NMVMA listserve Tip #5

Jeff Nichol, DVM
Behavior resident in private practice training
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers

Albuquerque and Santa Fe Coprophagia

There are multiple causes for this disgusting habit, one of which is that, for some dogs, it’s actually considered normal. Here is the list of rule-outs.

  • Taste/texture preference (believe it or not)
  • Exploratory behavior ( often resulting from inadequate breed-specific activities)
  • Attention-seeking (owners who inadvertently reinforce the behavior by reprimanding)
  • Anxiety-related (usually comorbid with other anxiety-related disorders)
  • Compulsive disorder (requires complex behavior modification + appropriate anxiolytics)
  • Medication-induced polyphagia (including KBr, corticosteroids, benzodiazepines, and thyroid over-supplementation)
  • Physical/metabolic causes

If no behavioral or physical pathology is found coprophagia may be a fastidious habit related to cleanliness of the territory. These pets need daily forays into the neutral turf beyond their yards. Dog parks or doggy daycare can help.

A study by van der Borg and Graat of Wageningen University in Holland found that spayed or neutered dogs were about 50% more likely to consume feces. Fast eaters were twice as likely to eat stool as relaxed eaters. Those that exhibited tail or shadow chasing (compulsive behavior) as well as those who were weaned young were also twice as likely to be coprophagic.

It gets even more interesting. Retrievers are more prone to this behavior but are found to be more easily house trained (fastidious?)

There are at least 12 proprietary anti-coprophagia products available, none of which are backed by scientific data. Training methods, including aversive tastes added to feces or squirted into the dog’s mouth with stool present, have no studies to support them. While there may be occasional successes with these products and methods they usually only intensify the owners’ frustration.

One method that is research-based involves aversive stimulation with a remotely activated citronella spray collar paired with reinforcement for leaving stool. It’s a time and labor intensive approach that was not shown to last more than several weeks.

It makes more sense to apply a basket muzzle before allowing a coprophagic dog outside. Most will need to be conditioned by feeding treats through the muzzle while it’s worn for brief periods. Immediately after the dog defecates he/she should be called and reinforced with a treat. Cleaning up the yard is also useful. Occasionally changing the brand or texture of the food may also help.

This topic was suggested by an NMVMA colleague. Please send me behavior issues you would like to see addressed.

Jeff Nichol, DVM