Compulsive behavior linked to nasty habit

Deterrents available for coprophagia in pets

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    Valerie Witte of Port Clinton adopted Brutus, a yellow Labrador retriever, about four years ago. He suffers from coprophagia.

  • Valerie Witte of Port Clinton adopted Brutus, a yellow Labrador retriever, about four years ago. He suffers from coprophagia.
    Valerie Witte of Port Clinton adopted Brutus, a yellow Labrador retriever, about four years ago. He suffers from coprophagia.

    When Valerie Witte acquired Brutus, her handsome yellow Labrador retriever, four years ago, he came with a behavior problem she knew needed to be corrected quickly.

    Technically known as coprophagia, the problem is one that makes even veterinarians recoil. It’s the act of eating dog and cat feces.

    “When he was younger, he would eat poop out of the cat litter box,” said Mrs. Witte of Port Clinton. “We assumed it was either out of hunger or because his body was deficient of something essential.”

    The dog, now 5 years old, lives with a 6-year-old tiger cat named Emma. Brutus is mostly oblivious to the cat, but not her feces. Cleaning the cat box often helped lessen Brutus’ interest in the box, Mrs. Witte said.

    “It has not occurred, that we know of, in some time,” she said. “Usually his breath will reveal his wrongdoing.”

    When it does happen, Brutus gets his teeth brushed, which also could serve as an indirect deterrent since he may associate the feces eating with teeth brushing, which like most animals he is not especially fond of.

    Some dogs are “highly motivated” and will even follow other dogs around, waiting until they defecate so that they can eat the feces right away, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Dogs have also been reported to twist their bodies around so that they can eat their own feces as they are defecating.

    Despite speculation that it might be related to a nutritional deficiency, there is no apparent reason for the behavior, according to the ASPCA.

    Eating garbage and human feces is thought to be one function of dogs during their early domestication, some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. They served as our first waste management workers, helping to keep the areas around human settlements clean.

    Before trying to correct the problem, it’s important to have the dog thoroughly examined by a veterinarian to rule out medical problems that could cause coprophagia, per the ASPCA.

    Dr. Gary Thompson of West Suburban Veterinary Hospital in Sylvania Township says dogs eating cat and dog feces are a common problem.

    To deter them from eating cat feces, besides cleaning the cat boxes frequently, dog owners can block the entry to rooms with baby gates which the cat can jump over but the dog can’t get past. There are also cat litter boxes with lids and small door flaps which keep the dog from getting in.

    As for dogs eating dog feces, it is an instinctive behavior with dogs who are nursing in an effort to keep the nesting area clean and to not attract predators. However, outside of the area it is considered a compulsive behavior, Dr. Thompson said.

    “Some dogs have an obsessive tendency to keep their environment free of droppings,” he said. “This may stem from confinement in a shelter setting, or be completely unrelated, and retraining and avoidance will be needed to stop this nasty habit.”

    Owners can teach dogs to void in a specific spot every time and then quickly, without any drama, clean the stool up after leading them away, he suggests.

    It’s also helpful to teach the dog the “leave it” command.

    “You can work on this regularly with toys, food, and other everyday items so that once the command is ingrained, it can be utilized at the crucial moment,” he said.

    There are a number of products available to add to cat and dog food that theoretically make the stool distasteful.

    “I have heard people trying meat tenderizer and the commercially available additives are all similar,” he said. “Although, how can it be possible to make feces taste any worse? But it can be tried.”

    There are anecdotal reports that feeding dogs pineapple or foods that contain sulfur, such as Brussels sprouts or cabbage, renders the feces less palatable, according to the ASPCA. Consult with your veterinarian before adjusting your dog’s diet for more than a day or two.

    Another option is using taste deterrents on feces, according to the ASPCA. Those include finely ground black pepper, crushed hot pepper, hot sauce, or bitter apple spray or gel.

    Owners must apply the deterrent consistently to all feces that the dog can access for a significant period of time so that he comes to expect that all feces taste horrible.

    “You may need to use the deterrent weeks or even months, depending on the length of time the coprophagia has been going on,” according to the ASPCA. “For this treatment to be most effective, you will need to restrict your dog’s access to water for 10 to 20 minutes after he has tasted the deterrent. Otherwise, he may just drink water to counteract the bad taste. The effects of this treatment can fade over time, so you’ll need to reimplement it periodically.”

    Dr. Thompson cautions owners to avoid their natural response when this happens to punish or scorn the dog for the behavior.

    “With most compulsive disorders, negative feedback only brings anxiety to the behavior and will complicate matters,” he said.

    Contact Tanya Irwin at: or 419-724-6066.