Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T., Companion Animal Programs Adviser. National Outreach
As soon as Roscoe the retriever heard the sounds of the resident cat scratching in the litter box, he made a beeline for the bathroom. There was nothing he liked better than moist, warm "kitty cookies" fresh from the cat! Since his follow-up behavior often included planting a big, wet smelly kiss on his guardian's cheek, this dirty little habit had to be extinguished ASAP.
Coprophagia, the ingestion of feces by an animal, is quite common in dogs. Some eat their own stool (autocoprophagia), some eat the stool of other dogs (intraspecific coprophagia), and some, like Roscoe, eat the stool of other animals (inter-specific coprophagia). While disgusting to humans, fresh stool from healthy, domesticated animals is generally safe to eat. On the other hand, health risks are possible when dogs eat the feces of wild animals who are infested with internal parasites or of free-roaming cats who are infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Unvaccinated dogs are at particular risk for contracting parvovirus or hepatitis if they eat the stool of infected dogs. Most canine coprophagics are four to nine months of age and will outgrow the behavior. However, some dogs find the habit extremely rewarding, making it difficult to extinguish.
Oh, My! Why?
The "whys" of coprophagia are many. Historically, dogs have been scavengers, living at the edge of civilization on the refuse and waste of others. Biologically, the mother dog stimulates her neonates' elimination by licking their genital regions and consumes their waste for the first three weeks of their lives. Normal investigative puppy behavior includes running nearly everything in the environment through one's mouth. The pup learns that some things taste better than others. Sometimes, that investigative behavior draws more owner attention than usual, resulting in a great game of chase around the house or yard. When coupled with diarrhea or poor weight gain, coprophagia may be the result of a medical malady such as pancreatic insufficiency, intestinal infections, or malabsorption troubles. Luckily, the exact reason why the dog engages in coprophagia does not need to be determined before a course of treatment can begin.
Pick a Plan
When signs of ill health are present, a veterinary workup is necessary. However, most coprophagics are simply healthy dogs who need a program that combines obedience training, careful management, environmental enrichment, and, possibly, a dietary adjustment to achieve success. The treatment plan may vary depending on whether the dog is consuming his own feces or the feces of others. For the autocoprophagic, leash walks for elimination are mandatory. You have to clean up the stool quicker than the dog can eat it. Use of a head halter will give you control of the dog's head. Teach the dog to hold a sit and stay a few steps away from the pile so you can clean up. After you pick up, reward the dog with a high-value treat before releasing him from the stay. In cases where the dog consumes the stool while eliminating, a muzzle will be necessary. Change the dog's diet to one higher in fiber, and feed several small meals a day instead of one large one.
Dogs who eat the stool of others can be exercised off-lead on their own fenced property but must be leashed and watched when off the premises. The handler must scan the ground a few feet ahead of the dog. When both the dog and the handler spot a pile of feces, utter the command "Leave it," and reward the dog when he averts his eyes from the object of desire.
Are cat feces your dog's dessert of choice? Since the dog is rewarded every time he raids the litter box, managing the situation—putting the box where the dog can't reach it—will yield success. If your dog respects barriers, gate off one room for the cat's litter pan. If your dog is large, cut a small opening in the vanity or linen closet or inside a large cardboard box from an appliance store, and set the box up inside. Got a dog who's wary of the bathtub? Take advantage of that repulsion by placing the litter box in the tub. This solution works for households with small or short-legged dogs, too.
There may be a boredom component to this problem behavior. Try enlivening the environment and the dog's role in it by offering meals stuffed in food-dispensing toys hidden throughout the house or yard. Engage the dog in active sports such as swimming, agility, or long hikes in new territory. Time spent enriching your dog's life is never wasted and may be the final step in breaking this dirty little habit.
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Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director, ASPCA Companion Animal Services
Supposedly, absence makes the heart grow fonder. However, the absence of an owner sends some dogs into keen wailing and barking, frequent house soiling and self-destructive behaviors. These are all signs that a dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
The canines most likely to fall victim are second-hand dogs. Whether from a shelter, rescue group or greyhound-track adoption program, dogs re-homed in adolescence or older are at greater risk of suffering separation anxiety than puppies. This is probably because it is more difficult for these dogs to accept changes in their routine and environment. They cling to their new pack leader and panic when that leader leaves home to go about his or her daily business. For similar reasons, unemployed companion animal owners or those who take lengthy at-home vacations or recuperations may find that their dog becomes disoriented when they return to work. These distressed pets need help.
Separation anxiety is often a problem of over-bonding. It is not healthy for a dog to follow his caretakers' every step, to be constantly in the same room, sharing the same piece of furniture, being in close contact all the time. Promote independence by teaching the dog to down-stay on his own bed while you go out of sight. Start with a few seconds, then build up to a length of time the dog can tolerate. Put up a gate and eventually close a door between the two of you. And, get family members involved in dispensing the "good stuff" to the dog. Walks, play sessions and feedings should not be provided by only one person, for that person's absence means the end of all that is good in the world to the dog. Panic can ensue. If you live alone, perhaps a neighbor or relative will share the duties, or hire a pet-care professional to assist you.
