addition to punishment, many anecdotal recommendations have included using such methods as injecting hot sauce in feces, using meat tenderizers, products containing MSG, sulfur and even breath mints but there is no clear evidence any of these suggestions are helpful. However, according to Lindsay (2002) there does exist “positive anecdotal claims…for meat tenderizers” containing papain and some products containing MSG but the use of ground up breath mints provide no “data or rationale” explaining the treatment.
Food items such as canned pumpkin, pineapple juice, and anise extract all containing papain have been suggested and foods containing sulfur i.e. brussel sprouts or cabbage have been suggested as effective by Hubbard (1989) saying, “small amounts of sulfur may make feces less attractive” (Lindsay, 2002).
The use of meat tenderizer containing papain is widely recommended and papain can also be purchased in its pure form at health food stores and Lindsay (2005) recommends “dogs that prove responsive to commercial meat tenderizer should be given a trial period on papain” using a natural fruit source or extract powder mixed into their food and lastly Prozyme which contains digestive enzymes can be effective in many cases (Lindsay, 2005).
Other suggested sources for supplementation include amino acids containing sulfur i.e. cystine and methionine or food that contain “high levels” of sulfur. In addition, Mugford (1995) has suggested “ferrous sulfate (iron)…adulterate[s] feces” making it less desirable. Additionally, Lindsay (2002) cites adding cooked liver and fiber such as “cooked carrots, green beans, and broccoli…may alter the texture and smell…sufficiently through natural fermentation to make it less attractive” and “The Merck Veterinary Manual recommends feeding a high-protein/low-carbohydrate diet supplemented with vegetable oil twice daily” and within two months in many cases the problem will be helped.
Contrary to these suggested treatments, Dodman (1999) considers feeding breath mints or meat tenderizer and spiking feces with hot sauces as aversive and does not consider them to be effective in treating coprophagia. He suggests instead to “adjust the dogs diet, supervise the dog during elimination opportunities and to remove any temptation along with any other effective instrumental learning that can be obtained through training.
Before proceeding to using any of these recommendations, you should consult with your veterinarian because “adding chemicals and supplements” can be harmful to your dog’s diet.
A couple of common theories suggest coprophagia is related to a “nutritional problem or deficiency” citing dogs may be 1.) searching for nutrients lacking in their diets or 2.) their “habit is motivated to consume undigested nutrients passed in feces” with vitamin B deficiency frequently suggested. An unpublished study by Landsberg and colleagues (1997) found all their dog subjects (9) “exhibited low to borderline levels of trypsinlike immunoreactivity…but none exhibited abnormal fecal fat or trypsin levels” (Lindsay, 2002).
Additionally, since vitamin B deficiency has been suggested one could provide this using a vitamin supplement, brewers yeast, or fish oil.
It is suggested based on the studies that “adjusting the diet in terms of its schedule, amount, and nutrient quality” should be considered along with adjusting protein, carbohydrate and fat ratios. Dogs with coprophagia should be fed “high quality” diets along with several feeding opportunities throughout the day. The dog’s diet may be additionally supplemented with “muscle or organ meat” but only on a temporary basis.
According to Dodman (1999) he has successfully “discouraged dogs from eating their own or other dogs’ feces by switching them to a proprietary, high fiber, weight-reducing diet” but cautions owners against overfeeding attempting to satisfy any “oral craving.” He also suggests this may not eliminate the problem at all instead it may just be “displaced” toward alternatives that are more acceptable. An alternative might be “free feeding” which gives the dog the choice between eating food versus feces.
Any of these feeding adjustments or supplementations to your pets diet should be evaluated by a veterinarian as the age and needs of the individual dog may vary.
Lack of Digestive Enzymes
There is some evidence that “digestive enzymes and bacteria” may contribute by providing “undigested food as well as nutrients lacking in the dogs diet. According to Lindsay (2002), “a critical factor influencing a dog’s digestive efficiency is the presence of adequate levels of various digestive enzymes specifically designed to metabolize proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids.”
It has been cited by Lindsay (2002) that McCuistion (1966) argued the eating habits of dogs have been changed due to their current living arrangement with humans causing dietary changes from those higher in animal protein to one consisting mostly of carbohydrates and vegetable proteins” suggesting the dogs digestive system has not fully adapted.
According to his argument “dogs eat feces to collect and conserve these critical enzymes” necessary for the digestion of carbohydrates and proteins and Lindsay (2002) seems in agreement saying “dogs can survive on a vegetarian diet (Thorne, 1966) and are preferentially opportunistic carnivores” and can adapt to eating and digesting an “omnivorous diet” with significant amounts of animal protein. Dogs subjected to bland diets consisting mostly of high levels of carbohydrates and plant sources of protein and predisposed to this deficiency may find it necessary to supplement their diets with digestive enzymes from other sources.
In further support of McCuistion’s theory Lindsay (2002) suggests wolves eat the “viscera and contents of the gut” first before devouring the protein-rich and muscle areas of prey, suggesting this may have “evolved as a means to obtain exogenous digestive enzymes” which may assist in the digestion process. McCuistion says, “some dogs appear to have suffered inadvertent physiological alterations” resulting from selective breeding contributing to the loss of “proteolytic and other enzymes” cites Lindsay (2002).
Regardless of possible benefits the dog may receive as a result of eating its own feces or the feces of other animals, the question still remains whether or not dogs consume feces in an effort to make up for any nutritional or enzyme deficiencies leaving this theory without adequate support and need for additional research suggests Lindsay (2002).
