The first time you catch your Shih Tzu eating poop, you gag, scream and think it is some weird fluke accident. The second time you catch them, you gag, scream and wonder what is going on. The third time you catch them, you gag, scream and think you probably have a mentally challenged Shih Tzu. The fourth time you catch them, you gag, scream and hope no one else is seeing this and realizes you have a mentally challenged Shih Tzu. The fifth time you catch them, you gag, scream . . . well, you get the point. So what is up with this poop-eating issue of our Shih Tzu?!
Most people think that dogs eat their own poop because of a medical issue or because they are lacking some essential vitamin or mineral or fatty acid, etc. This is usually not the case. It is almost always because of a behavioral, habitual, compulsive problem. And no, it does not mean that your Shih Tzu is mentally challenged. The slim possibility that it could be a medical issue shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact treating medical issues is often easier than treating behavioral issues.
If your Shih Tzu has any gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea (even if it’s intermittent), vomiting (even if it’s occasional) or unexplained weight loss, you should start out at your veterinarians with a good physical exam, multiple fecal samples and possibly some bloodwork. The primary medical issues we will look for are intestinal parasites (relatively common and usually very easy to treat), diseases affecting absorption of nutrients like inflammatory bowel disease (not very common) and pancreatic disorders (primarily exocrine pancreatic insufficiency which is thankfully rare in the Shih Tzu).
If your Shih Tzu has no gastrointestinal problems, it’s still really easy (and cheap) to drop off some fecal samples for your veterinarian to analyze. Why sampleS, plural? Because dogs shed intestinal parasites intermittently so your chances of catching the offending parasite increases dramatically if you bring in multiple samples. Also bringing in a fresh sample is always better for two important reasons. It gives us a larger sample which is much more representative than the tiny sample we get when we shove that uncomfortable fecal loop up your poor Shih Tzu’s bum. And that is the second reason: save your sweet Shih Tzu the discomfort of having to go through that. (Keep in mind that many veterinary hospitals only have one size fecal loop and one size does not fit all, especially our little Shih Tzu which average about 10-16 pounds!)
Thankfully there is a lot of competition in dog food right now. There are so many good foods, I’m not going to try to list them. A good general rule is to try to avoid buying dog food at the grocery store. Most pet stores and veterinarians only carry the premium brands of food that will ensure that your Shih Tzu is getting all the vitamins and minerals he or she needs.
Puppies often dabble in poop-eating and most will outgrow it. Some owners hear me say that and tend to not worry about it too much. That isn’t a great idea. You really want to nip the behavior in the bud, so to speak, because the longer the puppy engages in the behavior, the harder it is to stop it. I will occasional take a poop-eating puppy off of puppy food sooner than the generalized one year old mark. Why? Puppy food is chock full of vitamins, nutrients and calories, so if the puppy doesn’t need all of them, they are potentially coming out in the poop, making it more palatable to the puppy. I usually wait until after 6-8 months and the puppy will need to be well-fleshed or a little chubby and I will be certain the adult food is very high quality. (The 6-8 month age range is only for Shih Tzu or other similar-sized breeds, not larger breed dogs that are still growing quickly at this age.)
After practicing small animal medicine for 20 years, I would estimate ~90% of dogs eat their own poop solely for behavioral reasons. So what can you do about it?
- Limit their access. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it very important. It is gross for us to think of, but they get very positively reinforced when they ingest the poop, so if they continue to routinely do it, it will become harder and harder to counter this with a negative and to solve their problem. Yes, you may have to walk them on a leash instead of just letting them out in the back yard.
- Discourage bad behavior but only if you catch them in the act. Make sure that “No means NO!” (say it boldly, loudly and with authority). If your Shih Tzu is entirely ignoring you, you may have to do something more noxious like a citronella collar that you can remotely trigger when he first opens his mouth or a fog horn may work nicely as well.
- Lots of healthy exercise. Some behavior specialists feel like there is a boredom component to coprophagia (the medical term for “poop eating”). Exercise also helps with mental illnesses such as obsessive compulsive behaviors. (Don’t go too crazy with your Shih Tzu in the summer heat. With their short noses, they aren’t the most efficient breed at staying cool while exercising.)
- “Set them up for failure.” Get some cheap latex gloves (and a syringe if you can) and inject Tabasco sauce or crushed hot pepper or commercially prepared “Bitter Apple” into feces.
- Sprinkle commercially available products like “Deter” or “For-bid” onto their food before they eat it (the food this time, not the feces). Meat tenderizer sprinkled onto food and pineapple seem to work for some. It’s probably safer to stick with the products made for animals but check with your veterinarian if your Shih Tzu has any underlying issues. Example = some products have a good bit of MSG which would be bad for a dog with heart problems.
Following these 5 rules at the same time will usually cure your Shih Tzu of the bad habit of poop eating. “How long will it take?” is everyone’s next question. In general, however long they have been practicing “coprophagia” = that’s how long you will need to stay at it. Some people totally give up and that’s not the end of the world, because poop-eating actually rarely even upsets their stomach. But if you stick with it, you should be kissing your Shih Tzu again rather than gagging and screaming at them in no time.