The worst of a dog's hysteria is often during the first hour after departure. Diffuse the emotion of your leave-taking by heartily exercising the dog right after you wake up. Then, after feeding him, scale back your attention to the point of ignoring him during the last 15 minutes before you leave. Turn off the lights and turn on the television, radio or white noise machine - whatever you play most when you are home. And, with no more than a whispered "Be Good," leave the house.
Some dogs will read the signs of imminent departure and begin to work themselves into a frenzy. If putting on make-up, packing a lunch or shuffling papers in your briefcase distresses the dog, desensitize him to these or other actions by doing them frequently and at other times (such as before mealtime) so they lose their direct connection to the dreaded departure. Presenting a toy stuffed with goodies can draw the focus of less seriously afflicted canines toward cleaning out the item and away from your leaving. Buster cubes, Kong toys, Goodie balls/ships work well as canine diversions. The seriously afflicted dog, however, will not give the toy a second look until his pack is together again.
Separation anxiety can be severe and all-consuming to some dogs. I have known dogs to jump through second-story plate-glass windows, eat through sheetrock walls into neighboring apartments and bloody their paws and noses trying to dig through wooden doors or out of crates. These individuals need professional assessment by an Applied Animal Behaviorist or Veterinary Behaviorist, for they may need pharmacological aid while they undergo desensitization exercises. Some people choose to manage the problem by dropping off their dogs at day care or adopting a second dog, so they are never truly alone.
Luckily, the majority of dogs - if the earlier suggestions are followed - in no time will be howling "I Will Survive."
For a list of topics on which you can receive informational literature, write to: ASPCA Companion Animal Services, 424 E. 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804
© 1998 ASPCA
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
Jacque Lynn Schultz, C.P.D.T., Companion Animal Programs Adviser. National Outreach
What could be more nerve-racking than fixing dinner for your new boss and her husband? You put tons of effort into making sure that everything is just perfect. But no sooner have you hung up their coats than your adolescent sheep dog, Hughie, grasps Mrs. Boss's thigh in his forelegs and ardently "welcomes" her to your home. After praying the floor will open up and swallow you whole, you vow to put an end to your pooch's embarrassing mounting behavior before another guest gets the big "Hughie Welcome."
Rest assured, mounting behavior (grasping with the forelegs and thrusting the pelvis) is normal—and treatable—behavior. It's often seen in littermates of either sex as early as four weeks of age. At this stage, the puppies are practicing adult behaviors in play that they will need for survival of the species later on. The intensity and frequency of this behavior typically peaks in adolescent dogs. In fact, excessive mounting is a normal occurrence in puberty-aged males of many species.
Why Me? Why Now?
There are several reasons why dogs engage in mounting behavior beyond the need for procreation. Usually, an un-neutered male dog will mount another male dog as a display of social dominance—in other words, as a way of letting the other dog know who's boss. While not as frequent, a female dog may mount for the same reason. Less commonly, a male might mount another male because his target has been "feminized" as a result of testicular cancer or through the use of certain drugs. Not surprisingly, the smell of a female dog in heat can instigate a frenzy of mounting behaviors. Even other females who aren't in heat will mount those who are. Males will mount males who have just been with estrus females if they still bear their scent. Estrus females may mount unwilling or inexperienced males. And males who catch wind of the estrus odor may mount the first thing (or unlucky person) they come in contact with. Interestingly enough, cats are sometimes the surprised—and unhappy—recipients of canine ardor.
Some dogs mount when they're excited or over-stimulated. Too much petting or grooming, or the arrival of guests, can trigger the behavior—especially in young un-neutered males—and serves as a release for pent-up energy or anxiety. If the excited dog can't find an animate partner, he may seize on a fluffy slipper, wadded-up blanket, throw pillow, or plush toy.
Now Stop That!
Since mounting is most common in intact dogs, the first step is to spay or neuter the animal. Studies show that one-third of male dogs experience a rapid decline in mounting and another one-third experience a gradual decline in mounting after being neutered. And since females commonly mount during estrus, spaying helps eliminate the behavior.
For the dog who gets too easily aroused, limit petting and grooming sessions to a level he can tolerate. If it's a problem of pent-up energy, increase the intensity of your dog's exercise regimen. If it's the excitement of visitors that sends your dog over the edge, as it did with Hughie, confine him during arrivals and bring him out after things have settled down a bit. Better yet, teach him a rock-solid sit and stay, and reward him with a high-value treat when he complies. After all, one can't mount and sit at the same time (we hope).
There's one last issue of canine mounting that is often overlooked in behavior literature: What do you do with a dog who mounts humans with every ounce of his being, sinking his claws into human flesh and growling at any attempt to remove him? This behavior is a form of dog-to-human dominance aggression that belongs in a different category than the goofy adolescent humping-anything-that-moves behavior. If your dog or a potential shelter adoptee tries this, neuter him first and then seek the help of a certified applied animal behaviorist. This is one time that mounting behavior is more than just a social embarrassment.
[Editor's note: This article is based on "Toxicosis in cats erroneously treated with 45 to 65% permethrin products" by E. Kathryn Meyer, V.M.D., in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Vol. 215, No. 2, pp. 198-203.]
Dr. Meyer is coordinator of the United States Pharmacopeia Veterinary Practitioners' Reporting Program located in Rockville, MD.
© 2000 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch - Summer 2000