Why Do Dogs Eat This Stuff?

Let’s jump right into it and find out why do dogs eat all the stuff that seems extremely unusual for us, human beings.

Why do dogs eat poop?

Disgusting though it is, eating feces is actually a pretty normal doggy habit. The technical term for poop-eating is coprophagy, and there are many potential reasons for it, both medical and behavioral. Dogs may eat their own or other dogs’ poop, cat poop, and poop from other animals—sheep, horses, cattle, birds, rabbits, etc. Some dogs eat it fresh, others like it dried, and some like it in frozen “poopsicles!”

In some cases, coprophagy can indicate a health problem, but in other cases, it’s purely recreational. It could indicate a problem with digestion such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), in which the pancreas isn’t making the normal digestive enzymes to break down the food. Dogs with EPI are literally starving because nutrients are passing through their intestines without being digested.

Other causes of coprophagy are improper house training (if a dog is punished for defecating in the house it might learn to eat the evidence); liver disease; intestinal problems like inflammatory bowel disease; or diet incompatibility (not digesting the protein fully).

What are the risks?

Besides being gross, there are a number of infections that can be transmitted by poop-eating, including Giardia, roundworms, Salmonella, E. coli, etc. Symptoms of these infections in dogs can vary from merely soft stools to vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. A very serious—and potentially fatal—type of roundworm called Baylisascaris can be acquired by eating raccoon feces. Some of these infections are even contagious to people, especially small children who don’t usually practice hygiene.

What should I do if my dog eats poop?

If your dog eats poop, you should ask your veterinarian to perform a fecal analysis to make sure the dog doesn’t have parasites, and keep the dog on a regular parasite preventative medication. (Most heartworm medications also prevent common intestinal parasites.) If your veterinarian is concerned about an underlying medical condition such as EPI, he may also recommend blood and urine testing, ultrasound or endoscopy.

How can I stop my dog from eating poop?

  • There are various commercial products available to try to curb coprophagy. Some work well for certain dogs, while others are less effective. Your veterinarian or pet store may carry tablets or powder that is added to the dog’s food. These products have no taste when they are eaten with the food, but they make the poop taste bad. Other supplements that can be added to the food are MSG (monosodium glutamate), meat tenderizer, pineapple juice or fresh pineapple (bromelain and papain enzymes in the pineapple may break down proteins in the food), cooked carrots, or anise. If the dog eats the poop of multiple pets, you will need to feed the supplement to all the pets, not just the guilty party. If your dog eats the poop of other animals on walks, this technique won’t work.
  • Obviously, promptly picking up feces and preventing access to other animals’ poop is important. However, during the training period if you use a food additive, you’ll need to leave some poop in the yard. Some people also have luck sprinkling Tabasco sauce on the feces to “booby trap” them. It’s important to treat all the pets involved, and for a long enough period to break the habit.
  • Changing the dog’s diet may help. Switching to a dog food that has a different main protein source (e.g., venison, salmon or rabbit) could change the flavor of the poop, while switching to a diet with a lower fiber content could decrease the volume of feces. Alternatively, trying a hypoallergenic prescription diet (available through your veterinarian) might help if there is any sort of food allergy contributing to the problem. Supplementing the diet with probiotics (“good” intestinal bacteria) may also help; your veterinarian can recommend a specific probiotic product.
  • Another option is to train the dog to avoid poop. This will involve keeping a very close eye on the dog, and keeping him on-leash in the yard. If he starts to sniff or taste the poop, say “Leave it,” pull him away with the leash, and then distract him with a fun activity or yummy treat while someone else cleans up the poop. Muzzles, cone collars, or remote-control citronella or shock collars are a last resort. Also make sure the dog is getting plenty of mental and physical exercise through long walks, playing, doggy play group, and food dispensing toys.
  • For dogs who eat cat poop (“cat box crunchies”), the taste is apparently very attractive, so you may have only limited success in training a dog not to eat it. Prevention may be the only option: keep the litter box away from the dog with baby gates or an indoor “invisible fence.”

