If you have a dog as well as a cat, you may have had the unfortunate experience of seeing the dog standing by the litter box, happily munching on a piece of cat poop. The sight makes your stomach turn, so why in the world would it appeal to your dog?
First of all, there are plenty of things that dogs eat that humans would not consider food. Cat poop may be one of the more disgusting of these menu options, at least from a human's perspective but to your dog, it may seem like a tasty treat. Why? Veterinary science has not yet figured out all of the possible reasons, but there are a number of theories that have arisen from dog physiology, psychology, and evolution. Here are just a few.
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The Root of the Behavior
Dogs that eat cat poop, or any other animal poop, are engaging in a behavior that veterinarians call coprophagia. It is most common in puppies for a number of reasons, one of which is that puppies put almost anything in their mouths, simply to explore their world. Poop can be particularly appealing because puppies often smell their own on their mother's breath, the mother having licked the puppy's rear end to clean it. In some cases, the mother may also have followed an age-old instinct to eat poop left in the area to protect her pups from bacteria.
Although puppies usually grow out of this mimicry-based behavior, the American Veterinary Association notes that it may hold over to adulthood as a leftover instinct from the wild. A 2012 study revealed that dogs may eat animal poop as a way of protecting other pack members from microbes, which may be found in poop that other creatures leave behind. The Merck Veterinary Manual also addresses coprophagia and explains it primarily as an exploratory behavior pattern.
But why cat poop in particular? As revolting as it might seem to humans, it just smells and tastes good to dogs. Cats do not break down all of the ingredients in their diet, which means that dogs sniff cat poop and smell kibble or wet food. This is particularly appealing to a dog because cat food has a very high protein content and often contains carbohydrates, which are eliminated in a partially digested form that can pique a dog's curiosity.
Some dogs do seek out cat poop because of a legitimate need for the nutrients they find there. This is rare but may stem from a dietary imbalance or a medical issue such as malabsorption, bowel disease, or an endocrine condition. Of course, there is always the possibility that your dog is eating it because he is bored. If he doesn't have enough toys to keep himself occupied, he may turn to the litter box as an alternate source of entertainment.
Encouraging the Behavior
So how much of a problem is it when your dog seems to want cat poop on his regular menu? Veterinarians state that in most cases, dogs suffer no ill effects from snacking on litter box leavings, but there is always the possibility of catching a parasitic infection. It is also possible that a dog may develop an intestinal blockage from the litter itself, but most dogs need to eat a great deal of litter for this to happen.
The only way to completely avoid this risk is to train your dog away from raiding the litter box. This may be more challenging than you would like, largely because the punishment is unlikely to work. It will just make your dog stressed and anxious, which can lead to more poop-eating behavior and may only result in him eating the poop only when you are not looking.
You are likely to have more luck by making the behavior undesirable, which in this case means making the poop unappealing. Believe it or not, it is possible to change the texture and (ew!) taste of your cat's poop. Adding pumpkin to your cat's food can make the texture unappealing as a doggy snack, as can a number of commercial products. If you'd rather not change what your cat is eating, try adding hot sauce or cayenne pepper to the litter itself.
You can also try hiding the litter box or place it in a place where the cat can reach but the dog cannot. Putting the box on a shelf or inside a closet works for many owners, especially if their dogs are larger than their cats.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Even as you work to deter your dog from eating out of the litter box, you will want to make sure that he is not driven by a dietary imbalance. Your veterinarian can offer some advice on this subject, while also screening for any medical or psychological issues that may be compelling the dog's litter box snacking.
A veterinarian may also be able to help you determine if your dog's poop-eating behavior is at least partially due to stress. If so, the issue may be relatively easy to fix if you provide your dog with some new and engaging toys or tasty treats.
There are many dog behaviors that humans find puzzling, and the consumption of cat poop is probably one of the most unpleasant to think about. You don't need to imagine what the experience is like for your poop-munching pooch, but you probably want to see if you can stop it. There is a chance that your dog may not suffer any ill effects, but you might be courting parasite disaster. And, boy, that can be “ruff!”