Introduction: A Behavior As Mystifying As It Is Disgusting
If you are like most people, you were probably horrified the first time you saw a dog eat poop. Indeed, there is a special kind of horror when you see a cute and loveable creature do something so disgusting.
What went through your head when you saw little Rex bend down and happily eat poop? If you’re like me, it was probably a mix of “EWWWWW” and “why?” The natural emotion in this instance is probably a mix of disgust and curiosity.
After all, most creatures (ourselves included) do their best to avoid contact with fecal matter. Humans have a particularly strong aversion to feces, but not all animals share our opinion on that. For some reason, dogs seem to really like cat poop.
Don’t Worry, This Is Perfectly Normal
Although poop-eating (technically called “coprophagy”) is not something to be encouraged, it isn’t a reason to freak out. Research suggests that at least half of all canines have eaten feces at some point in their lives, and the number could be higher.
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For puppies, this is especially common. Sometimes, a mother dog will eat the feces of her pups while they are laying with her in the den. If you’ve ever dealt with a stubborn mother dog, you know that she is absolutely not willing to leave those pups.
Eating the feces will help to keep the den clean, and will keep the smell down to a reasonable level. This means that the smell of the pups is less likely to draw larger predators who may want to eat them.
Although dogs no longer need to go to these extreme measures, the primal drive to do so has survived. That is pretty amazing when you consider that dogs were domesticated about 10,000 years ago. Bear in mind, that’s an estimate.
Puppies are known to emulate their parents, and this is where they learn to eat poo. Once they have seen mama doing this, they will probably emulate the behavior. From there, it’s only a short step before they are eating the scat of some other creature.
Known Correlations Of Coprophagic Behavior
Since there is no way to know what a dog is thinking, there is also no way to know why dogs eat cat poop. However, this behavior has been extensively researched (which surprised me quite a bit) and we can at least identify certain patterns.
The following is based on a study conducted by the biology department of Colorado State University. A large number of dogs were observed for coprophagic activity, with an eye towards figuring out their patterns of behavior.
First of all, neutering seems to make some difference in regards to this behavior. Curiously, neutering seemed to reduce the likelihood of a dog engaging in coprophagia (poo-eating) but only for males. For females, neutering made no difference.
This suggests that the behavior may be linked to territorial dominance. Male coyotes have been observed to eat the scat of a rival and replace it with their own. This is clearly a territorial display. Mating and territory are deeply linked in the canine mind.
Research also determined that dogs who eat poo are more likely to eat other non-foods. This condition is known as “Pica,” and is sometimes observed in humans. Dogs who ate grass and plants were also more likely to eat poo.
This is somewhat easy to explain, as it simply suggests that some dogs are less picky about what they eat. Those who are willing to eat strange things would naturally be more likely to engage in coprophagy.
One interesting thing that the study found is the fact that older dogs have the highest rates of coprophagy. While puppies engage in this behavior more often than adults, senior dogs (3 years and older)had rates of coprophagia that were even higher.
This suggests that coprophagia may be something that dogs do in an attempt to acquire extra nutrition. This would explain why only the youngest and oldest of dogs will commonly engage in this activity.
There is also a correlation to sex. Females are much more likely to engage in this activity. Obviously, this is related to the motherhood instinct. However, if the animals are neutered, the numbers flip, with males eating far more poo if neutered.
Here’s where this study really becomes relevant to our subject: Research data shows that dogs who live with cats are more likely to be coprophagic. This suggests that there is something about cat poop that they find particularly appealing.
Why Cat Poop?
There are many possibilities as to why dogs like cat poop so much. The most obvious answer to this question is: dogs usually like cat food. Think about it; If dogs like cat food (and most of them do) and they also like feces, this makes a lot of sense.
Of course, it makes a disgusting kind of sense, but that’s neither here nor there. Cats have a diet that is somewhat similar to that of a dog. Both are primarily carnivores, and both have a diet consisting mainly of meat products.
Dogs May Do This For Nutrition
We are really getting into a disgusting topic here, but we’ve already delved this far into the toilet, and so we might as well keep going. Coprophagia is often used as an emergency source of nutrition by many animals…and even by humans.
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If you have ever watched those “survival” shows, you may already be aware of this fact. Drinking your urine or eating your feces is an “extreme” survival tactic that is only called for in the most extreme of situations.
