Coprophagia: The Cringeworthy Practice Of Eating Poop

by Dr. Michael Forney

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Cleaning up the backyard, carrying poop bags, and eliminating any opportunity for your pet to eat the poop is the simplest, most straightforward way to stop the behavior.

Does your dog or cat eat its poop? Mine does, if I don’t clean it up right away! Poop eating, or coprophagia (the ingestion of fecal material), is a common complaint I hear from owners. Although it may be distasteful and off-putting to most humans, it is not usually a big concern for me as a doctor. Many dogs, and occasionally cats, will ingest their feces with no ill consequence. However, owners often want to know why. Why does my adorable pup partake in such “disgusting behavior,” and what can I do to stop it? Discussed here are some medical, behavioral, and nutritional reasons an animal might decide to eat its feces.

Normal

In some circumstances, it is completely normal! New mothers will eat the feces of their newborns to clean the den, both for hygiene and to prevent attracting other animals. Additionally, some research has discussed that certain intestinal parasites (think worms) have larvae in feces that develop to an infectious stage after a couple of days. So fresh feces are non-infective and, in this case, it is biologically advantageous to eat poop to prevent further transmission of parasites. In fact, puppies and kittens may gain some benefit from eating their poop as a means of contributing good bacteria to their gut flora, almost as if they were supplementing themselves with a probiotic. (Look at what we can learn from natural behaviors!)

Medical

There are some medical conditions that could cause a dog or cat to be attracted to feces. These types of diseases are generally what doctors refer to as “malabsorptive disorders” and refer to issues concerning the gastrointestinal tract. Diseases of the pancreas— for example, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, inflammatory bowel disease, internal parasites, and other GI tract disease—can all interfere with proper absorption of nutrients from a patient’s diet. Therefore, a dog or cat may try to eat their feces to regain some of these lost nutrients. With these diseases, we will often see other clinical signs, including weight loss, diarrhea, thrifty appearance, poor hair coat, appetite changes, and sometimes vomiting. Of course, if you see these signs, you should take your pet to a veterinarian for further evaluation, which may include tests such as bloodwork, urine, X-rays, abdominal ultrasound, and additional blood tests to look for specific diseases.

Behavioral

Most commonly, dogs (especially) and cats will partake in coprophagia for behavioral reasons. We can see this in dogs raised in puppy mills, anxious dogs, dogs who do it as a form of attention-seeking behavior (think about how you react when you see your furry friend eating his poop), or dogs who are bored or lack environmental enrichment. In the case of boredom, providing that enrichment— daily exercise, food puzzles and toys, and training sessions—can engage an animal and keep them from wanting to ingest their feces. Additionally, management of the environment is important. So cleaning up the backyard (although obvious to some), carrying poop bags, and eliminating any opportunity for your pet to actually eat the poop is the simplest, most straightforward way to stop the behavior. Punishing your animal may actually feed into any attention- seeking behaviors (thereby increasing the behavior) and can potentially damage the bond between owner and pet.

Nutritional

Last—and this cause can be related to medical reasons—is nutrition. Nutrition is currently a big topic on the minds of veterinarians and pet owners alike, although not usually because of an issue with poop-eating. Diets that are not formulated and balanced appropriately to meet the complete nutritional requirements for a dog or cat can occasionally lead to coprophagia. Again, the reasons are similar for the aforementioned medical conditions. These animals are trying to acquire any nutrients they can (since the diet is lacking) and therefore may ingest feces. Occasionally, they may also exhibit other behaviors of eating inorganic materials such as dirt, soil, litter, etc. Animals on unbalanced diets may have other signs, including poor hair coats or skin changes, poor growth or muscle loss, reproductive issues, decreased immune function, and delayed wound healing.

Nutrition Extended

Because it is such an important topic, and many of my owners ask my opinion on diets and food, I wanted to further the discussion on nutrition. I can understand how my clients feel overwhelmed when choosing a diet for their cat or dog—I can’t keep up with all the new brands of food myself! I think many more people are evaluating their own personal diets in search of healthier, alternative foods, and although it is great for human beings to want to better the foods they eat, sometimes the principles do not translate to their pets. And some well-meaning owners are not aware of this, so they fall prey to the effects of trendy marketing and branding. Hence, the current popularity of diets branded grain-free, raw, organic, natural, vegetarian, etc.

