Bulldog licking his lips.

Why Do Dogs Eat Their Own Poop?
Written By Our Vet

Written By Dr Kathryn Rosalie Dench | M.A VetMB MRCVS.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 18th January 2024

If you’re embarrassed by your dog’s nasty habit of eating poo, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that between a quarter and a half of all dogs engage in this smelly activity at one point or another – with one in six making it a regular habit. (1, 2)

So, why do dogs eat poop? And why do some puppies eat their own poop, while others are more interested in the poop of other animals? As disgusted as you might feel concerning that behaviour, it's important to investigate the reasons your dog is eating its faeces. You may also be worried that your adult dog or puppy might get sick and wonder how to prevent them from doing so.

In this article, we give you the veterinary run-down of why this happens, when it should concern you, and what to do about it.


Why Do Dogs Eat Their Own Poop?

There are several common reasons why puppies or adult dogs are eating faeces:

  • Mimicking the adult female dog
  • Stress, boredom and anxiety
  • Hunger
  • Underlying medical causes
  • Responding to your behaviour
  • Enjoys eating poop

For each of these reasons, there is a different factor driving your dog’s behaviour, and a different course of action to try and curb or resolve the issue. We will look at each of these reasons in detail.


Is Poop Eating Normal for Dogs?

Yes, poop-eating is normal for dogs, and even for puppies. This habit is also called coprophagia or scatophagy. Research published by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior found out that 16% of dogs were caught eating poop more than five times, while 24% of pet dogs in the study were caught in the act at least once. (1)

Mother dogs engage in this behaviour when they clean their puppies or try to protect their young from being tracked by predators. So, it might be gross, but it’s fair to conclude that it's in a dog's nature to eat poop. Just like little children who put whatever they find into their mouths, puppies and dogs are natural scavengers. They tend to eat whatever they find appealing to their sense of taste and smell.


Why Do Dogs Eat Poop?

Rather than focusing on punishing your dog for eating poop, it’s a good idea to try and work out why it’s happening. Listed below are different reasons that could explain the problem – whether it is a one-time thing or a recurrent act.

1. They learnt the behaviour from their mother

Mother dogs clean their puppies by licking them, and that includes after pooping. Even after weaning, female dogs will eat puppies' poop to clean the den or protect them from predators even when there aren't any in your home – it is a primordial canine behaviour.

Most puppies are likely to pick up the faecal smell from their mothers from time to time, making it a familiar scent. Puppies also mimic what their mothers do, and so the poop-eating problem can start at a young age.

Although mother dogs stop eating their puppies' faeces once they get older and can leave the den to empty their bowels, some puppies continue to be fascinated with poop as they grow up. Not only that, but research shows they can actually take up the habit in later life if a dog they live with starts to eat poop! (2)

What to do about it:

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot that can be done to remove the poop-eating instinct from your dog – but you can show your dog that you’re looking out for them by cleaning up their poop quickly, so they don’t have to.

2. They are stressed, anxious or bored

Poop eating can sometimes be a sign of anxiety, stress or boredom. Many pets get lonely and stressed when left alone for long periods – and since they have nothing to do, eating poop could be the only thing they can find to keep them busy. Stress in dogs can also be related to a new environment or location.

If your dog gets comfort from eating the poop (remembering their puppy days, for example), then it can reinforce the poop eating as a soothing behaviour.

What to do about it:

Ensure that your dog and puppies have some company even when you are not around, to prevent separation anxiety – you could use a dog walker, for example, to give them mental and physical stimulation each day.

Punishing your pet for eating poop could also lead to elevated stress levels, which could make this situation worse. It is a good idea to seek help from a vet or a behaviourist, as certain behavioural interventions can be effective at changing these stress responses.(3)

3. They’re hungry

Dogs sometimes eat poop because of hunger. Puppies are rapidly growing and this calls for more feeding – often four or more times a day. Even if it's getting enough food, your dog might have intestinal parasites and worms that are stealing nutrients out of its system, making it hungrier.

