What's Up With My Dog's Poop Obsession?

Dr. Patty Khuly

dog-eats-poop

I’ve always reserved this little saying for my especially-disgusted clients: “Just because dogs have thousands more olfactory receptors in their noses than we humans do doesn’t mean their taste is any better. In fact, some dogs have downright disgusting taste in what they’re willing to sniff, taste, and coat their pelts in.”

It’s a common problem, this poop obsession many of our dogs seem to revel in. They’re the first to find the cat turds freshly buried in the garden overnight, it’s impossible to pull them away when they encounter a steaming pile in the street, they’re willing to roll in the über-rank raccoon stuff, and happy to down their own droppings (or their housemate’s, if they’re handy).

It’s gross, you say. And, to be sure, it is. But perhaps that’s true only from a human perspective. Consider coprophagia, if you will:

Coprophagia (stool eating) is a common habit in dogs. Puppies are especially fond of this behavior as are dogs that live in extremely cramped quarters (as in puppy mill settings) or suffer from malnutrition.

But even healthy adult dogs do it. That’s because:

  • They’re evolutionary adapted to coprophagia as an integral part of raising their young (they eat their babies’ stool to keep them clean)
  • In the wild, eating poop helps keep their dens clean
  • To a dog, poop sometimes just tastes good

Cat poop, in particular, appears to be a delicacy to certain dogs. Carnivore feces contains more proteins and fats and are, therefore, more-highly prized; so much so that some will do anything to get into the cat box and steal a morsel.

Nasty, right? But, strangely enough, it’s not necessarily as unhealthy as you might think. After all, if the stool producer is healthy, free of parasites, and gets fed a commercial diet (like most household pets do), he’s unlikely to pass anything infectious along to the stool eater. In fact, the stool might even contain some healthy bacteria or needed nutrition we’re not aware of.

Nevertheless, dogs who eat even “clean” stool from house cats tend to ingest way more calories than they should, may inadvertently ingest any medications the cats may be taking, are at greater risk of gastrointestinal upset, and, most notably, are committing an egregious sin against all established principles of proper hygiene.

Then there’s the possibility of ingesting outdoor animals feces, which I absolutely do not encourage and is in no way considered a low-risk activity.

But poop eating is only one of the many behaviors dogs who engage in coprophilia (stool-loving) enjoy. Rolling in feces is a particularly common –– and revolting –– one. As it turns out, there’s almost certainly a biological rationale for this. It’s been suggested by scent scientists and wildlife biologists that they engage in this behavior so they can mask their own canine scent. Here’s why:

The strong aroma of carcasses and decay creates a sensory explosion for animals who rely on their snouts for sustenance. Rolling in the stuff means they can throw predators off their trail and keep prey in the dark about their doings. All this so they can eat well, unencumbered by the competition other carnivores might offer.

Which all makes sense… but makes it no less revolting. So what’s a disgusted pet lover to do?

Here’s the thing: Dogs will be dogs. Changing their behaviors to suit our tastes is doable, of course. That’s what we do when we bring dogs in from the cold and take them into our homes. Expecting our dogs’ basic biology to change when we do so is another matter entirely.

That doesn’t mean we have to allow them to sniff, eat, and roll. It does, however, mean that we should respect where these innate urges come from and refrain from punishing them when they indulge them. After all, if you’re the one who left the kitty’s litterbox in an accessible location, that one’s on you.

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