We all know that dogs don't have the most discerning palates, but in some cases, a compulsive desire to eat non-food items is caused by a condition called pica. Today, our Rainbow City vets explain what pica is and how you can treat it.
What is pica?
While it's normal for dogs to enjoy chewing, it can become a problem if your dog is moving past chewing designated toys to eating things around them that are not food. In some situations, the need to eat objects that aren't food becomes a compulsive condition known as pica. Dogs with pica may eat everything from dirt, stones, and grass to metal, garbage, cloth, or even feces.
This compulsive disorder can not only ruin household items, but it can also be very dangerous for your pup. Dog's that eat non-food items are at risk for health conditions such as intestinal obstructions, choking, poisoning, or injury that could be caused by eating a sharp object.
There are many underlying conditions that can cause pica. If you find your dog is eating everything and anything, you should arrange an appointment with your veterinarian to get to the root of the problem and develop a treatment plan.
Symptoms of Pica
The main symptom of pica in dogs is eating non-food objects. However, there are a number of other symptoms that may occur as a result of eating these items. In some situations, your dog will understand that eating non-food items is wrong and do it secretly, such as when you let them out into the backyard for a few moments.
Here are some symptoms to look out for. If you notice any of these in your dog, regardless of whether or not you see them eating non-food items, a trip to the vet should be arranged:
- Lack of appetite for regular food
- Bad breath
- Infection (caused by consuming contaminated objects)
- Straining or inability to defecate
- Black, tarry stools
- Abdominal pain
- Excess drooling
Causes of Pica
In most cases, the cause of pica in dogs is psychological, but it may also stem from certain medical issues or poor nutrition. It's important that you visit your vet to rule out any physical health issues before trying behavioral treatment methods for pica.
Non-psychological Causes of Pica
There are a number of medical conditions that can cause a dog to eat strange objects, such as dietary deficiencies, general gastrointestinal problems, pancreatic insufficiencies, stomach pain, diabetes mellitus (causing an increase in appetite), or anemia.
For example, if your dog is iron deficient they may instinctively eat dirt in an attempt to recover some of the lost nutrients.
When you bring your dog to the vet for compulsive eating, your vet will perform a thorough examination and recommend additional diagnostic testing to rule out any underlying health conditions or deficiencies that may be responsible for the condition.
Psychological Causes of Pica
Once your vet has ruled out any underlying physical health conditions that could be causing your dog's pica, they will most likely recommend you look at behavioral causes.
There are several psychological reasons dogs might suffer from pica, including:
- Anxiety, especially separation anxiety
- Lack of mental or physical stimulation
- Lack of socialization
Treatment of Pica
The treatment for pica in dogs depends on whether the condition is psychological or physical.
For psychological behavior issues, increasing the amount of exercise your pup gets can reduce stress and boredom. You can also try reinforcing good behavior by swapping out non-food items with treats when your dog picks them up. You may want to consider working with a professional trainer or dog behavior specialist to help you with this issue.
If the issue occurs mainly when your dog is left in the house alone, you may be required to crate your pup to prevent them from getting into something that could hurt them. If it is a viable option for you and your dog, you may also consider bringing them to doggy daycare a few times a week to increase their socialization and reduce the time they spend alone.
While working on your dog's behavioral issues be sure to dog-proof your house to remove dangerous objects. You might also consider using a non-toxic "anti-chew" spray, and in severe cases, muzzling your dog when they're not within eyesight to prevent them from eating non-food items.
If the cause is medical, your vet will treat it accordingly. Depending on the cause, they may prescribe medication or recommend dietary changes.
Situations That Likely Aren't Caused by Pica
Sometimes dogs eat things they shouldn't. If your dog only occasionally eats some garbage or other non-food items, your dog likely isn't suffering from pica—a far more regular, compulsive behavior.
Dogs may regularly gravitate towards garbage or dead animals because it smells like food. In the process of eating the garbage they may consume non-food items accidentally, but they are not seeking them out.
Puppies are also naturally inclined to explore the world around them with their mouths and this may lead them to eat things they shouldn't. Typically, with training and age, they will grow out of these inclinations. However, if the behavior persists into adulthood it may develop into pica so it is a good idea to work on training your dog while they are young.
As disturbing as it may be, it is also fairly normal for dogs to eat poop. While dogs with pica may compulsively eat poop, there are many other reasons your dog might eat feces. For example, all mother dogs have an instinctive urge to eat their puppies’ poop. After giving birth and for the following weeks, female dogs lick each puppy’s bottom until he poops and or pees. Then, they swallow the results. Sometimes, this behavior lasts beyond when it should.
Regular consumption of feces is a condition known as coprophagia and should be discussed with your vet as it also could indicate underlying health issues.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.