The Animal Doctor

DEAR DR. FOX: We have a 5-month-old miniature poodle puppy, and we walk her on a leash in the backyard to urinate and defecate. There are wild rabbits in the area, and they often leave their pellet droppings in the grass. Our puppy gobbles them up like dog treats when she finds them.

Is she likely to contract a disease from this habit? We pull her away quickly whenever we see her doing it, but she likely gets a pellet or two before we can react. -- R.K., St. Louis, Missouri

DEAR R.K.: It is natural for dogs to eat fecal material, a habit called coprophagia, especially from rabbits, sheep, calves and deer. In poor countries, this also includes human poop, especially of toddlers, which endows the dog with an important community hygiene service where there are no diapers. Through this behavior, dogs derive nutrients and potentially essential bacteria (probiotics) for their digestive systems, as well as prebiotic fiber.

Many species engage in coprophagia and geophagia (eating dirt), including humans. Some, like the rabbit, engage in refection, wherein each batch of the animal’s semi-digested poop is eaten again to extract more nutrients.

Dogs indirectly play a role in the spread of beneficial bacteria and associated immunity to other species within the ecosystem. Children from homes with dogs have fewer allergies and shorter duration of infections with fewer antibiotics being prescribed, because they have more beneficial bacteria from their canine companions.

I say “all things in moderation,” and that goes for allowing a dog to eat dirt and the feces of other species, as well. The risk of infection and digestive upset are low, but not improbable. With your dog, consider how many disinfectants you use in and around the home and his virtually bacteria-free diet of cooked canned dog food and baked kibble. He needs to get into some good dirt on occasion. Try some raw foods, and supplements such as good quality probiotics, and bacteria-rich unpasteurized organic plain yogurt and kefir.

Also, it is best to have your dog on a harness when walking: A sharp pull-away command could cause serious neck injury if your young dog is leashed to a collar.

DEAR DR. FOX: My wife and I have just returned from a photo safari in Tanzania. We did see some great wildlife, but also a lot of sad and starving street dogs. Away from the “safe” tourist spots, we were advised that we were more at risk from people than wild animals. You seem to know a lot about what is happening to animals in various countries. What is your take on East Africa? -- L.P., Washington, D.C.

DEAR L.P.: Having given lectures to veterinarians and done field work in Tanzania, I admit to feelings of some deep ancestral connection with this incredible continent, as well as a great sadness for the plight of many people and the demise of the wild. So I offer this brief opinion:

Internecine strife seems inevitable where there is no effective family planning; continued intertribal conflict over natural resources; and disenfranchisement of those resources by corporate colonial agribusiness, mining, energy, timber and other industries. These issues are exacerbated by nonsustainable aid and development projects. Distributing vaccines, antibiotics and antimalarial drugs without food security will only extend human suffering.

The distance between improving the human condition and environmental and wildlife CPR (conservation, protection and restoration) is closed only by enlightened self-interest. The enlightened collective sense of humanity redefines itself as part of the Earth community and not master, slave or owner. Wildlife poaching, illegal trophy hunting, the trade in “bush meat” and land encroachment must all be more effectively policed and prosecuted.

With empathy for indigenous plants and animals and the ecologies shared, a bioethical foundation can be laid for socially just and economically sustainable communities, as I outline in my book “Bringing Life to Ethics.” Eco-tourism can do more harm than good where there is corruption and no local engagement and transparency.

But there are glimmers of hope: There are in-country organizations involved in conservation, wildlife protection, sustainable organic farming and livestock husbandry, as well as the neutering and vaccinating of those wonderful aboriginal village dogs I know well.

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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