Q: Help! I often catch my dog eating trash -- or sometimes even dog excrement (his own or from other dogs). Why does he do this, and how can I stop this behavior?
A: These behaviors are not uncommon. Like Oscar the Grouch, dogs love trash -- especially the smells wafting from bags, bins and containers. In your kitchen trash can, the discarded food we scrape off our dinner plates is actually fairly fresh. Dogs must be thinking we’re crazy for throwing away perfectly good stuff. If they’re tall enough to reach in or knock over the trash can, they will.
But dogs aren’t very smart about what’s good for them. They’ll eat plastic and foil wraps, paper or plastic plates, corn cobs, bones and fragments, all of which can be dangerous to ingest. Trash cans and bags also trap moisture, which promotes growth of toxic fungus and bacteria. Mold growing on products with cheese, such as pizza crust, can cause seizures in dogs.
To keep a dog out of the trash, make it a priority to put kitchen and outdoor trash where your dog doesn’t have access to it, and get trash containers with tightly sealed lids. Don’t leave plastic trash bags where your dog can rip them open. If you see your dog sniffing around a trash container, you can try startling him with negative/aversive reinforcement by rattling a loud “shake can” (a soda can filled with pennies or screws).
If you know your pooch has been trash-tasting, keep a close eye on him for possible signs of distress, including loss of appetite, shivering, yellowed eyes, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in “potty” routine or lethargic behavior. Call your vet promptly, or if this happens when your own animal hospital is closed get your pet to the nearest emergency veterinary clinic. Fast treatment can save your dog’s life.
Eating feces is a more mysterious behavior, though it seems to be common among many animal species, including canines. Theoretical explanations include holdover habits from puppyhood, compulsive behavior, boredom and nutritional deficiencies. But nobody is really certain why some dogs develop or retain this unappetizing behavior (known as copraphagia).
Even if we’re not sure of a cause, there are medical problems that may contribute. So it’s worth having your vet check your dog for malnutrition or malabsorption disorders that might lead an animal to seek nutrients from any available source, including partially digested food in feces.
Stopping this behavior can be tricky, since dogs naturally sniff areas where they and other animals relieve themselves. And they’re very quick at grabbing and swallowing things they find in the grass. But if your dog is always on a leash when outdoors, you have a fighting chance to divert his attention with obedience commands, squeaky toys or treats (take those along on your walks). If your vet thinks this is a compulsive behavior, there are prescription medications that can help.
If your dog is eating his own feces, or that of other family pets, there are a few strategies you can try. Make sure your dog is getting a top-quality diet, preferably a brand that uses whole meat and not meat byproducts as the main protein source. Clean up your yard as soon as your dog goes to the bathroom out there, and see if you can teach your dog to eliminate in one area of the yard rather than all over. (Your vet or an experienced trainer or animal behaviorist may be able to help with establishing that new routine.)
Teach your dog a “leave it” obedience command. Dogs who master this can be taught not to touch or pick up something unauthorized.
Dogs think cat poop is a delicacy, so keep your dog away from any litter boxes in your home, possibly using baby gates that keep your dog out but let your cat pass through. You can also try using a covered litter box, but be careful not to upset your cat’s potty routines, since that can cause a whole other set of problems!
You can also add taste deterrents to your pet’s food (brands include For-Bid and Deter), which contain ingredients similar to meat tenderizers and are intended to make feces taste unappetizing. There are also anecdotal reports that feeding dogs pineapple or foods that contain sulfur (such as brussels sprouts or cabbage) may accomplish the same thing. Check with your veterinarian first to make sure these ingredients and foods are safe for your dog and before making long-term changes in your dog’s diet.
As always, your own vet is likely to be a great source of information and assistance in dealing with these issues.