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Why Does My Dog Eat That? Explaining Pica

By: Dr. Amanda Landis-Hanna
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Pica—Also known as “Why does my dog eat that?”

Spring is here, and with it comes lovely green grass, which apparently calls to Sophie.  Twice this weekend I interrupted her eating a lovely salad of grass and thistle flowers.  The good news is that these are non-toxic, and her behavior is pretty common.  She is displaying pica, a condition of eating non-food items.

Pica is common in dogs, but it can be seen in people as well.  It is well documented, but incompletely understood.  There can be a number of contributing factors, including disease, improper diet, behavioral abnormalities, or just plain boredom.  Sometimes what your pet is eating may give you a clue as to WHY she is eating it. 

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Grass: Grass is the classic example.  Some dogs eat it when they are nauseous or having gastrointestinal upset.  In these cases it may be seen in the vomit or feces.  Other dogs truly seem to enjoy vegetation.  Sophie, for instance, is a voracious eater (we struggle with her weight) and she often gets green beans and cauliflower for snacks.  She may be choosing her “light salad” of grass as a midafternoon snack.

Feces: I frequently get calls about eating feces.  Not only is it unappealing to us as humans, but many pet parents worry about the potential for parasite spread.  Fecal-oral contact, where fecal debris enters the body through the mouth, is more common than you might expect (even if it is repulsive).  For this reason, I always discourage face kissing from dogs, as they may have fecal material on their tongue or lips that they share with the recipient of the kiss.  While unappealing, keep in mind that dogs are often fastidious as clean their rectum with their tongue.

Causes for this type of pica can vary.  Parasites are a frequent issue, as your dog may feel compelled to eat feces due to an internal parasite.  Unfortunately by eating feces, she can re-infect herself, causing an ongoing issue.  Poor diet is a less common cause.  Behavioral issues, such as anxiety, stress, or boredom may also contribute.

Rocks: This form of pica is less common, but I mention it because it can lead to severe side effects.  Usually, if many rocks or even a single large rock are ingested, surgery needs to be considered.  Large objects (foreign bodies) can obstruct the outflow (exit) of the stomach, causing severe pain and risking rupture of the stomach.  In addition, rocks can break teeth if they are chewed.  So potential damage may not be localized to a single location.  Some dogs develop rock eating due to boredom, or due to easy access.  One of the worst cases of this condition I treated was a dog that would swallow rocks on his morning walks with his owner. He ate the stones all around him as they strolled.  After treatment, his owner started taking him for a jog instead.  The faster pace meant that he didn’t have time to ingest rocks.

As you can see, there are a number of types of pica, as well as a number of reasons why dogs may participate in this behavior.  A variety of treatment options are available.  I always recommend treating the underlying cause, if one may be found.  For instance, if a parasite is causing pica, treating the parasite may help stop the behavior.  Anxiety, stress, and boredom may also need to be addressed.  Many dogs respond well to enriching their environment.  Enrichment may be as simple as adding in a puzzle toy, or a timed food dispenser.  In some cases, however, anti-anxiety medications may be useful to help stop the pica.  Medication to alter the pH of feces is available, if fecal pica is a concern.  

If your dog is eating anything unusual, acutely or chronically, it is best to discuss it with your veterinarian.  She can review your dog’s activities and nutrition, and help provide additional guidance. 


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Posted on Apr 13, 2015 by VOYCE Behavior & Training
Vets & Experts