Eating Stool and Other Items | Winnipeg Humane Society
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Eating Stool and Other Items

Dogs and cats will sometimes eat socks, rocks, or other objects which can result in a variety of problems for both you and your pet. Your possessions can be damaged and objects such as clothing and rocks can produce life-threatening blockages in your pet’s intestines.

Eating non-food items is called pica.

A specific type of pica is stool eating (either their own or that of another animal). While not necessarily dangerous to the animal, is probably unacceptable to you. Stool-eating is called coprophagy.

Causes

The causes of pica and coprophagy are not known. Ideas have been proposed by various experts, but none have been proven or disproven. Such behaviours can sometimes be attention-seeking behaviours. If engaging in one of these behaviours results in a social interaction between the animal and his owner (even a verbal scolding) then the behaviour can be reinforced and occur more frequently. These behaviours can be attempts to obtain a necessary nutrient lacking in the diet, although no nutritional studies have ever substantiated this idea. They can also stem from frustration or anxiety. It’s possible the behaviours begin as play as the animal investigates and chews on the objects, subsequently begins to eat them.

It has been suggested that coprophagy is carried over from the normal parental behaviour of ingesting the waste of young offspring. Some experts believe coprophagy occurs more often in animals that live in relatively barren environments and/or are frequently confined to small areas and/or receive limited attention from their owners. Coprophagy is fairly common in dogs, but is rarely seen in cats. It’s possible that dogs learn this behaviour from other dogs.

Because pica and coprophagy are behaviors that are not well understood, stopping them may require assistance from an animal behaviour professional who works individually with owners and their pets. A variety of specialized behaviour modification techniques could be necessary to resolve these problems (see When to Seek Professional Help).


Coprophagy

There are no techniques or solutions that are consistently successful. The following techniques might or might not be effective in resolving the problem:

  • Pick up any stool immediately in order to minimize your pet’s opportunity to eat his stools.
  • Treat your pet’s food with something that causes his stool to have an aversive taste. A commercial product called 4-BID is available through your veterinarian. The same result can be achieved by using the food additive MSG. Based on owners’ reports both of these products appear to work in some cases, but not always. Before using either of these products please check with your veterinarian.
  • Treat your pet’s stools directly with an aversive taste by sprinkling them with cayenne pepper or a commercial product, such as “Bitter Apple.” For this method to be effective, every stool your pet has access to must be treated in order for him to learn that eating stools results in unpleasant consequences. Otherwise he might discriminate by which stools have been treated and which have not by the odour.
  • To stop a dog from eating cat feces from a litter box install a baby-gate in front of the litter box area. Your cat shouldn’t have any trouble jumping over it while most dogs won’t make the attempt. Or you could place the box in a closet or room where the door can be wedged open from both sides so your cat has access but your dog doesn’t. Any type of environmental booby-trap to stop a dog from eating cat feces from a litter box is not recommended because if it frightens your dog, it will frighten your cat as well.

What doesn’t work

  • Interactive punishment (punishment that comes directly from you such as verbal scolding) is not effective because it may be interpreted by your pet as attention. With interactive punishment many animals learn to refrain from the behavior when their owner is present. They will still engage in the problem behavior when their owner is absent.
  • Punishment after the fact is never helpful. Animals don’t understand that they’re being punished for something they did hours, minutes, or even seconds before. This approach won’t resolve the problem and is likely to produce either fearful or aggressive responses from your pet.

Health risks

If your pet is parasite-free and is eating only his own stools, he won’t be infected with parasites. If your pet is eating the stools of another animal that has parasites, it could be possible for your pet to become infected. But it is not likely. Some parasites, such as giardia, cause diarrhea and most coprophagic dogs ingest only formed stools. There is also a delay period before the parasites in the stools can re-infect another animal.

Most parasites require intermediate hosts (they must pass through the body of another species, such as a flea) before they can re-infect another dog or cat. Your pet is much more likely to become infected with parasites through fleas or by eating birds and rodents than by coprophagy. Most parasites are also species-specific meaning that dogs cannot be infected by eating cat stools. Health risks to humans from being licked in the face by a coprophagic animal are minimal. For more information, please contact your veterinarian.


Pica

Pica can be a serious problem because items such as rubber bands, socks, rocks, and string can severely damage or block an animal’s intestines. In some instances the items must be surgically removed. Because pica can be potentially life-threatening, it’s advisable to consult both your veterinarian and an animal behaviour professional for help.

Solutions

  • Make the objects your pet is eating taste unpleasant with some of the substances mentioned above (see Cat Aversives).
  • Prevent your pet’s access to these items.
  • Changing to a low-calorie or high-fiber diet to allow him to eat more food more often could decrease the behaviour. Check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet.
  • If you suspect that anxiety or frustration is the reason for pica, the cause of the anxiety or frustration must be identified and the behaviour changed by using behaviour modification techniques.
  • Sometimes pica is an attention-seeking behaviour. If it is, try to startle your pet with a loud noise when you catch him ingesting the items. If possible, avoid letting him know that the startling noise came from you. Praise him when he leaves the items alone. Try to set aside a little time daily to spend with your pet so that he doesn’t need to resort to pica to get your attention. A few short sessions throughout the day would be best.
  • If pica is a play behaviour, keep plenty of toys around for your pet to play with. Cat tend to play with string, rubber bands, and tinsel and ultimately ingest them. Keep these items out of reach and provide a selection of appropriate toys (see Cat Toys).

What doesn’t work

  • Interactive punishment (punishment that comes directly from you, such as verbal scolding) is not effective because it may be interpreted by your pet as attention. With interactive punishment many animals learn to refrain from the behaviour when their owner is present. They will still engage in the problem behaviour when their owner is absent.
  • Punishment after the fact is never helpful. Animals don’t understand that they’re being punished for something they did hours, minutes, or even seconds before. This approach won’t resolve the problem and is likely to produce either fearful or aggressive responses from your pet.