Eating things that are not edible - pica in dogs

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Eating things that are not edible - pica in dogs

Pica is a term used to describe behaviour in dogs where they regularly eat items that are not considered edible. This sometimes includes repeated eating one specific item such as stones, but can also be eating a range of items such as items of clothing, sticks, plastic, cat litter, soil or whatever they can find. Read more about this curious habit in this article.

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Pica is more common in dogs than cats. It is much less common in cats, who tend to be much more fussy about what they consume. You can read more about pica in cats here. Some of this behaviour can be considered normal. For example, puppies will often eat things they shouldn’t and often use chewing when they are young as a way of exploring the world they live in. Pica becomes a problem when it is repeated and compulsive. It can lead to obstructions in the gut. Read our article on gastrointestinal foreign bodies for more information on this topic.

Causes of pica in dogs

Establishing the cause of pica in your individual dog can be difficult. The list below suggests some of the possible triggers:

  • Behavioural causes - stress/anxiety, boredom, learned behaviour. For example if the owner laughs or fusses the dog for picking up certain items this may reinforce the behaviour

  • Any condition or medication that increases hunger - diabetes mellitus, treatment with steroids (particularly at high doses), appetite stimulants such as mirtazepine, malabsorption syndromes

  • Diet related - an unbalanced or low quality diet may cause your dog to crave things they are not receiving in their normal diet, so ensure you are using a high quality complete diet appropriate for your dog’s life stage

  • Certain clinical diseases - some conditions have been associated with pica, such as anaemia, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), liver disease and anaemia

What can I do to prevent pica in dogs?

Some dogs have very compulsive behaviour that is difficult to resolve. The following steps will help reduce the behaviour and prevent it occurring in the first place:

  • Ensure your dog is being fed a high quality diet appropriate for their life stage and is a healthy weight

  • Do not reinforce any behaviour which involves picking up items, try to exchange any item they have with something else like a toy or a treat. If the picking up of unwanted items is a learnt behaviour, it may be worth consulting with a dog coach or behaviourist to discuss techniques to reduce this

  • In extreme cases, using a muzzle, such as a basket muzzle might be useful in certain situations like on walks to prevent scavenging. A correctly-fitted basket muzzle is recommended to ensure that they can pant. Do not use a muzzle that stops your dogs from being able to pant and cool down

  • If pica is a particular problem in your dog, it is worth having a consultation with a vet, who may recommend screening for any underlying health issues with investigations, such as a blood test

  • If your dog does tend to eat things they shouldn’t, be careful you do not leave them unattended in environments where they can easily pick things up

  • Make sure they have appropriate levels of exercise and mental stimulation to reduce boredom. For adult dogs, a minimum of a one hour walk or interaction a day is recommended. High energy breeds, such as collies, spaniels or huskies, may require more exercise. Mental stimulation could involve hiding treats or teaching them a new trick. Using interactive treats such as a KONG, filled with a little peanut butter and then frozen, will keep them occupied for a period of time

  • Managing anxiety - if your dog is anxious or has behavioural issues, such as separation anxiety, which drives their pica, it is important to address them. You may require a dog coach or behaviourist to help with specific problems

When to see your vet?

  • To investigate any underlying conditions, which be causing pica

  • Training is having no effect on your dogs pica behaviour

  • Managing anxiety

Still have questions?

If you would like more advice on nutrition or raw feeding, please book an online video appointment to have a chat with one of our FirstVet nutrition vets.

Published: 24/06/2021

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