Pica in Dogs – Definition, Examples, Health Risks & FAQs

pica in dogs

Has your dog ever eaten something completely inedible? Most dogs eat something odd from time to time, and you may brush this off as normal dog behavior. However, consistently eating these unusual objects is indicative of a psychological condition known as pica. Pica in dogs, while treatable, can cause physical damage to your pup if not caught early.

Dog pica may be either behavioral or physiological in origin. While some dogs begin eating objects to cope with stress, others do so to make up for malnutrition. To find out more about pica and how it affects your dog, read on with us.

What is Pica in Dogs?

Pica is the consumption of objects that are not food. This condition is usually a psychological, compulsive behavior that develops due to stress, malnutrition, or physical illness. With pica, a dog might eat objects like toys, rocks, grass, wood, plastic, or cloth. Your dog with pica may selectively eat one non-food object, or eat anything that they can get their paws on. Either way, it is important to treat this condition because ingesting non-food objects can cause serious digestive system blockages, poisoning, and choking.

Examples of Pica in Dogs

Every case of pica is different, and your dog may eat one or several types of inedible objects. These include plastic, cloth, dirt, and rocks. Other examples include wood, hair, and metal. Some dogs will eat anything they can get their paws on without regard for what it is.

Plastic

Plastics that store food are particularly appealing to dogs, and it is not uncommon to find a hungry dog eating a sandwich bag or plastic spoon. If you suspect that your pooch has eaten plastic, don’t panic. Observe them for a few minutes to monitor for any signs of choking. Your next steps will depend on the amount and type of plastic that your dog ate.

Plastics with harmful contents, such as those containing cleaning chemicals, require an immediate trip to the vet. Similarly, broken plastic or plastic with sharp edges can cause punctures in the stomach or intestines, which warrants a trip to the vet. In contrast, a small and soft piece of plastic may travel through your dog’s digestive system without causing significant damage. If in doubt about your dog’s plastic-eating habits, call your vet for advice.

Cloth

Whether your dog ate a sock or your favorite T-shirt, several things could happen in the next few days. If your dog is a large breed and ate a small item of clothing, like a sock, they may simply vomit it up again right away or in a couple of days. If this does not happen, your dog may be able to expel the sock in their poop. This is not always the case, however. If the item of clothing becomes stuck in the stomach or intestines, causing an obstruction. An obstruction is a medical emergency that requires surgery.

Luckily, your vet may be able to remove a sock or other item of clothing using an endoscope before your dog becomes seriously ill. If your dog does not pass the cloth in a few days or starts acting unwell, make sure to ask your vet about an endoscopy to be on the safe side. You will also need to work with your dog to get to the bottom of your dog’s unusual habits. Your dog may eat cloth because their smell makes them valuable. If your dog is prone to resource guarding, they may intentionally swallow the cloth to guard them against other dogs.

Dirt

Eating dirt is a specific type of pica known as geophagia. If your dog exhibits geophagia, they may eat dirt, or soil-like substances such as clay, chalk, and termite mounds. While eating dirt may seem like a harmless pastime, there are several health risks associated with the act. According to the AKC, these risks include intestinal impaction, ingestion of pesticides and parasites, and damage to the teeth, throat, or stomach. Your dog may also risk choking on dirt, especially if the dirt contains rocks.

If your dog makes a habit of eating dirt, be sure to check in with your vet as soon as possible. Your dog will need a full check-up to look for intestinal blockages, dental damage, and any other problems associated with geophagia. Ingestion of soil or clay is also associated with toxoplasmosis and toxocariasis. You must also work with your vet to get to the bottom of your dog’s dirt-eating habits. Eating dirt is one way to make up for missing minerals in the diet, which may point to a nutritional imbalance in your furry friend.

Rocks

Chewing and swallowing rocks can be another form of pica. While some dogs swallow rocks with seemingly no problems, those with pica will ingest a lot more, causing harm over time. If your dog eats a lot of rocks, they may eventually need surgery to remove them. A build-up of rocks in the digestive tract also leads to diarrhea and vomiting. As well as this, chewing and eating rocks can cause dental damage to your pup. This can lead to painful dental problems such as periodontitis.

