Bad Breath? The Social embarrassment of coprophagia

Coprophagia is the name given for the eating of faeces. Although it is a very common problem, especially in puppies, very few owners seek professional help. In many cases, the problem either resolves itself in adulthood, or the owners take measures to prevent their dogs gaining access to such undesirable treats! As it is a relatively harmless problem to the dog, it is usually only the owners who have any concerns about this behaviour.

What causes coprophagia is a little unclear. In most cases it appears to be purely behavioural, although medical conditions which alter the dog’s appetite, or absorption of nutrients may be a contributing factor. It is therefore essential to have the dog properly checked by a vet, before any behavioural advice is sought.

Behavioural causes:

• Coprophagia is likely to be more common in puppies due to their desire to investigate

everything they find.

• In some cases, the trigger for coprophagia appears to be related to the attention received from the owner. If the dog is called away or chased, this may become a game which is highly reinforcing. If the faeces are forcibly removed from the dog, the dog may perceive the faeces to be of great value (i.e. my owner REALLY wants them so they must be good!) and this can result in the dog gulping down the faeces as soon as they find them.

• In cases where there is no toilet training, or a breakdown in the toilet training (e.g. the dog has a stomach upset), some owners are wrongly advised to punish their dog and rub their nose in it. This can lead to anxiety about toileting and the dog may eat the faeces as a consequence.

• Dogs are opportunistic scavengers and will often eat anything they find. The faeces of other animals are not only freely available, but often attract the dog’s interest from their smell, taste and texture!

• Dogs that are raised or kept in very barren environments are of greater risk of developing the habit due to a lack of stimulation and consequent boredom.

As with any behaviour problem, it is helpful to try and determine the underlying motivation for the behaviour in order to successfully reduce its occurrence. With coprophagia it is not always easy to do this and so it may be important to try several of the following steps;

• Firstly ensure the dog is checked by a veterinary surgeon. The vet may want to discuss changing the dog’s current diet or advise adding foodstuffs to reduce the palatability of the faeces, for example; adding pineapple is believed to make the faeces taste unpleasant and thus break the habit. The success of this is however somewhat varied.

• Stop all punishment as any sudden movement towards the faeces or punishment towards the dog (shouting or grabbing it) is only likely to reinforce the dog’s motivation to get to the faeces and eat it first! If there is evidence that the dog has eaten faeces hours or even minutes before, it is essential not to punish the dog. Dogs are only able to associate events that occur very closely in time and so any delayed punishment is likely to be seen as an unforeseen act of hostility from yourself and cause the dog anxiety.

If the dog is actually caught eating faeces, it is still essential to avoid any form of punishment. Instead just walk away and try to distract the dog by shaking the biscuit tin or picking up the dogs lead. If the dog stops eating the faeces and comes to investigate you should then highly praise them and ensure they are placed in another room before returning to clear up the remaining mess.

If it is possible to give the leave command (needs to have been previously taught) as they catch sight of a poo, it is here that the dog can be highly rewarded for coming away.

N.B. Teaching a ‘leave it’ can be really beneficial as long as it remains a positive command and not screamed as the dog tucks in to its first mouthful. The ‘leave it’ command should mean “Come to me because I have something even better” and it may therefore be better to label it something like "Party time" as this is easier to say with a positive tone.

• Pick up the dog’s faeces but ensure that you are not diving to get there the second they perform, as this may draw more attention to the faeces. Instead distract them away with a treat or toy and then leaving them inside/with someone else, go and retrieve the faeces.

• If the dog is eating other dog’s faeces, avoid walking them where there are likely to be more around, e.g. woodland walks. Local managed parks with designated poo bins should have a lower risk. Increase vigilance and if there are faeces ahead, change direction without drawing attention to them. N.B. calling the dog’s name and changing direction several times along the walk should reduce the predictability that there is a poo ahead that they need to find!

• If the problem has become serious and the dog is constantly scavenging, it may be necessary to muzzle train the dog. This should only be a management tool while other factors are investigated (e.g. medical problems, diet) and a ‘leave it’ is taught. N.B. See the following video on how to muzzle train your dog.

• Muzzle training –…/muzzle-training.html

On a final note it is essential that your dog’s worming is up to date to help reduce cross-contamination of parasites.

If you have any questions about the information above, or concerns about your dog’s behaviour, please do not hesitate to get in touch,

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