Q: I adopted a seven-year-old Silky Terrier from a puppy mill six months ago. She’s been eating her own poop since we got her. We initially thought it was because she didn’t get enough nutrition as a former breeding dog, but even with a nutritionally complete diet, she still does that. Will changing her diet help to eventually eliminate her poop-eating habit?

One of the more unpleasant and off-putting habits of some dogs is coproghagia, or eating poo. Unfortunately, it is not really abnormal for dogs to do this, and is in fact quite common in the wild. The only time it may indicate a true medical problem is when a dog consistently eats its own faeces, but this can happen from boredom as well.

A medical condition known as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is where a dog—most commonly German Shepherds—has an underactive pancreas and does not produce enough digestive enzymes to break down its food. As a result, the animal’s faeces passes through containing a lot of undigested food particles. These dogs are generally quite thin, very hungry, and produce very large, voluminous, pale-looking faeces that they will readily eat. This lifelong condition can be treated easily with an enzyme supplement mixed into the dog’s food before feeding.

Dogs that eat their own faeces but do not have EPI probably developed this as a bad habit. Puppy mill dogs are typically kept in small cement and wire cages with virtually zero environmental stimulation. Seeing their faeces in the cage is about the only thing that happens every day, and it becomes part of their routine to play with and then eat, their own poop. This dog needs to be given a lot more environmental stimulation, such as games, and feeding puzzle toys. Also, clean up the yard every day (or more often) to remove any waste—this is critical in the beginning to help break the habit.

I suspect this furkid will respond to a combination of abundant love and attention, loads of games to play when you are not there, and regular yard cleaning to get rid of any foul temptation. In some very refractory cases, I do know of people who resort to treating faecal matter with very unpleasant tasting additives (like crib stop), which results in a very unpleasant response when the dog eats the faeces. However, I would only try this if all the other options fail to work.