There’s no question about it, dogs love to eat. Some more than others. However, have you ever noticed that your dog gobbles up the garbage? Or they like to steal the post from the letterbox and run off to go and munch on the mail?
Dogs eat some weird, and often very disgusting things that will make us humans turn our noses up in disgust. Our dogs don’t seem to mind, however. Eating strange, non-food items is a behaviour called pica.
But why do they do this? We’re going to explain what pica is, all the possible reasons for pica and ways to help your dog kick the habit.
Many dogs aren’t picky when it comes to food and will eat just about anything. However, many will draw the line at non-food objects.
Pica refers to the peculiar habit of ingesting non-food items over and over again. Grass, sticks, rocks, sand, toys, socks, towels, absolutely anything can be fair game for your dog to devour. Even their own or other animal’s faeces can tickle your dog’s tastebuds (many pooches seem to absolutely love the stuff!), although, this revolting habit is referred to as coprophagia rather than pica.
Pica is not just about chewing and biting on the non-food objects, it’s about actually swallowing and ingesting them.
The habit can be considered a compulsive behaviour and it can be a really big annoyance in your life. To add to the frustration of pica, many dogs seem to prefer something that’s got their owners scent on. This is why dogs with this habit can be partial to consuming your socks and towels. However, pica can be more than just irritating, it can actually cause your pup some danger so it needs to be addressed.
A multitude of things can trigger pica in your pooch. Usually, the reasons can be distinguished into either behavioural or medical reasons.
It might sound strange that your dog would decide to go and eat your socks to get your attention, but it’s true, and it works. Seeking out your attention because they are simply bored and looking for something to do is a very common reason why dogs display this strange behaviour.
They might be lacking exercise, mental stimulation or even just company. Your dog will know you’ll be angry or worried when they’ve eaten something strange, and as a result you’ll rush to their aid or give them a good telling off. Even though this type of attention isn’t nice, like cuddles or praise, it’s still attention at the end of the day. Giving your dog your interest is exactly what they were looking for, it’s a type of positive reinforcement.
Pica in response to anxiety or stress is another behavioural reason for this peculiar habit. Chewing, licking and biting is a soothing and relaxing behaviour for dogs, so it’s no surprise they turn to this when they’re feeling worked up.
Try and see if something has changed in your dog’s environment or routine, this can cause a lot of anxiety and lead to the compulsion. Is there another dog in the household, has a new person come round to visit? Whatever it is, try and pay attention to why they could be doing it.
Separation anxiety is probably one of the number one factors for pica. Dogs crave social contact and it’s not an uncommon occurrence for many pups to get anxious when they’re left home alone. However, this anxiety can be severe, to the point of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is the behaviour your dog exhibits when you’re not there, whether it’s when you leave for a long day at work or if you’re just nipping to the shops for 10 minutes. It can arise in several forms, destruction, whining, barking, howling, toilet accidents and even ingesting anything that they can find.
Although psychological triggers are the more prominent cause of pica, it can also be triggered by several medical issues. Some dogs may feel the need to search out more food, to provide them with the nutrients and nourishment they feel like they’re lacking in their diets.
Endocrine (hormonal) disorders such as diabetes, Cushing’s disease and thyroid issues also cause an increased appetite, making your dog scavenge for anything else they can acquire, no matter how strange.
Gastrointestinal parasites could also be at the heart of the habit, so it’s key to take your dog to the vet to see if they can identify any underlying illnesses.
Absolutely any dog of any breed can exhibit this strange habit, much to any pooch parents dismay.
If your dog is a greedy guts, then this behaviour might be more prominent, they’ll try and snaffle a snack from just about anywhere. This might be especially true in Labradors, they’re notorious for their gluttonous nature, never turning down a snack.
Overall, the behaviour is mostly seen in adolescent and adult dogs, rather than senior pooches.
Every puppy owner has been there, you bring home your new, adorable little pup and after a few days they turn into manic chewing, biting machines. Is this pica?
In their puppyhood, a puppy will likely ingest several non-food items. However, this is them just being a puppy rather than any kind of behavioural issue, no matter how annoying it is, it’s completely normal! Much like babies, puppies use their mouths to explore the world around them, this is their way of investigating and learning what is and what’s not food.
They do also need something to soothe those achy teeth on, and annoyingly, many seem to go for the TV remote, your sunglasses or just anything that’s yours rather than their own toys!
Due to this, most will end up swallowing something they shouldn’t. Don’t fret too much about the behaviour continuing into adulthood, most pups will grow out of the phase after a while. However, it’s a good idea to still try and stop the behaviour by swapping whatever they’re chewing for a toy.
Unfortunately, pica can be dangerous for your dog.
Your dog could choke on whatever they’ve eaten, or they could even consume something toxic. For example, a grass and plant-eating pooch could find themselves tucking into a potentially poisonous plant.
If they’re partial to eating hard objects such as rocks or plastic toys, they may even experience some dental issues like a broken tooth due to crunching down too hard on these items.
However, it’s usually not the actual items they’ve ingested that cause the potential risk, it’s the blockage they can create in the digestive tract. Your dog will be unable to digest any non-food item, and some will be too large to pass through in their stools. Alongside this, some of these items may get twisted in the intestine. Either of these issues can cause a major illness that’ll require surgery.