Poop eating is common in dogs, but usually treatable.

Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?

Two dogs eating dirt in the yard

Dogs (and people, too) sometimes obsessively eat non-food items, such as dirt, clay, sand, or rocks. The technical term for this is pica. It can be related to a medical problem, such as an intestinal disorder, anemia (low red blood cell count), lead poisoning, or a vitamin or mineral deficiency (particularly iron deficiency). In addition, it’s thought that dogs might eat clay to bind up bacterial toxins in the intestines.

Besides indicating underlying medical conditions, pica itself is potentially dangerous. Eating rocks or large quantities of sand or dirt can cause a blockage in the stomach or intestines requiring surgical correction.

More commonly, dogs aren’t actually eating dirt but are playing with it, along with chewing on rocks, grass or sticks. Puppies very commonly chew on things they shouldn’t, so you might need to gently redirect the puppy to more appropriate toys, including food-dispensing toys and safe chew toys. Dogs might also eat dirt if there is something yummy mixed in, like grease from the barbecue, bone meal or fish-based fertilizers, or cat poop. Avoidance is the best treatment: make sure there are no tasty substances mixed with the dirt.

What are the risks?

In cases of true pica, when the dog is consuming large quantities of dirt, you should contact your veterinarian. Disorders of the stomach or intestines that might cause pica include inflammatory bowel disease, stomach ulcers, food allergy, parasites, or tumors. To diagnose these issues, your vet may recommend blood, urine and fecal testing; ultrasound; x-rays; scoping the stomach; deworming; or a dietary trial with a hypoallergenic dog food.

Another cause of pica is anemia, a low red blood cell count. Anemia can be due to destruction of the red blood cells from toxins or infections; loss of red blood cells from bleeding (either internal or external hemorrhage); or decreased production of red blood cells by the bone marrow because of cancer. Blood testing will diagnose anemia and help to clarify the cause.

In rare cases, pica can be caused by a neurologic problem. If it only happens periodically, it could be a type of epileptic seizures. In an older dog, especially if there are other behavior changes, a sudden onset of pica can be caused by a brain tumor.

If diagnostic testing doesn’t reveal a medical cause for pica, make sure the dog is on a premium-quality dog food. You might also supplement with a doggy multi-vitamin. If the dog is obsessively eating dirt or rocks, a muzzle might be necessary when he goes outside.

True pica is rare, but can indicate a serious disorder that should be investigated by a veterinarian.

Why Do Dogs Eat Grass?

Many dogs like to eat grass and graze like cows, especially in the spring when fresh young grass is growing. Usually, it’s a perfectly normal behavior. Canines are omnivores, meaning they get nutrition from both plant and animal sources, just like humans do. Wild dogs and wolves actually eat a lot of plant material, from fruits and berries to the grass in the stomachs of their prey. One scientific study found that 68% of dogs eat grass or other plants on a daily or weekly basis, with no problems.

Some dogs eat grass if they’re feeling a bit queasy, and that may be why they throw up after eating it. It’s not necessarily that the grass makes them vomit, but rather that they want to eat grass when they’re feeling nauseous. There are many reasons a dog might feel nausea: infection, food poisoning, food allergies, stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, or even a stomach tumor. Sometimes inflammation in the throat or esophagus causes irritation that makes the dogs feel the need to eat grass. The first step is a medical work-up by your veterinarian, which may include blood, urine, and fecal testing; x-rays; ultrasound; and endoscopy (looking at the esophagus and stomach with a fiber-optic scope).

Other dogs might eat grass because of boredom. You can try getting the dog involved in activities to stimulate his mind and burn calories, like agility or fly ball; taking him to a doggy play group; or using a food-dispensing toy (balls, cubes or puzzles which the dog has to manipulate to get treats).

Some dogs will become obsessed with eating grass. If the dog is eating so much grass that it’s interfering with other normal activities or he’s not eating his normal food, there may be a medical problem or a psychological issue like obsessive-compulsive disorder. If the grass-eating only happens periodically, it could even be a form of seizures.