Stress associated with behavior problems may be overlooked in many cases yet according to Houpt (1982), “overly restrictive or isolatory confinement has been correlated with a higher incidence of coprophagy saying “dogs kept in close contact with people” are less likely to engage in coprophagia. In a study cited by Lindsay by Beerda (1999) beagles kept in an unrestricted environment and later moved to an inside restricted one suggested the possibility this change was adaptively stressful leading to more coprophagous activity.
According to Beaver (1999) “coprophagy in adult dogs seems to be more common in dogs that do not get much exercise, are kept in barren environments, or are small dogs.”
Anxiety and attention seeking
Both anxiety and attention seeking behavior has been cited anecdotally in coprophagia. Campbell (1975) suggests dogs are driven to eat feces as a result of punishment related to unsuccessful house training saying dogs “eat their feces” to eliminate the “evidence and threat of punishment” and contrary to this Hart and Hart (1985) suggest dogs use coprophagia as a means of attention seeking behavior due in part to owners reaction to the behavior indicating to the dog the material is desirable therefore needing attention (Lindsay, 2002).
Boredom is often implicated especially in kenneled dogs that lack adequate social interaction, access to toys, walks; training, mental stimulation that often suggests a stale environment.
Unsanitary rearing conditions and restrictive housing
An interesting correlation may be associative learning and counterconditioning when dogs are confined to small spaces and forced to eat and defecate in close relationship. Lindsay (2002) suggests the type of association may be facilitated through “…habitual association of feces with highly attractive sources of appetitive stimulation.” For example, puppies may establish three different associations that may include foraging for food, nursing and food begging behavior and bitches cleaning up puppy waste in the nesting environment and finally exploratory play without offering other novel stimulation, puppies may learn to associate eating feces with play activities (Lindsay, 2002).
Lindsay (2002) suggests there may even be an evolutionary explanation related to fitness and function and that those dogs who were more socially adept and better able to take advantage by “exploiting discarded offal and garbage” from early human settlements may have been at an advantage in both the ability to survive as well as in their ability to reproduce. Further saying, “…eating feces and garbage during times of starvation may have been encoded over time as a genetic trait.”
What treatment considerations are available?
Several treatment options have been proposed that include behavioral training, environmental management and aversive training methods such as booby traps, electronic training, and spiking feces with unattractive agents, and finally taste aversion. The consensus among the sources I used seems to point more in the direction of management and behavioral training with Beaver (1999) suggesting the most effective strategy “…is to prevent access to feces.” This suggestion makes sense as being the most reliable method along with controlling access walking the dog with a lead and rewarding the dog with a food treat immediately after elimination offering a counterconditioning effect to eating feces (Beaver, 1999).
As an additional precaution, dogs may be fitted with a muzzle that would prevent access to feces, while the owner is working on cues such as leave it.
It might be worth noting that dogs according to Lindsay (2000 & 2002) have “acquired a considerable tolerance for nausea and other sicknesses associated with the ingestion of spoiled or rotting food” and that this hypothesis is supported in part by the difficulty in “establishing taste aversion.” He is supported by disappointing results in taste aversion trials by Hart and Hart (1985) and Rathore (1984) who all reported little success in eliminating the behavior, and suggests dogs have perhaps developed “…an increased tolerance for nausea.”
Finally, “taste-aversion conditioning involves administering potentially poisonous and hazardous chemicals” thus any consideration for using this treatment in extreme refractory cases should only be considered under the supervision of a veterinarian or behavior consultant qualified or familiar with administering such treatments as well as considering any “adverse behavior side effects” (Lindsay, 2005).
The following are suggestions that could be included in a modification program, but should be done under the supervision of a qualified behavior consultant, veterinarian, or veterinarian behaviorist experienced with coprophagy (Lindsay, 2005).
- Dogs showing signs of coprophagia should receive a thorough veterinary exam that rules out any medical problems.
- Prozyme should be considered or similar broad-spectrum digestive enzyme product.
- Any dietary changes that might be helpful should be considered that might include free feeding, feeding more often, or changing to a premium diet.
- The behavior consultant or attending veterinarian if qualified should obtain a complete history.
- Any environmental stressors should be identified.
- Consider attentional and impulse control issues and implementation of an integrated compliance-training program.
- Owner should be encouraged to walk the dog away from their normal area for a minimum of two weeks using a lead, head collar or muzzle if necessary.
- Owner should be instructed in teaching leave it and attentive skills.
- The dog should be rewarded with a food reward after defecating as an alternative to eating feces.
- In cases that are more difficult it may be necessary to employ sufficient interrupter devices or cues that temporarily startle the dog.
- After the initial two-week period booby traps may be used while the dog is left alone in the yard, otherwise the best option is to attend and pick up any feces immediately.
- In the most difficult cases, Lindsay (2005) suggests the use of electronic and chemical devices but the effectiveness of these devices are dependent on exact timing.
- Lindsay (2005) recommends a conditioned taste-aversion procedure as a “last resort.”
Finally, this essay is a review of current literature and by no means suggests any treatment should be implemented without the supervision of a qualified behavior consultant, veterinarian or veterinarian behaviorist familiar with coprophagy.
Beaver, Bonnie V. Canine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians
PA: Saunders. 1999.
Dodman, Nicholas H. Dogs Behaving Badly: an A-to-Z guide to understanding and curing behavioral
problems in dogs. NY: Bantam. 1999.
Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 3 Vols.
Iowa: Iowa SP. 2001. Vol. 2.
Lindsay, Steven R. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training. 3 Vols.
Iowa: Blackwell. 2005. Vol. 3.
Joyce Kesling, CDBC
Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (iaabc.org)
Professional Dog Trainer (apdt.com)