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Pica: Eating Things That Aren’t Food

Learn why your dog is eating rocks, dirt, cloth, or other non-foods, and what to do about it.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
November 29, 2011
Episode #128

Dogs and humans often differ on the question of what constitutes food. For canines, half-rotten chicken meat? Check. Horse poop? Check. But even though people think they’re disgusting, horse poop and stinky meat do qualify as edibles for dogs. They may cause indigestion, but eating them isn’t abnormal.

The condition known as pica – habitually eating nonedible items -- is another story. Something’s wrong when your dog ingests rocks, dirt, light bulbs, coins, tennis balls, or your underwear. This week, what’s up with pica, and what to do about it.

The podcast version of this episode is brought to you by Betterment, an easier way to invest. Visit www.betterment.com/dogtrainer.

If your dog has pica, the first thing on your to-do list is a visit to the vet. Possible medical causes for pica include scary things like brain lesions, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and portosystemic shunt, an abnormality of the circulatory system that can destroy the liver. And there are more. Even if it’s unlikely that your dog has such a serious condition, best to make sure. If Dogalini is sick, she needs treatment. Besides, behavior modification won’t work very well if her pica arises from a physical illness.

If your dog eats weird things, your first stop is the vet’s office – a serious health condition may be the cause.

Okay, you’ve been to the vet and your dog gets a clean bill of health. Whew! But she’s still trying to swallow rocks and eat the foam stuffing out of her bed. Let’s take a look at 4 possible reasons why:

Reason #1: Anxiety and Boredom

Anxiety leads to plenty of weird behaviors, in animals as well as in people (nail biting, anyone?). Suppose your dog has signs of separation anxiety, and also eats plastic bags, but only when she’s alone. It’s a good bet that the two are connected, and that treating one will treat the other too. (Put the plastic bags out of reach, regardless.)

Canine compulsive disorder is the doggy analogue of obsessive compulsive disorder in humans. Like human OCD, CCD may have a genetic basis. Repetitive, uninterruptible pacing, licking, circling, and shadow chasing are common forms that CCD takes; in some dogs, the disorder manifests as eating weird things. I’ve grouped CCD with anxiety because the two are so closely related – in vulnerable animals, compulsive behaviors often seem to arise from stress, frustration, and conflict

Lonely dogs who don’t get enough physical exercise or mental stimulation may give up and just lie there, but they may also look for things to do. Many dogs find it relaxing to chew – one reason trainers and behavior specialists constantly recommend interactive food-dispensing toys – and if Zippy has nothing appropriate to occupy his jaws, he may turn to whatever’s around, edible or otherwise. This kind of behavior is a cousin of CCD – when you see an isolated, understimulated dog eating rocks, think boredom, frustration, anxiety.

Reason #2: A Way to Get Attention

We’re back to boredom and loneliness here, but the situation isn’t quite so dire. In an earlier episode, I explained how many of us accidentally teach our dogs to nab our shoes and remote controls as a way of creating excitement and interest and getting our attention when they’re full of energy they have no outlet for. Eating a ballpoint pen or two can have the same result. (So can chewing it and leaving the pieces on the floor, but that doesn’t qualify as pica.) Attention is an important reward for a bored dog who’s feeling a little left out of the social swim.

Reason #3: Competition

That’s competition as the dog sees it. A couple of weeks ago, a friend who’s a vet tech at an emergency hospital told me about a dog who came in for surgical removal of a torn-up tennis ball. He’d found it in the park and started chewing it; his guardian got upset – maybe she was afraid he’d eat it! – and tried to grab it away from him. Down the hatch!

This episode doesn’t qualify as true pica, because the dog didn’t normally eat tennis balls. But a few episodes of eating indigestibles that Zippy’s guardian tries to take away from him, and a habit is born. Zippy responds to torn-up tennis balls by eating them. Pica. You’ve probably already figured out that there’s a little bit of resource guarding going on here, too.

Reason #4: Accidental “Pica”

Say you don’t clear the table right away after you finish the takeout. That plastic fork covered with alfredo sauce smells so good. Dogalini snags it, yummy yummy, and in her enthusiasm for the creamy cheesy goodness she winds up eating the fork. Not pica. You do have a trip to the veterinary emergency hospital in your immediate future, though.

What to Do About Pica

In the case of the Accidental Plastic Fork, the cure is to clear the table right away, or put up a gate so Dogalini can’t get to the dining room. Fixes for true pica also focus on prevention, on alleviating boredom and stress and treating CCD if those are at work. If your dog started eating inedibles in a race to keep you from taking them, you can use reward-based methods to teach him to drop things on your cue. Also teach him to come reliably when called, so you can call him to you away from tempting things. Reward him generously for his good response!

If your dog has true pica, make sure she’s getting plenty of exercise and play time, as well as reward-based training to tire her busy brain, lower her stress level, and help her relax. Any food you don’t use as training rewards should come out of interactive food-dispensing toys – Kongs, Amaze-a-Balls, and Dog Pyramids are just three of the many excellent options.

School yourself to pay attention to your dog when she’s doing things you like – not only when she’s responding to your cues, but also when she’s just hanging around, being quiet and relaxed or working on a chew toy that you gave her.

Make Your Dog’s Life Less Stressful

Identify the stressors in your dog’s life – how many of them can you get rid of? For example, if your neighbor’s leaf blower frightens your dog, ask your neighbor to let you know when he plans to use it. You can pick that time to take Dogalini for a long hike (which will do her good, anyway). If someone in your family treats your dog harshly, find ways to help that person change their behavior. If your dog may have separation anxiety or CCD, or if she generally seems worried or nervous much of the time, medication is appropriate. Talk to your vet or, better yet, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.

Physically prevent Zippy from eating dangerous things. Keep such items put away, out of reach. Or, if Zippy eats things he finds outside, you may need to teach him to wear a muzzle to keep him safe.

Some trainers suggest using remote punishers, such as citronella collars and air horns. Bad idea! The punishment won’t alleviate any underlying stress or anxiety your dog may have – in fact, it’s likely to have the opposite effect. Also, anxiety and boredom will find new outlets if you cut one off without doing anything about the basic problem. Finally, the punishment will fail if you’re even a little inconsistent about it, or if the behavior you’re trying to get rid of is just too important to the dog.

Bottom line: An ounce of prevention is worth a dozen emergency gastric surgeries. The best treatments for pica are exactly like the best care you can take of any dog – plenty of exercise, attention paid for good behavior, and lots of fun and enrichment in life. Go forth!
And when you come back, write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com, visit me on Facebook, and follow me as Dogalini on Twitter. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

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