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

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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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).