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

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.


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).