Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Studio portrait of a yellow Labrador retriever.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Why Your Dog Eats Poop, and Other Odd Pet Behavior Explained

Experts weigh in on some of the stranger habits of cats and dogs.

From dogs that demonstrate decidedly odd tastes in treats to cats that think outside the litter box, pets can exhibit some seriously strange behavior. This week, we asked the pros to field questions from readers wondering about their pets’ peculiar habits.

The Scoop on Poop Eating

Many animals consume feces, a most locally sourced meal that may contain intact food particles—and thus nutrition.

To the horror of dog owners, this fondness for feces sometimes applies to their pets. (Why Do Animals—Including Your Dog—Eat Poop?)

It “may be an evolutionary legacy of the dog’s long history of scavenging for a living,” says James Serpell, a professor of animal ethics and welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, via email.

Reader Susan Moynihan just wants to know, “How can I get my dog to stop [eating poop]?”

A precautionary vet visit is step one, says Serpell, who also wrote the book, The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. Owners should rule out pancreatic enzyme deficiency and make sure the dog is eating properly, he says.

If all is well, reward-based training should help. Gently but firmly discourage the behavior while leash-walking, and give the dog treats and praise when he ignores scat, Serpell advises.

If the poop-eating behavior persists, he says, “a distasteful substance such as monosodium glutamate can be added to feces to discourage the behavior.”

Paper Tiger

Reader Ann Buckley’s one-year-old cat has the less revolting oral habit of licking the ink on freshly printed pieces of paper and asks, “Is it dangerous?”

“Home/office printers use water, ethylene glycol, and alcohol, but would likely only be toxic if the pet was licking the printer cartridge directly,” says Pamela Martin, an assistant professor for small animal medicine at Tuskegee University.

If it doesn’t happen daily and the cat isn’t eating the paper, it “probably wouldn’t get a toxic dose,” she says, adding that it’s best to just simply keep the papers away from the animal.

Peeing Outside the Box

Reader Kamran Adibi’s problem is one of location.

Adibi’s cat never had any bad behavior “until we moved to another state,” he says. “Since then he always urinates in a specific room on the carpet.”

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A domestic house cat named Rocket.

“Ah, the moving dynamic,” Martin says. Changes like a new partner, baby, or home can trigger stress that manifests as inappropriate urination.

“It sounds like this kitty has a condition called Feline Idiopathic Cystitis (FIC),” an inflammation of the bladder with unknown cause, Martin says.

A vet visit to rule out a urinary tract infection is the first step. If the cat is fine, try reducing simple stressors. For example, avoid covered litter boxes because “cats want to see if anyone is coming” so they can defend themselves, and make sure the box is in a quiet, private spot.

Having enough litter boxes in the house is a big help too.

“We use the rule of N + 1 litter boxes, number of cats in the household plus one,” says Martin. If the home is multi-story, make sure there is a litter box on each floor.

Owners can also reduce their cat’s stress by making sure it has plenty of perches to escape to.

Pheromone therapy and prescription diets can help as well. Martin recommends canned food for FIC because its high water content can benefit “cats that may form sediment or stones in the bladder.”

A kitty drinking fountain (less expensive than it sounds) can help cats stay hydrated.

John Bradshaw, an expert in cat behavior at the U.K.’s University of Bristol, says the ink-licking cat may be reacting to a new, unfamiliar odor, perhaps from the previous homeowner’s cat.

Restricting the cat to one or two rooms in the house, “extending its access gradually, and only after the owner has transferred its scent to all the other rooms,” may help, Bradshaw says.

If the issue is a new boyfriend or girlfriend, though, Martin jokes, “your cat may be trying to tell you something about him or her.”

Have a question about the weird and wild world? Tweet me, leave me a note in the comments, or find me on Facebook. Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday.