Dogs Eating Muck
Every so often we get asked why someone's pet, lovely in so many other ways, engages in the distasteful habit of eating faeces; sometimes thier own, sometimes those deposited by other animals: dog, sheep, cow, horse. Was it born like it? Is there something lacking in the diet? Can it cause harm? The answers are no, no, and yes!
Coprophagia in certain species is quite norma l- for rabbits and guinea pigs, it is an essential way of enjoying a balanced diet, but in dogs this is neither necessary nor normal.
Why do they do it? Young animals learn by copying: the dam of a newborn litter of pups will naturally clean up after them, using her tongue; removing and swallowing everything they produce. If this continues after their eyes open, the pups will observe it and register it onto their consciousness. Pups are naturally inquisitive, and, if kept in an enclosed environment for long periods where their faeces are not removed, will look for things to do, exploring everything in that environment. They will taste and eat by way of investigation, and continue to do this in an absent-minded way if there's nothing else to do.
Overcrowding and competition for food predisposes some to coprophagia when the hungry and less robust pups will eat something - anything - while the others are tucking in at meal times. Very hungry dogs will seek out alternative sources of food, and some highly processed diets offered to dogs produce faeces with a strong scent that may be appetising. These are all reasons that reinforce the habit in he impressionable first 8 weeks of a pup's life, and when it grows older and the opportunity presents itself, the dog sees nothing wrong with eating muck and is surprised and confused when its owner makes a fuss. In some relationships, where there is an unhealthy strong attachment between owner and pet, dogs can suffer separation anxiety when the owner leaves the house, the stressed dog may react by defecating and /or urinating soon after the separation and could then spend the next 8 hours next to the mess, which it decides to eat.
Making it worse Inappropriate owner intervention may inadvertently reinforce the habit in two ways: a) the chastised dog interprets scolding as competition; it thinks the owner wants the faeces for him/herself and endeavours in future to get there first, and b) any act that attracts the owner's attention, whether it is good attention or bad attention, in the dog's mind is better than no attention at all.
What harm does it cause? Pups are born with a worm burden, having acquired them in utero: worms are also consumed with mum's milk and, of course, by eating each other's faecal waste. Worms are a serious threat to puppy health and measures should be taken to minimise this burden including worming the bitch in the latter stages of pregnancy, and the pups several times pre-weaning. Worms can also be injurioius to people when ingested, so it is inadvisable to allow dogs to lick you face, especially after eating faeces.
A depraved appetite can upset the gastric mucosa and alter the normal bacterial flora in the stomach. This may induce vomiting and diarrhoea. Some dogs harbour pathogenic bacteria, which the host dog has become used to but which may cause disease in a naive animal. Unvaccinated dogs can spread disease in their faeces.
What to do? Behaviour modification: instead of instinctively launching yoruself verbally or physically at the pet, use distraction: go for walks with a squeaky toy or throw a ball and congratulate the play. In addition, the use of aversion therapy will assist: special collars that emit a citrus scent, which can be operated remotely, are useful when combined with a warning bleep. Some guidance is required for the successful use of this device to prevent the dog understanding that it only works when you are around.
If you would like any further information about your pet's behaviour then telephone one of our veterinary nurses on 01291 672637.