Layout Image

Eating Non-food Items and Eating Feces

(Pica and Coprophagia)

OVERVIEW

  • Eating of non-food items (known as “pica”), including eating of feces of bowel movement (known as “coprophagia”)
  • Coprophagia is not uncommon in dogs; it is rare in cats

Signalment/Description of Pet

Species

  • Dogs and cats

Breed Predilections

  • Oriental breeds of cat, such as the Siamese, may be at greater risk of pica than other cat breeds

Mean Age and Range

  • Pica occurs more often in puppies than in adult dogs
  • Pica is most likely to begin during the first year of life in cats

Signs/Observed Changes in the Pet

  • Eating of non-food items (for example, dogs—rocks, clothing, and feces; cats—fabrics and plastics)
  • Bad breath (halitosis), if problem is coprophagia
  • Damage to teeth if the dog eats hard objects
  • Pale moist tissues of the body (mucous membranes) and weakness if the pet has a low red blood cell count (known as “anemia”)
  • Poor body condition if signs are accompanied by abnormal digestion or absorption of food (known as “maldigestion” or “malabsorption,” respectively)
  • Nervous system signs if behavior caused by neurological disease

Causes

Behavioral Causes

  • Coprophagia is considered normal maternal behavior; the mother dog (bitch) or cat (queen) licks the area under the tail of the newborn puppy or kitten to stimulate elimination and then eats the feces
  • Dogs seek out cat feces because it is high in protein and therefore appealing
  • Herbivore feces are appealing to dogs, apparently due to partially digested vegetable matter
  • Dogs on highly restricted diets may have a voracious appetite, leading to coprophagia and pica
  • Feces are appetizing to dogs, so the behavior is self-rewarding
  • Dogs that have been punished for eliminating in the house may learn to eat their own feces in an apparent attempt to avoid punishment
  • Nest cleaning
  • Response to anxiety
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Attention-seeking behavior

Medical Causes

  • Low red blood cell count (anemia)
  • Poor nutrition (malnutrition) leading to excessive food intake (known as “polyphagia”)
  • Diseases involving the endocrine system—excessive levels of thyroid hormone in the blood (known as “hyperthyroidism”); condition characterized by high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood (condition known as “diabetes mellitus” or “sugar diabetes”; excessive levels of steroids produced by the adrenal glands (known as “hyperadrenocorticism” or “Cushing’s syndrome”)
  • Abnormal digestion (maldigestion) or absorption of food (malabsorption)
  • Low levels of digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas (known as “exocrine pancreatic insufficiency”)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Excessive number of bacteria in the small intestine (known as “small intestinal bacterial overgrowth”)
  • Central nervous system disease
  • Portosystemic shunt (condition of abnormal blood flow in the liver due to high blood pressure in the portal vein, the vein carrying blood from the digestive organs to the liver)
  • Intestinal parasitism

Drug-Induced Causes

  • Administration of medications such as steroids, progestins, or benzodiazepines may lead to increased appetite and excessive eating (polyphagia)

Risk Factors

  • Early weaning of kittens has been suggested as a possible cause of sucking on and eating of fabrics
  • Cats fed low-roughage diets and/or not allowed access to roughage sources (such as grass)
  • Dogs not provided with an appropriately stimulating environment, adequate activity, or social interactions may be at risk for pica, coprophagy, or both
  • Confinement of dogs in barren yards may predispose to coprophagia

Treatment

Health Care

  • Varies depending on whether the cause is medical or behavioral
  • Treat any underlying disease (such as hormonal problems, gastrointestinal disease, or disorders of the pancreas) and withdraw any drugs that could cause increased appetite and excessive eating (polyphagia)
  • Correct any dietary deficiencies

Treatment of Eating of Non-food Items (Pica)

  • Prevent access to non-food items that are likely to be eaten
    • Confine pet away from interesting non-food items
    • Muzzle dogs; watch for signs of overheating in warm climates and when muzzle is worn for prolonged periods of time
    • “Booby traps” may be used to keep pet away from certain areas or items
  • Change to a diet higher in fiber
  • Teach dog a “Drop it” or “Leave it” command, so owner can prevent consumption of inappropriate items

Treatment of Eating Feces of Bowel Movement (Coprophagia)

  • Prevent access to feces
    • Walk dog on leash and pick up feces immediately
    • Muzzle dogs; watch for signs of overheating in warm climates
    • Use head collar (such as Gentle Leader or Halti) for increased ability to guide pet away from feces; reward for “turning away” after defecation
  • Change the character of the feces
    • Add ForBid or meat tenderizer to feed so that feces become less tasty and attractive to the dog
    • Changing the diet to one that causes a softer, less formed stool may decrease the stool’s appeal to the dog
    • Choose a remote-activated citronella collar to distract the dog every time it tries to sniff or eat feces
    • This technique must be used every time the dog has access to feces in order for it to be effective
    • Dogs should be rewarded with a tasty treat for returning to owner on command
  • Taste aversion can be taught by using a powerfully aversive substance (such as hot sauce or cayenne pepper)
    • All feces with which the dog may come in contact must be included for this technique to be effective
    • Dogs can learn to recognize the smell of the “aversive substance”—coated feces and avoid them, while looking for non-coated feces

Activity

  • Increased activity levels may help in the treatment and prevention of pica or coprophagia
  • More regular, predictable schedules of interaction and exercise can decrease anxiety and may aid in the treatment of pica or coprophagia

Diet

  • Feed a good-quality, balanced diet
  • Change to a diet higher in fiber
  • Dietary changes may be helpful in some cases of coprophagia
  • A more highly digestible diet or the addition of plant-based enzyme supplements has been successful in decreasing coprophagia in some cases

Follow-Up Care

Patient Monitoring

  • Monitor and record abnormal eating habits to determine if the pet’s pica or coprophagia is decreasing
  • Discuss progress in controlling abnormal eating habits with your pet’s veterinarian in 1—2 weeks
  • If dietary management changes did not markedly improve the problem, further diagnostic testing and/or medication may be needed

Preventions and Avoidance

  • Limit access to non-food items to prevent pet from eating them
  • Careful supervision during housetraining may help to prevent puppy exploration of feces and reinforcement of coprophagia
  • Administer monthly heartworm prevention that also prevents gastrointestinal parasites, according to your pet’s veterinarian
  • Find a safe substitute that the pet can eat
  • Remove plastic and woolen material from the cat’s environment
  • Apply a pungent or bitter taste to objects, which may discourage consumption

Possible Complications

  • Blockage of the intestinal tract by a foreign body is the most common complication to pica in dogs and cats
  • Gastrointestinal complications—foreign bodies, diarrhea, vomiting, bad breath (halitosis)

Expected Course and Prognosis

  • Prognosis is guarded if the condition has been present for a long time or if the owner is unwilling to supervise the dog closely when it eliminates
  • Prognosis improves if the owner is willing to supervise the dog and to follow treatment recommendations
  • Realistic expectations must be understood; changing a behavior that has become a habit is very challenging

Key Points

  • Prevent access to non-food items or feces that may be eaten
  • Increased activity levels may help in the treatment and prevention of pica or coprophagia
  • More regular, predictable schedules of interaction and exercise can decrease anxiety and may aid in the treatment of pica or coprophagia
  • Realistic expectations must be understood; changing a behavior that has become a habit is very challenging
  • Coprophagia in most cases is normal behavior for dogs and is not harmful, unless the dog eats feces containing parasites
  • Avoid the use of punishment for pica or coprophagy due to the risk of increasing anxiety and possibly worsening the behavior

Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline, Fifth Edition, Larry P. Tilley and Francis W.K. Smith, Jr. © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.