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.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
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.

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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.


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.)


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).