This can make your puppy look for alternatives to supplement nutritional deficiencies with whatever it finds suitable – which can lead to them eating other dogs' poop and raiding the litter box for cat poo at regular intervals.

What to do about it:

Ensure your dog gets adequate nutrition and routine check-ups or preventatives for worms. For puppies, it’s important to check how much you’re feeding every week or two, and increase to match your puppy’s appetite.

4. They have a medical condition

If your dog has enough to eat, but still seems focused on eating anything they can lay their paws on, there might be something else going on. Some dogs have health conditions that affect proper food absorption and metabolism, and that leaves them feeling perpetually hungry no matter how much they eat.

Some of the medical conditions that lead to extreme hunger in dogs are:

  • Diabetes
  • Intestinal bacterial infections
  • Hyperthyroidism (thyroid disease)
  • Cushing's disease
  • Dementia
  • Steroid medications

What to do about it:

Before you write your dog off as a greedy dog, you need to get them a full health check to make sure there isn’t an underlying cause. Most of these conditions need treatment to get your dog’s hormones or metabolism back on track, and your dog will thank you for it.

5. They’re responding to your behaviour

How you react to your dog when it poops or eats faeces could inadvertently trigger more of this behaviour.

Dogs are highly social creatures, and your opinion matters to your dog! So if you respond with anger when your dog defecates in the house, your dog might develop a habit of eating poop so that you don’t punish them.

Related: How To Encourage Your Dog To Poop & Pee Quickly.

Conversely, your dog might be trying to get attention by eating poop. Even if it’s negative attention, your puppy might be craving interaction with you, and your attention reinforces the behaviour.

What to do about it:

To break this cycle, try not to overreact if you find your dog eating poop, or if you see their poop – even in the house! The way dogs interpret our behaviour is an important part of our relationship with them, and consulting with a dog behaviour expert will be a worthwhile investment to prevent any further miscommunications!

6. They simply like poop

Not every poop-eating habit has a serious reason. Your dog might just be fond of eating poop. It might seem gross to us, but humans' sense of taste and smell is quite different from that of animals. Your adult dog or puppy could be attracted by undigested food particles such as proteins or fats that are available in faeces.

What to do about it:

Ironically, a high-quality diet is more likely to attract dogs to eat poop than a low quality one, because of the undigested nutrients it contains. You could try switching to a different brand of dog food to see if that changes the pattern.

Related: The Best Dog Poop Bag Holders Australia.

Another option is to add deterrents such as apple cider vinegar, fresh pineapple or pumpkin to the dog's food. They make poop taste awful, and will discourage your dog from eating the faeces.

Related: The Best Biodegradable Poo Bags Australia.


Harmful Effects of Eating Poop

It may surprise you to hear that for the most part, your dog consuming its own poop doesn’t pose a major threat to its health. That’s because any bacteria and viruses present in your dog’s own faeces are already present inside their digestive system!

There are two exceptions to this, however. Firstly, some medications can be excreted in the faeces. This means your dog might end up supplementing their usual daily dose with the undigested material in their poop. While rare, there have been cases of dogs getting sick from eating medicated poop (even if it’s not their own). (4)

The second possible exception is if your dog has worms, as the number of parasites in their body might increase if they eat their own poop, particularly if it is older than 2 days. (1, 5) However, routine worming treatments should keep on top of this.

Eating other dogs' excrement has the potential to be more harmful. In addition to the risks above, your dog might catch an infection from the other dog, such as:

  • Worms, such as roundworms, hookworms, whipworm and tapeworm
  • Viruses, including parvovirus and canine distemper
  • Bacteria, such as Campylobacter, E. coli and Clostridia

Eating poop from other species, such as horse manure or pet rabbit droppings, could even be fatal to a dog if they contain traces of certain worming drugs.

If your dog shows signs of lethargy, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, or is off their food after eating poop, you should take them to the vet immediately.