What are the risks?

In rare cases, a dog might eat so much grass that it clumps up in the stomach or intestines and causes a blockage that needs to be surgically removed. In these rare cases, the grass is obviously a danger to the dog, so access to grass needs to be prevented by only walking on pavement or by putting a muzzle on the dog when he goes onto the lawn.

How to stop my dog from eating grass?

For average grass-eating dogs, you can try increasing the vegetable fiber content in the dog’s meals by adding green beans or canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling). You can also try breaking up the diet into smaller, more frequent meals, or using a food-dispensing toy that will keep the dog occupied in foraging. Over-the-counter human medications meant for heartburn, like famotidine (Pepcid), ranitidine (Zantac), or omeprazole (Prilosec), are usually safe for dogs and can be helpful for nausea. Ask your veterinarian for a dose for your dog. A diet change to a hypoallergenic or hydrolyzed dog food may also help. Your veterinarian can recommend a prescription diet.

Most grass eating in dogs is perfectly normal, but if it’s excessive or associated with other symptoms, contact your veterinarian.

What To Do If Your Dog Gets Poisoned

There is always the possibility that your dog can get poisoned. Even though poisoning in dogs are not common, it’s something that you should be aware of and know what to do in the event that your dog gets poisoned. As you know, puppies by nature are very curious and should be properly supervised in unknown environments or wherever there is a strong possibility that they can ingest poison.

There are many ways how dogs can get poisoned either directly or indirectly, from eating or drinking something. For instance, they could get direct poisoning from eating antifreeze or they could get indirect poisoning from eating an animal that has already being poisoned; for example, a poisoned rat. They could get poisoned if they fall in some creosote and get externally contaminated. They could also get poisoned from inhaling poisonous toxic fumes that are absorbed into the bloodstream through their lungs.

You may want to check out our article on common backyard plants that are poisonous to dogs.

If you see your dog eating something that you consider toxic, hold him back and remove the object from his mouth and try to identify the poison. If the object is something that has an ingredient list, secure the list and call your veterinarian or poison center immediately, explain to them what happened and wait for their advice on what to do. It is very important that you identify what poison your dog ingested. This will help your veterinarian determine what treatment to give your dog, so make sure that you take with you a sample of the substance along with the container.

Most rat poisons have a color code indicating the active ingredients in it, so if your dog ingested rat poison you or your veterinarian will know what type of poison it is. It would be very helpful if you bring with you samples of your dog’s vomit or feces if available. Also, if your dog has been externally contaminated with a poison like creosote, make sure that he does not lick his fur. If you know that your dog ingested poison, do not try to treat him on your own but take him immediately to the nearest veterinarian or emergency animal clinic.

The condition of a poisoned dog can deteriorate very quickly so, if you know that your dog is poisoned, it is very important that you get him to the veterinarian right away. Initially, the veterinarian will make sure that your dog’s condition is stable, then he will try to prevent your dog from getting further contaminated. He may need to induce vomiting by giving him an emetic or he may have to flush his throat and mouth with a stomach tube.

If the poison has been identified, an option for the veterinarian would be to give your dog a specific antidote. This antidote could be atropine for insecticide contamination or vitamin K to help the blood if there has been Warfarin poisoning. Once the veterinarian has stopped further contamination, and since specific treatments are not always available, he would try to support the dog until his condition is stable. He may have to give your dog sedatives if he is having fits or help maintain his body temperature. He may also need to treat your dog for circulatory damage, give him intravenous fluids to help get toxins out of his system, treat him for shock or make sure that his renal function remain stable.

It is very difficult to identify the type of poison your dog has ingested, which makes it very difficult for you to handle the situation. That is why it is so important that when you take your dog to the veterinarian that you take along samples of his urine, blood, vomit or feces if you have any available. However, if your dog dies and it is suspected that he died from poisoning, the veterinarian will have to do a postmortem to confirm the cause of death and see what organs may have been damaged. Of course, this requires that a lot of examination be done and it could be very costly.