I was asked a question in my Metro column last week about why a dog should lick furniture wax off a table, and this got me thinking about the whole issue of dogs eating strange things, otherwise known as pica.
I’ve come across dogs with penchants for all sorts of things from underwear to hoof trimmings, as well as the all too common problem of eating faeces, and although in many cases it’s no more than a curiosity with no obvious explanation or need for investigation, inappropriate eating can cause major issues – so I thought I would summarise everything I know on the problem to help those of you struggling with scavenging dogs!
Investigating a problem like this can be very lengthy and difficult, but the first stage should be to rule out medical causes including conditions such as hypothyroidism or a malabsorbtion condition which can leave animals feeling continually hungry.If a scavenging habit or pica turns out to have no medical cause, then you need to consider the behavioural and psychological factors that have led to the problem if it is going to be solved. Some dogs scavenge because they are anxious, have compulsive tendencies or simply because they have a naturally high appetite, while others will do so out of hyperactive curiosity; there are many reasons and each case needs to be considered individually if it is going to be successfully treated. For example, a dog with a compulsive or anxiety based scavenging habit will need a more subtle and careful approach than a dog whose only problem is controlling a high appetite or simple curiosity.
Whatever the underlying psychology, the best way to approach a scavenging habit is distraction with positive stimuli such as treats. A typical example would be offering a food treat to entice the dog to drop something less appropriate such as something scavenged from a bin. This is far better, and safer, than trying to forcibly remove an object form your dog’s mouth, and has the secondary benefit of rewarding the action of dropping the inappropriate object, so if you combine the treat with a command such as ‘drop it!’ you should find that in time your dog will become conditioned to the command and no longer need the treat.
Negative reinforcement techniques can be useful, particularly in cases where more positive techniques have been tried and not succeeded, but again I would urge caution. It is all too easy to see a negative deterrent as an easy option, but in 9 cases out of 10, the positive approach is just as or more effective and has a much better long term effect on your relationship with your dog.
Probably the most common form of inappropriate eating is coprophagia, or eating faeces, and it is one of the least endearing habits of many dogs and is often one of the harder inappropriate behavioural problems to deal with. The reasons behind coprophagia are often complex and involve a mix of behavioural, dietary and environmental factors, so getting to the bottom (no pun intended!) of the problem is often very hard to do, making finding a solution that much more challenging.
One of the most commonly suggested theories as to why dogs eat faeces is a territorial behaviour issue; dogs eat the faeces of other dogs in order to eliminate their territorial smells from the environment. If, like me you find this theory hard to swallow (again, no pun intended!) then I think you’re probably right – I cannot see this being a realistic reason for eating faeces, and while it may be a very minor contributing factor in a small number of cases, I think there are almost certainly more convincing reasons behind this problem. Instead, I believe that if there is a behavioural issue, it’s more likely to be relevant in dogs that eat their own faeces rather than other dogs’, and it’s to do with a fear of inappropriate defecation. Dogs that have been house trained using negative training methods may well develop fears and anxieties associated with going to the toilet and one reaction to this is to gobble up their faeces as soon as they have passed it in an attempt to hide the evidence.
Aside from behavioural factors, I also believe that diet plays a large role, as many coprophagic dogs are also scavengers, and eating faeces can be an extension of this scavenging for food trait if the faeces itself contains some residual nutrients which attract them. This tends to happen if the dog is being fed on a low quality diet which is poorly digestible leading to faeces containing relatively high levels of residual protein and carbohydrate. Dogs, with their acute sense of smell, can easily pick up these trace levels of nutrients in faeces, and if they are desperately hungry or compulsive scavengers, then their desire for food will overcome any inherent distaste for eating faeces.
Whatever the cause of a coprophagia problem, there are a few recognised and generally effective techniques for curing the problem, and they are:
- Remove temptation – pick up your dog’s faeces and any other faeces that he may come into contact with before he gets a change to eat it
- Prevent access – if your dog is a habitual eater of other dog’s faeces while out on walks, try a basket muzzle to physically prevent him from being able to eat poo
- Deterrents – the idea of making a dog’s faeces taste so bad to him that he won’t eat it is as old as the problem of coprophagia in domestic dogs, with lots of things from chillies to mints having been tried in attempts to prevent this problem. In my experience however, few of them are effective as to be honest, how do you make dog poo any less palatable than it already surely must be! Having said that, there are some products on the market which do occasionally work, so it’s worth a try if you’re at your wit’s end with this problem – but just don’t expect miracles!
- Change diet – this is probably the most effective approach, as diet is thought to play a significant role in many coprophagia cases. If you are feeding a low quality complete food, then try a better quality one as this should reduce the amount of faeces and the amount of residual nutrients in the faeces, and you can also try adding extra fibre such as grated vegetables which can alter the texture of the faeces. One other approach suggested by various vets is to feed a high protein/ low carbohydrate diet supplemented with additional vegetable oil, but this is not something I’ve ever had experience of so I can’t comment on how effective or not it might be.