One that is coprophagous is one that consumes excrement. Feral pigs are notable consumers of their own and other animal’s excrement. Certain young animals like elephants, pandas and hippos also eat their mother’s excrement in order to access and harness specific bacteria needed to digest the vegetation around them. The most obvious example of coprophagy is the common housefly. Everyone has seen flies on a pile of dog excrement. However, outside of varying degrees of perversity and mental illness, the practice of coprophagy amongst humans is considered to be completely repulsive. This is an understanding that we also expect our pets to adhere by. There are many arguments for why a dog will consume the feces of a different animal, but the purpose of this article is to zero in on autocoprophagy or why a dog consumes his own feces.
When researching this subject and talking to dog owners, I learned that this is a much more of a common issue than most would like to admit. Dogs, being natural scavengers, have aspects of this type of behavior already pre-programmed within them. Some feel that it is a part of their genetic disposition. There is even the argument that wolves in the wild consume the digestive tract of their prey, thereby consuming the fecal matter of the animal.
The basic non-medical reasons explaining the behavior of an autocoprophagous dog are really rather simple. Some reasons for a domesticated dog’s fecal consuming behavior could have to do with issues as simple as boredom, lack of exercise or hunger. Some have speculated that overfeeding could be a trigger for coprophagy as well, because the food hasn’t been thoroughly digested. Another reason could be stress within the animal. Stress could have to do with anything, for puppies, it could be the fear of being punished for defecating in the wrong place. A common stressful issue that might trigger coprophagous behavior could be the fact that the animal has recently moved to a new living situation. The other common theory about this behavior is that the behavior was learned. Perhaps picked up at the kennel, or observed elsewhere.
A more common reason for coprophagy is food allergies. If the dog is allergic to the food that he is eating, then he isn’t absorbing all of his nutrients from the food before he defecates. Food allergies in dogs have become a much more common thing as a result of the supplementing of grains such as corn, and soy in dog foods. In fact, the excretion that a food-allergic dog is passing is usually partially digested. The theory is that the excrement still smells relatively palatable and so the dog runs it through his system again. In these types of situations, the dog is passing unhealthy-looking stools, possibly even diarrhea. Outside of an actual allergy there are also a few other medical conditions that could lead to such behavior.
Pancreatitis is thought to be a major culprit of autocoprophagous behavior. The pancreas produces insulin and various enzymes such as amylase, lipase, trypsin and chymotrypsin. These enzymes aid in the digestion of food. If these enzymes leak from the pancreas, this can bring about inflammation and a plethora of different issues. Coprophagy can potentially be a part of this as well. Again, this has to do with incomplete digestion.
Another potential cause for autocoprophagy in dogs is Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency. This disease is also known as maldigestion syndrome. This has to do with the lack of production of certain enzymes. When the pancreas doesn’t manufacture the proper amount of enzymes, that is when maldigestion syndrome kicks in. The stool that is produced when a dog is in this state isn’t completely digested. The dog may consume his stool because he is constantly hungry. He isn’t digesting his food properly. In his quest to fulfill the nutrients that he is missing, autocoprophagy may take place.
The methods that pet owners use to stop this behavior are varied. The common understanding is that punishment is counter-productive and might actually be a behavior reinforcement. There are products such as Potty Mouth by Four Paws that makes a dog’s feces taste undesirable, even to a dog with a taste for the stuff. Dog owners have used such food additives as pineapple chunks, meat tenderizers and many other over the counter products to make their dog’s feces undesirable to their pet. Another method that seems to be used commonly is to spice the dog’s feces with Tabasco or a similar hot sauce. However, immediate cleanup of feces directly after defecation seems to be the best option. Again, this is an article about autocoprohagy, and not intraspecific coprophagy which is the consumption of the feces of a different animal within the same species, or interspecific coprophagy which is the consumption of feces from a different species. One hopeful theory on the subject is that if the dog’s behavior can be straightened out at home, the chances of him moving on to a different animal’s feces will be slimmer. Whatever the case, all elements of autocoprophagy can be limited if the owner really pays attention to his pet.