Instead, I recommend that my clients look for pet foods that are backed by research and foods that would be recommended by most veterinary nutritionist specialists. There are several organizations in place that have created guide lines and set standards for helping both owners and veterinarians select optimum diets based on each individual animal’s needs. These include AAFCO (American Association Feed Control Organization), a non-government-regulated, non-profit organization that sets requirements and recommendations for what goes into pet foods, and AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association), which released an article in 2010 on guidelines for dog and cat nutritional assessments. While that is helpful to a owner who has the time to look up articles and research, I’m sure you’re thinking, “I don’t have time for that!” For you, I have three tricks that I advise owners to consider before purchasing a brand of pet food. And before you go out buying some new food and switching Fido’s diet, please be sure to discuss your animal’s specific needs with your veterinarian and make any transitions to a new food slowly to prevent GI upset.

1. AAFCO label. Remember, this is a non-government, non-profit organization that does not actually enforce its guidelines. Rather, the organization operates to create requirements for what goes into foods and on the label. This includes composition of the food (e.g., protein, carbohydrates, fat), calorie content, ingredients, species designation (meaning is this for a dog, cat, etc.), nutritional adequacy statement (should this food be fed to a juvenile, adult or senior pet), feeding directions, weight of the food, manufacturer/distributer, and brand/ product name. That’s quite a bit of information, but it’s what you should be able to find on any AAFCO-approved food.

2. The patient. This goes in line with the information included on the label, but what does your pet need? Do you have a puppy? Then feed him a diet formulated to meet the nutritional requirements for a puppy (again, life stage should be listed on the label). Does your cat have any medical conditions, such as diabetes or kidney disease? Then talk to your veterinarian about getting a prescription diet specifically formulated to meet these needs. Is your pet overweight? There are varying strategies to address weight loss in dogs and cats, and sometimes switching to an alternative food can help. For this reason, I recommend talking to a veterinarian to learn different possibilities for optimizing your patient’s nutritional health.

3. Food safety. Choosing a food that comes from a reputable company that has veterinary nutritionists employed and routinely tests their brands for meeting nutritional guidelines and infectious diseases is important. Additionally, some of the currently trendy foods (e.g., raw or grain-free) may carry risks, of which owners are unaware. Raw foods are obviously not cooked and therefore have a higher risk of being contaminated with bacteria. This can pose a risk to not only the animal but the owners as well, especially any immune-compromised household members or children. Some raw foods also contain bone products that could potentially cause obstruction if ingested. Regarding grain-free diets, there are currently more case reports surfacing of dogs who are fed these diets developing heart disease, according to the FDA.

Dietary Studies

Purina conducted a study released in 2002 showing that lean dogs, compared to dogs fed 25 percent more food, extended their median life span by almost two years, meaning they did not develop chronic health issues until much later compared to their counterparts (Kealy et al. 2002). Additionally, another study looking at controlled commercial diets vs. uncontrolled diets (a mixture of commercial food, treat, table scraps, and home-cooked diet) showed that dogs fed the controlled commercial diets had reduced cognitive decline overtime—meaning they had fewer signs of “canine dementia” (Katina et al. 2016), an issue more and more veterinarians and owners are beginning to appreciate.

VCA Rancho Mirage Animal Hospital located at 71-075 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA. (760) 346-6103. Visit vcaranchomirage.com

RESOURCES

Baldwin, K. et al. 2010. AAHA nutritional assessment guidelines for dogs and cats. Journal of American Animal Hospital Association. 46, 285–296.

FDA website. July 12, 2018. FDA investigating potential connection between diet and cases of canine heart disease. https://www.fda.gov/animalveterinary/newsevents/cvmupdates/ucm613305.htm

Hart, B.L., Hart, L.A., Thigpen, A.P., Tran, A. & Bain. M.J. 2018. The paradox of canine conspecific coprophagy. Vet Med Science4(2), 106–114.

Katina, S., Farbakova, J., Novak, M., & Zilka, N. 2016. Risk factors for canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome in Slovakia. Acta Vet Scand58 (17), 1–7.

Kealy, R.D. et al. 2002. Effects of diet restriction on life span and age-related changes in dogs. JAVMA220 (9), 1315–1320.

Radosta, L. 2015. Clinician’s brief: coprophagia. https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/coprophagia

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