What to Do if Your Dog Eats Poop

Here are three things you should do straight away if your dog has a poop-eating problem:

  • Regular checkups: If your dog likes eating poop, mention it to your vet. They can check for any underlying conditions, and ensure you’re up to date with preventatives like wormers and vaccinations.
  • Call in the experts: If your dog is a severe poop eater, it’s a good idea to get a pet behaviourist involved for some specialist advice. A poop-eating habit might take time to abolish, but with commitment and consistency, you stand a good chance.
  • Direct prevention: Use a halter while out on a walk for easy control. Pay attention so you can pick up your dog's poop immediately, before it has a chance to eat it. You can also consider using a basket muzzle on your dog to help interrupt the habit.

How to Stop Dogs from Eating Poop

If you want to put a stop to your dog’s poop-eating habit in the long-term, here are some tips to put into practice:

Related: The Dog Poo Composting Guide.
Related: The Best Dog Poo Composting Systems Australia.

Hygiene

Limit your dog's access to any poop. You will need to keep the backyard clean by removing any poop routinely. Check your fences, so no other animals can get in to poop on your property. Keep any litter boxes clean.

Training

In most cases, training is your ticket out of this problem. Use positive reinforcement when your dog goes out to poop, rather than yelling when it poops inside the house. Also, teach your dog commands like 'leave it’, which means your dog can get attention for doing the right thing.

“The goal should be to reinforce desirable behaviours and to ignore or prevent unwanted behaviours. Clicker training can be particularly useful to immediately mark and reward desirable behaviour and gradually teach behaviours.” Gary Landsberg, DVM at MSD Veterinary Manual.

Proper nutrition

To control poop-eating problems, ensure that your dog's diet contains sufficient nutrients, and that they’re getting enough food. If hunger is a factor, consider splitting your dog’s daily portion into more feedings.

Activity and exercise

Introduce games and activities that will keep your dog physically and mentally engaged. For example, you could give them toys or balls to carry around, and play ball with them every day.


My Conclusion

Poop-eating is a natural habit of pet dogs, if a disgusting one. There are steps you can take to reduce or prevent poop-eating behaviour, but you need to know why your dog is eating poop. Consult with your vet and dog behaviourist to work out the causes behind your pet’s problem, so that you can set up a plan of action to curb this smelly habit.

References

  1. Hart B, et al. January 12, 2018. "The paradox of canine conspecific coprophagy". Veterinary Medicine and Science. 4(2):106–114. Retrieved March 22, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1002/vms3.92
  2. Amaral AR, et al. 2018. “Canine coprophagic behavior is influenced by coprophagic cohabitant”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 28:35–39. Retrieved March 22, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2018.07.011
  3. Enrico S. September 26, 2017. “Coprophagia and pica in a geriatric epileptic dog - case report”. Dog Behavior. 3(2):33–39. Retrieved March 22, 2023. https://doi.org/10.4454/db.v3i2.59
  4. Hutchins R, et al. September 01, 2013. “Suspected carprofen toxicosis caused by coprophagia in a dog”. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 243(5):709–711. Retrieved March 22, 2023. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.243.5.709
  5. Baan M, et al. 2011. “Rhinoscopic diagnosis of Eucoleus boehmi infection in a dog”. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. 47(1):60–63. Retrieved March 22, 2023. https://doi.org/10.5326/JAAHA-MS-5707

Dr Kathryn Dench


Dr. Kathryn Rosalie Dench is Gentle Dog Trainers Veterinarian Advisor & Author.

Dr. Kathryn Rosalie Dench - Veterinary Medicine, Epidemiology, Animal Welfare, Clinical Data Management, and Biodiversity.

Kathryn is Gentle Dog Trainers Veterinarian. She graduated from the prestigious Cambridge University Veterinary School with a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Veterinary Medicine and is a Member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (MA VetMB MRCVS). She ensures all Gentle Dog Trainers' content is accurate, trustworthy and provides sources for the evidence and expertise provided.

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