Portrait of a Poop Eater: notes from the 2012 AVSAB Behavior Symposium

"dear puppy... please don't eat your own poop"

A desktop image by Matt McClendon; click the image to download your own copy for your desktop or iPhone!

I spent the better part of today at the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s annual symposium listening to the best and brightest in our profession talk about–you guessed it–animal behavior.

One lecture–about dogs that eat poop–really stood out as something I should share with all of you. We get lots of questions about this habit. It just grosses people out and everyone wants to know why dogs do it and how they can stop it.

Dr. Ben Hart, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and Professor Emeritus at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, presented the results of an interesting study about the when, who, and why of canine coprophagia (the medical term for this behavior). I’m going to leave you in the dark about the whens and whys for now, because I thought the who was really interesting.

The study involved two surveys of dog owners: one survey about behavior in general, and a second that specifically targeted owners who reported that their dogs eat poop. There were well over 1000 respondents to each survey. The portrait that emerged was pretty interesting. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Coprophagia is a very common behavior. Nearly one dog in four has been caught snacking on feces; about one in six were observed doing it five times or more.
  • The risk of having a dog that eats poop with regularity increases in multi-dog household. One in five dogs living alone do it; in a three-dog household it’s one in three–so chances are if you have three dogs, ONE of them has a gross habit!
  • 92% of dogs that eat feces like the fresh stuff–only one or two days old. 85% of them eat only OTHER dogs feces.
  • Dogs that eat feces weren’t any harder to housetrain than those who don’t
  • Female dogs (both spayed and intact) are more likely to eat feces than neutered males. Intact males are the least likely to engage in this behavior.
  • Diet doesn’t have an effect on the behavior.
  • “Greedy” eaters are more likely to eat what other dogs leave behind in the yard.
  • Certain breeds (Border Collies and Shelties, for instance) are more likely to eat poop.
  • There wasn’t a single poodle (toy, standard, or otherwise) among the ranks of the coprophagic dogs identified  in this study.
  • Dogs that eat poop are just as affectionate as those who don’t (can you say “stinky kisses?”) and no more likely to have compulsive behaviors.

While I won’t get into why the researchers think dogs do this or what you might be able to do about it tonight, stay tuned. I’ll fill you in later.

For now, tell us what YOUR theory is. Why do dogs eat poop?

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  1. Kara C says:

    My guess would be to “destroy” evidence of another animal in their territory. By eating the fecal matter, the anal gland excretions or scent of the other dog would be minimized and what is left on the ground would soon dissipate. Also female dogs will stimulate bowel movements in their puppies and clean up after them until they are mobile. It could be a form of housekeeping. Just a guess!

  2. Kara C says:

    This is just a wild guess! Fresher fecal matter might be more attractive because of the stronger scent of undigested food particulates, lack of parasites (such as maggots), and higher moisture content, although I have seen dogs eat dried kitty krunchies on numerous occasions!

    • Dr. G says:

      The researchers speculated that coprophagia is an instinctive behavior to keep a dog’s territory–especially the den–clean, so you’re on the right track with “housecleaning.” I’d agree that this is probably why the behavior is most common in females, regardless of if they’re spayed or not.

      Most parasite eggs aren’t infectious until they incubate in the environment for a couple days. This was the suspected rationale for eating only fresh feces–any parasite eggs that haven’t had time to become infectious are digested, instead of causing disease. That’d be a pretty cool instinct if it’s true, because I’m pretty sure dogs have never taken parasitology!

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