Keeping dogs from eating, ahem, unmentionable stuff


It's the unspeakable dog problem, if the calls I get are any indication.

"My dog eats his own . . . er . . . I mean, I need to know how to keep him from . . . um . . . you know what I mean? It's disgusting!"

Dog experts such as trainers, behaviorists and veterinarians don't seem able to speak plainly about this either. They call it "coprophagia."

No matter what it's called, the experts agree stool-eating is a common complaint. But it's more than an aesthetic problem: It's a perfect way to transmit parasites and disease.

Why do dogs indulge in such revolting behavior? Some behaviorists say stool-eating is related to a mother dog's instinct for "cleaning up the nest" -- licking her puppies to stimulate elimination and eating everything that results. It's an important job, since the tiny, blind puppies aren't capable of eliminating their own waste.

Others point to poor-quality food, noting that wolves and wild dogs eat stools -- both their own and those of herbivores -- for nutrients they contain. (This helps explain why dogs seem especially attracted to cat stools, which contain a high level of protein.) Still others say dogs eat stools because they like to, in the same way they enjoy other unspeakable activities, such as rolling in dead fish.

Prevention is the best way to deal with stool-eaters, although there are a few nutritional or behavioral aids that may be worth a try.

First, make sure your dog is in good health, eating a high-quality food. Besides providing better nutrition, premium kibble can noticeably decrease stool volume. There are many more of these top-quality brands than there used to be, so ask your vet, trainer or groomer for recommendations.

Once you're sure your pet is eating well, you can ask your veterinarian about one of the handful of food additives that are supposed to help the animal produce stools that are less appealing. The same aversion theory is behind the advice about coating stools with something a dog would find disgusting, like Tabasco sauce. Finally, some trainers suggest watching your dog closely and throwing a can filled with pennies or a handful of marbles at him when he sniffs a pile.

While each of these strategies may help with any particular dog, there's no evidence they will reform all or even most stool-eaters. And if you're going to spend your days sprinkling Tabasco sauce on the piles, you might as well grab a scoop and clean them up.

In fact, the most reliable method of coping with chronic stool-eaters is to avoid the temptation. If there's nothing disgusting to eat, the dog won't be eating it. It's that simple.

When you let your dog out, clean up after him immediately. The best way is to keep a small lidded can and scoop at ready. Put a heavy-duty garbage bag in the can, and put the daily deposits in it right away. At the end of the week, get rid of the old and put in a fresh bag.

If you have cats, make sure the litter box is inaccessible to your dog, and keep it clean, too. One of my friends put a cat-sized flap in the door connecting the laundry room -- used for the kitty bathroom -- with the kitchen. The cat can come and go as she pleases, but the dog can barely get his head through the hole.

In the park, the leash is your only defense, and will remain so until people start getting more considerate about picking up after their dogs.

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