Dogs are like family to us. We let them sleep on our beds, snuggle on the couch and lick our faces up and down even when you know where that tongue has been. This is partially why it is all the more disturbing to see them wolf down their own, or another animal's, fecal matter. Yeah, poop! Cow pies. Cow chips. The icky stinky stuff you sometimes drag around on your shoes. That habit almost makes you love them just a little bit less…almost.
At my house we had to rig a baby gate with cat door to keep the dogs from surfing for cat litter box ‘candy.’ This works well now, but only after several episodes of cat litter strewn throughout the house, leaving a poor shivering kitty in one corner, and satisfied, wagging pooches in the other.
Coprophagy is the medical term for this repugnant behavior. Some folks claim nutritional imbalances as a cause, however there is just no scientific data to support this. As a veterinarian I can attest that dogs on virtually every type of diet have been known to indulge.
Not only is coprophagy unpleasant to think about, it can be dangerous. Harmful intestinal parasites and bacteria may be found in poop. Hookworms, roundworms and whipworms are examples of parasites dogs may be exposed to through their “dietary indiscretions.”
The primary mode of transmission for most of these parasites is ingestion (eating poop or drinking poop mudshakes from a puddle) though immature hookworm larvae can also enter the body by penetrating skin. These parasites cause symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss and anemia. Not only are they dangerous to our pets, they are also dangerous to us. The technical term for worms that can be transmitted from animals to people is parasitic zoonosis. The mode of transmission is the same for people as dogs. A licking tongue, a bare foot in the grass …eeek! It happens more easily then you might think. Humans don't get whipworms but they can get hookworms and roundworms. With roundworms, the primary mode of infection is mother-to-puppy through the placenta and mammary glands. Larvae passed in feces are not immediately infective, and it takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for poop to become dangerous.
You can minimize the risk of parasites by picking up the poop in your yard immediately (go ahead and hover), discouraging your dogs from ingesting that poop or potentially contaminated water, and having your pets screened for parasites regularly. Fecal intestinal parasite screens (bring your poo to the vet! Poo travels well in ziplock bags) are not fool proof, so I also recommend deworming your pet on a regular basis. Many monthly heartworm preventatives act to deworm your dogs for the most common intestinal parasites, yet another reason why such preventatives are important.
Most of the time coprophagy is a behavior displayed by young dogs and they grow out of it. Our own 6-year old dog, Miles, was a poop enthusiast for the first three years of his life. One of his finest moments included indulging at the dog park, then getting sick and upchucking the indulgence all over the back seat of my husband’s car. We were so pleased when Miles stopped this behavior only to face it all over again with the addition of our new 5-month old pup, Blue.
The bottom line is that your best bet is prevention. This takes extra time and work, and the use of a flashlight or headlamp once the sun goes down. It is convenient and easy to let the dogs into the back yard on their own, but if you really want to stop this behavior you will need to leash walk or accompany them outside. That way you can pick up any poop immediately and dispose of it. While I admit it’s a bit of a nuisance to get up earlier and accompany the dogs on all their potty outings, particularly when it’s below zero, but any inconvenience is far outweighed by the reduced health risks and the perk of no longer having to deal with poop breath!
I have found getting the dogs on a consistent twice daily meal feeding schedule allows for better timing of bodily functions. They’re usually like clockwork. Tired dogs are less likely to get into trouble, so I keep the boys well exercised. Teaching your dogs the command ‘leave it’ is also invaluable for this, and many other situations. It is a command worth spending some extra time to learn.
‘Leave it’ comes in handy not only for poop, but any number of other items you don’t want your dog to pick up, such as dead animals, a pill you dropped, toxic foods and toys. As you are going through training, keep small – thumbnail - size treats in your pocket at all times, so you can consistently reward good behavior. Lots and lots and lots of positive reinforcement and praise for obeying is critical.
Don’t fault your best friend for his strange affinity. Just show him there is a better way - leave that poop! - and remember to avoid the tongue kisses you will get in return. You know where that tongue has been!