For instance, people who are trying to survive in extremely hot desert environments will sometimes resort to drinking their urine or eating their feces as a way to stave off dehydration. Although this technique is effective, it is seldom necessary.
In like manner, people will sometimes eat feces in an environment where food is extremely scarce. Again, this is an effective tactic for recycling your body’s nutrients, but it is truly disgusting and almost never necessary.
Since wild canines are usually scavengers (at least to a certain extent) it makes sense that they would not be particularly picky about what they eat. Indeed, dietary choosiness would reduce their overall chances of survival.
Eating feces as a survival tactic is highly questionable, but it is true that the body doesn’t normally extract all the nutrients from food. Coprophagia gives the body a second chance to extract every possible bit of nutrition.
Since dogs really like to eat the poo of cats, and cats have a similar diet, we can infer that dogs may prefer to cat scat because it gives them lots of nutrition in a small package.
Poo-Eating Can Become A Cry For Attention
Like children, dogs will do strange things in the name of getting attention. This can include coprophagy. When a pup is feeling ignored, for instance, they are likely to do anything that has summoned your attention in the past.
When you see your cute little puppy eating crap, you can’t help but notice it and pay attention. It may be the wrong kind of attention, but the dog doesn’t seem to understand that concept. Even if they are scolded, they still got your attention.
If you give your puppy more attention when they eat poo, it might actually encourage them to do it all the more. Dogs will often seek the attention of their masters and have been known to go to great lengths to attain it.
Since dogs eat poo anyway for a variety of other reasons, they would certainly do it to get your attention. You can break them of this habit by taking away the incentive. Instead of scolding them, put them in a cage by themselves for a while.
Dogs do not like to be separated from the pack. They are a communal animal, and they need the constant reassurance of the group. In short, they love attention. Short-term confinement is a punishment that makes a stronger impression than physical discipline.
Now, let me be clear: I am not telling you to lock your dog in a cage every time they displease you. This is not the way to train a dog. Confinement can and should be used as a punishment, but don’t go too far.
Dogs Seem To Like Poop
At the heart of the matter is the fact that dogs just seem to like poop. This is very hard for a human to wrap their heads around, but dogs just like poop. You may have read our previous article on the subject of dogs who roll in scat.
In any case, it’s hard to deny this fact. We could make a million theories as to how and why dogs came to be fond of fecal matter, so I think my theory is as good as any: For an animal with an incredibly sensitive nose, it makes sense.
A dog’s nose is about forty times stronger than that of a human. If they did not develop a liking for feces, it would be unbearable for dogs to be anywhere near fecal matter. When you live as part of a pack, avoiding all feces is very hard indeed.
I believe that dogs learned to like the smell (and therefore, the taste) of poo because it was expedient for their survival in the wild. It allowed them to deal with something that would otherwise be intolerable.
If that doesn’t make sense, just imagine if you woke up one morning and your nose was forty times stronger than it is now. Now imagine walking past a big pile of dog poop on the sidewalk. It would be terrible! Unless, of course, you happen to like poop.
Can This Behavior Spread Disease?
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In certain instances, coprophagy in dogs has been known to spread disease. Although dogs have certain enzymes in their saliva that serve antibacterial purposes, they are not immune to contamination. Some nasty diseases can be transmitted in this way.
Dogs may be a vector for the transmission of Toxoplasmosis to humans. Toxoplasmosis is a subtle kind of infection that often goes unnoticed. However, it can cause serious issues in humans. Dogs can indirectly transmit this disease to humans.
To be fair, this study was conducted in an isolated community and may not reflect the average person in terms of immune system resistance. As such, it may be far less likely for the average person to get toxoplasmosis from a dog.
In addition, coprophagy can contribute to a continuing worm infection. When they recycle their food by eating poo, they are also recycling their parasites and increasing their overall parasite load.
Conclusion: No One Knows For Sure
This behavior is so nasty that most people don’t want to understand it. They just want it to go away. However, it is a hard behavior to discourage. Even with extensive study, no one seems to know why dogs like to eat cat poop.
Still, we have at least given you the most plausible theories, so that you can make an informed choice as to what you believe. In reality, this behavior is probably the result of a mixture of causes, but future research may hopefully reveal more.
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We hope that this article has done a good job of illuminating this disgusting and difficult subject. It has not been easy talking this much about feces, but it is very important to understand your pet. Only by understanding your animal can you give them a good and healthy life.
Last update on 2019-12-14