Sometimes, dogs with pica can encounter perforation, which is where a sharp object that they’ve consumed pierces through an organ, namely the stomach or intestine. This can put your pooch at serious risk and even be life-threatening, so it’ll require urgent and immediate surgery.
An obstruction in the bowels is surprisingly quite a common canine issue, due to the countless weird items they ingest on the daily. If you know your dog is prone to pica, watch out for some of these typical signs of gastrointestinal blockage:
Struggling to pass a stool
The first step for diagnosing pica is actually noticing that they’re doing it. Some dogs are crafty, eating their strange item in secret, so it might not be until you notice a change in their health that you realise that’s what they’ve been up to. However, if you’re around when it happens, your vet will be able to diagnose pica really quickly, providing you give them the history of what you’ve noticed.
Your vet will probably ask about your pooch’s eating habits and then complete a full physical medical examination to check for any medical problems. This may include blood, urine and stool tests. However, most cases of pica are down to some kind of behavioural problem.
Most of the time, pica will not go away on its own, it’ll be an ongoing project for you to embark on with your pooch. However, if any underlying medical issues are identified by the vet, this might have been causing the habit, so the treatment of this may stop the pica problem.
However, there are several other potential triggers for pica, all with several different ways to help stop it.
A change in diet might help the problem. Soil-eating is a very common type of pica that’s triggered by a nutritional deficiency, and grass-eating can be linked to a lack of fibre.
Therefore, switching up their food to one that provides your pooch with all the right nutrients can sometimes completely eradicate the problem.
Pure is a complete and balanced dog food way of feeding your pooch, packed full of high fibre vegetables and carbohydrates to ensure they’re getting everything they need at dinnertime.
Also, it can even help to change how often your dog eats their meals. Several dogs eat their daily food requirements as just one meal, and most are totally fine with this. However, it can sometimes help to change to multiple smaller meals as more frequent, smaller portioned meals can aid digestion and help your dog receive all the nutrients they need.
Despite this, pica is most commonly down to behavioural issues, which will require a lot of time, patience and perseverance from you get your dog to kick the habit.
It can be incredibly challenging to modify this behaviour, even more so if they’ve been doing it for a long time. To solve it, it’ll usually be a combination of multiple tips.
No matter how lazy and laidback your dog is, every dog needs exercise and mental stimulation to keep their fitness levels up and their brains ticking. Dogs displaying pica might genuinely just be bored and need more things to do in the day.
Consider your dog’s breed, size and age, are they getting the right amount of exercise in the day?
Dogs don’t only need physical exercise, they need to exercise their brains too. To bust the boredom, try teaching your dog a new trick, playing hide and seek with them, or using lickimats and puzzle toys. We have a full list of mental enrichment activities for your dog here. Even just provide your pooch with some new, fun dog toys that they’ll be unable to swallow to keep them entertained.
If you do think pica is happening because your dog is genuinely bored and they want your attention, it’s essential that you try and enrich their lives to stop them from displaying this dangerous habit. Also, you’ll benefit from having a genuinely more relaxed and content dog.
If you think that stress and anxiety is at the centre of this behaviour, you must try and work out the trigger of this feeling. Where do they normally do it? Has anyone new entered the house? Have you changed something in their routine or environment? Whatever it is, there’s something that might be causing your dog’s anxiety levels to skyrocket.
One of the most common stress-inducing events for plenty of pets is when they get left home alone. Separation anxiety is a big problem that needs to be addressed, not only because they’re putting themselves in danger but because it means your dog isn’t happy.
You obviously need to leave them home alone at plenty of points in their life, so you don’t want them to be so worked up every time it happens. You need to start slowly to solve separation anxiety. Leave your pooch for a few minutes at a time and return with praise if they were good. Gradually build this up.
Prepping the area before you leave is also a great way to help, for example:
Toys such as a Kong filled with Pure will provide your pup with food, fun and some mental stimulation for a little while
Exercise your dog before you leave to tire them out and encourage them to relax
Ensure they’ve got a comfortable space with water, a bed and plenty of toys.
Don’t leave non-food items that they could get their paws on in reach
You may feel like the anxiety towards being alone is unresolvable, in which case you might need to enlist the help of a trained behaviourist.
Of course, one of the most seemingly simple ways to prevent your pup from eating something weird is by blocking their access to said item.
Some things will be easy to hide, however, if their favourite snack is soil, grass, rocks, or just anything that’s in their environment 24/7, this tactic will be pretty much impossible.
Also, even if you do hide your socks, magazines and books out of reach, many crafty canines will still find a way to retrieve it!
When out for a stroll with your pooch, if you notice them attempting to swallow a stone, or some other non-food item they can find, try and distract them. If they successfully walk away and ignore the object, use treats, rewards and plenty of praise to positively reinforce the behaviour.
You need to make whatever you’ve got for them much more exciting than the object on the floor. Teaching the ‘leave it’ command can be of benefit too. However, this one is definitely tricky so that’ll take a lot of time and work to crack.
Dogs love to eat food, and some dogs love to eat stuff that isn’t food. It’s just natural, canine curiosity.
However, if your dog is eating something strange, especially something like stones or plastic toys, it’s important that you try your best to prevent this habit to reduce the possibility of any risks that come with this behaviour.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.