Coprophagia In The Shih Tzu (Stool-Eating)

by Laurie Semple

What Is Coprophagia?
Coprophagia is the technical term for stool-eating. This behavior is not an unusual occurrence in Shih Tzu. Although it is more common in females, some males are also quite adept at it.
As a breeder, I have learned to warn my puppy buyers about this tendency, especially if this is their first Shih Tzu. My failure to do so might mean that I will get that phone call, often at odd hours, asking if the puppy will get sick as a result of what it has done. The truth is, as disgusting as it is for us to witness, the sampling or consumption of a small amount of its own feces, especially if it is parasite-free, will be unlikely to cause any illness for the puppy. It only becomes a problem if the puppy (or dog) consumes a large quantity, or if it consumes the feces of another animal which may have intestinal parasites—including the feces of a rabbit, a deer, cat, or whatever other species happens to share the yard with your puppy. Digestive upsets could occur if too much is consumed, and intestinal parasites can be contracted from the ingestion of foreign stool. For that reason, vigilance is advised. The puppy’s potty area or yard must be kept very clean.

Why This Breed?
Our breed is not alone. Adults of many toy and miniature breeds will eat stool on occasion. Even the puppies of larger breeds sometimes indulge in this practice, but in these breeds the behavior usually doesn’t last beyond puppyhood.

Why Do They Do It?
I have heard theories about vitamin deficiencies, boredom, etc. Some believe that puppies (perhaps the most intelligent?) learn the habit from their mothers, almost all of whom keep the nest clean via the practice even if they may not engage in coprophagia at other times. While I really have no evidence to either support or refute these theories, my belief is that coprophagia may well be an inherited trait. It seems more prevalent in some lines. I have had a few bitches (all related on the maternal side) that seem to produce puppies who are champion stool-eaters, like their moms. For this reason I suspect that it does run in families, particularly down from the bitch line, just like many other personality traits. I have decided that once I have bred that 99% perfect Shih Tzu, I will try to breed out this annoying trait. Until then, just as others before me, I will try to pick up their little messes before they get to them. The good news is that many puppies will outgrow the behavior, especially the males and/or the ones that are walked on a leash and not given access to their feces. Generally, they do lose interest in the practice over time, as long as they are not sharing a yard with other dogs. The best way to curb coprophagia, I tell my prospective puppy buyers, is not to give your puppy access to feces.

What Can You Do About It?
Sometimes I am asked if those products that you can purchase such as “Deter” and “For-Bid” work, or if adding meat tenderizer to the food will help. I have tried them all, and so have others I know, with little or no success.
The one thing that does seem to help, if you have the time and the energy to do it, is “baiting” the feces with a good dose of Tabasco sauce, and then leaving it where the dog will find it. I am told that one taste of the hot sauce usually deters the dog from going back to the feces for months, but you may have to bait it again if the habit returns. I recently heard that sprinkling dried red pepper flakes on the feces (like the type some people like on pizza) also works well. I would not use this remedy on a very young puppy, but if you really can’t stand the behavior and the puppy is over 6 months old this remedy may be worth a try. More recently, people have reportedly had some success with a product called S.E.P. (Stop Eating Poop, available from Solid Gold).
It helps to teach your dog the command “leave it” for times when you catch him in the act. That way, at least you will have a fighting chance to get to the stool before he does, but that will require a good deal of patient training. I once asked a friend who bred and trained Shih Tzu for obedience and also trained dogs for others what could be done about stool-eating. Her reply was a very wise “To tell you the truth, the best thing to do is look the other way and pretend you don’t see it.”
I know that she was really saying that we should just love our Shih Tzu, in spite of their occasional indiscretions.