How to treat your dog’s dirty secret

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There is a Chinese Crested dog I know. Let’s call her “Alice,” because that’s her name. Although she’s one of the sweetest dogs you’ll ever meet, you never want a kiss from Alice. You see, Alice has a dirty secret: she eats poop.

Alice isn’t the only dog I’ve met with a “potty mouth.” It is a pretty common occurrence in the world of dogs. In fact, there’s even a fancy name for it: “coprophagia” (from the Greek “copro” (dung) and “phagia” (to eat). Whether or not you speak ancient Greek, most of us would agree that it is gross; it offends both our sensibilities and our sense of hygiene. So why do dogs do it?

The short answer is that like so many mysteries of animal behavior: we simply don’t know. But that has not stopped us from coming up with a number of theories. Coprophagia is common among nursing mothers, whose instinct is to stimulate the digestive system of their young pups. The mothers will lick their newborn babies’ bottoms, which encourages them to defecate. (Talk about a birthday bidet!) Once the puppies defecate, the mothers will consume the feces. Perhaps this is a vestige from when dogs were wolves, and erasing evidence of the puppies helped to protect them from predators or other animals that may harm them. Or it could simply be a way to keep their den clean.

Coprophagia may also be an indication of malnutrition. Parasites may be depriving the poop-eater of required nutrients, and nature has directed him to compensate with an easily-consumed and readily-available source to make up the shortfall. Similarly, poor quality or not enough food may also deprive an animal of the nutrients it needs. Or certain conditions prevent the animal’s pancreas from producing the enzymes required to break down nutrients in the intestine and to be absorbed into the bloodstream. In any case, the animal seeks to replace what it is missing by ingesting feces.

Then again, coprophagia may be a sign of an animal’s mental state. Bored dogs like to chew, and if there’s no Milk-Bone around, they will pick up what they can find. (A “log” is as good as a stick?) It could also be a hold-over from when the dog was a puppy. Many dogs who are either abused or raised in dirty conditions as puppies (puppy mills) will eat their own excrement to cope with anxiety. Others will do so because it will inevitably cause a reaction from their owner and earn them attention.

The most likely reason is that they just like it (especially in winter when the world is full of Frozen Poop Pops). The sad reality is that it’s just “normal” behavior for dogs.

So how can we prevent it? Mostly by using common sense. Keep your cat’s litter box clean and prevent the dog’s access. Invest in a pooper-scooper and clean your dog’s play area or yard. If these don’t work, we sell a dietary supplement that makes the poop taste bad (or worse than it already does). But if you suspect that your dog has a concern deeper than being the occasional “Party Pooper,” please bring him in for an appointment. We’ll work hard to flush out the problem.

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