It’s the moment every dog owner instantly regrets ever letting their dog kiss them on the mouth: Watching that very same beloved, seemingly well-trained and civilized pup eagerly devour a stinky, steaming pile of poop off the sidewalk.
Ugh, gross! But why? Why?!
It’s a topic that has long perplexed animal researchers and veterinarians. And if you Google the topic, you’re likely to get more than a dozen different explanations ranging from canine anxiety to illness to simply boredom.
However, a new study led by veterinarian Benjamin Hart, director of the Center for Animal Behavior at the University of California at Davis, has managed to link the off-putting behavior to “greedy eating” (dogs that quickly ravish their food bowls, according to owners) as well as an instinct connected to canines’ ancestral wolf pack days.
As the Washington Post reports, Hart and his team surveyed over 3,000 dog owners. Of these subjects, 16 percent ate other dogs’ feces “frequently” (their owners had witnessed a crappy chow down session at least six times), and of those pups, 80 percent preferred fresh feces less than two days old. Well, who doesn’t?
Interestingly, the research suggested that the tendency towards coprophagia (the scientific term for poop-eating) was evident no matter a dog’s age, breed, diet, house-training status or compulsive behavior tendency. This finding has unleashed a new theory: Modern day dogs have inherited both their aversion to pooping where they live as well as their likelihood to eat fresh poop from their ancient wolf ancestors.
You see, wayyyy back in those wild days, wolves may’ve eaten the fresh feces of sick, lame or old members who accidentally let a load loose as a way to clean up inside and around their den. Since it takes about two days for parasites and other pathogens to develop, eating fresh poop is not usually dangerous, and in fact, eating poop that was festering in their living quarters was actually a helpful way to avoid intestinal parasites such as larvae and worms.
That said, some great minds in the canine scientific community think there may be a bit more to it. For instance, Professor James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the recent book The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People, told the Washington Post he finds the wolf theory “plausible,” but he’s also intrigued by the “greedy eaters” survey findings. He referenced a study of free-roaming wild dogs in developing countries that scavenge for food and, as a result, fill up on a sizable amount of human feces. This seems to indicate that poop could be viewed, errr digested, as a second-hand food source.
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Today, dogs (and cats) “are fed diets that are relatively rich in fats and protein, not all of which may be completely digested, making their feces potentially attractive as a second hand food source,” Serpell told the Washington Post.
So, there you have it. Poop-eating is probably a normal, evolutionary dog trait.
But, take heart: Hart and his team are working on a solution. They’re currently looking at clinical trials of new methods and products that dissuade your pup from chomping down on their own or others’ droppings.
The best thing to do, for now, is keep your dog on a short leash and make sure to pick up your own lawn. (Insert the poop and shrug emojis here.)