Health Risks of Dog Pica

Many dogs encounter a range of health risks when pica is not treated quickly. These health risks include gastrointestinal (GI) tract blockages, choking, and poisoning. Other health risks include cuts to the mouth and esophagus, weight loss, and dehydration due to vomiting and diarrhea.

pica health risks
Pica can cause health risks if left untreated.

GI Tract Blockage

One of the many complications of pica is intestinal obstruction. Often, this condition prevents the passage of fluids and food through the digestive tract. This leads to food, fluids, acids, and gases building up behind the blockage. If enough pressure builds, the intestine may rupture, leaking harmful intestinal contents into the body. This is known as peritonitis.

The symptoms of an intestinal obstruction depend on the location and severity of the obstruction. Vomiting is an early sign of a small obstruction. Partial obstruction may cause diarrhea, while a total obstruction can completely stop your dog from going to the toilet. Generally speaking, intestinal obstructions cause severe bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, and difficulty going to the toilet. If peritonitis occurs, your dog may develop a fever and worsening abdominal pain.

Choking

One of the most serious complications of pica is choking. One of the first signs you might notice is coughing and difficulty inhaling. If your dog is choking, they will show extreme distress, drool a lot, and repeatedly gag and retch. Your dog may paw at their mouth and face to try to dislodge the object. Perhaps the most frightening sign of choking is a loss of consciousness, caused by an inability to breathe. Your dog’s skin and mucous membranes may turn blue if this happens.

An object stuck in the throat can cause internal damage. Depending on how long your dog was without oxygen, as well as the damage to the throat, your pet may need hospitalization after the emergency. In some cases, your vet will perform a bronchoscopy (whereby a small camera is inserted into the windpipe) to look closer at the damage. An X-ray may be taken to make sure that the object is gone, as well as checking for other inedible objects in your dog’s body.

Poisoning

Pica can lead to poisoning in dogs. If your dog is prone to pica, make sure to stay up to date on what objects are toxic to your furry friend. Antidepressants, NSAIDs, batteries, dishwasher salt, tobacco, and fertilizers are household items that are highly toxic to dogs. Depending on what toxin your dog eats, their symptoms and the severity of them will vary. Generally speaking, however, a dog who has eaten something poisonous will begin vomiting, drooling, having diarrhea, and going off their food.

If your dog has eaten something poisonous, call your vet and the Pet Poison Helpline right away. Your dog might need emergency treatment. If possible, bring the packaging of the object with you to the vet to help with treatment. From here, your vet will either induce vomiting, give laxatives, or flush the stomach with a stomach tube to remove the toxin. Do not attempt to induce vomiting at home, as doing so can worsen your dog’s condition by damaging the stomach and windpipe.

Symptoms of Pica in Dogs

The most obvious symptom of pica in dogs is eating non-food items. These items have little or no nutritional value. A dog with pica might eat plastic, cloth, dirt, rocks, wood, and any other object in and around the home. But what if you haven’t caught your dog eating anything unusual yet? Are there any other symptoms that point to pica?

The general signs of pica are incredibly varied. Your dog might exhibit vomiting and diarrhea. They might develop bad breath, gas, or cough more. Drooling, abdominal pain, lethargy, and lack of appetite are also common signs of pica. Over time, eating non-food items can cause black, tarry stools, and severe constipation. These signs are indicative of intestinal obstruction. Lastly, if your dog eats something poisonous, they may collapse, have seizures, or lose consciousness.

symptoms of pica in dogs
Keep an eye out for symptoms of pica.

How to Treat Pica in Dogs?

While you may be able to temporarily remove non-food items from your dog’s reach, you must treat the underlying cause for their pica to truly eliminate it. Depending on your dog’s case, pica may be caused by mental distress or an underlying medical condition.

Pica Due to Psychological Issues

Pica is often a symptom of an underlying psychological issue, such as anxiety, boredom, or true compulsive behavior. When not given enough exercise, mental stimulation, and social interaction, dogs seek out their own activities. For example, a dog who is not given chew toys may resort to chewing and eating rocks and wood. This can wear teeth. For dogs who struggle with anxiety, pica may be a way of redirecting their stress. For example, some dogs begin pica when a new animal is introduced to the home.

Lastly, pica can be a true compulsive behavior that mirrors OCD in humans. Examples of compulsive behaviors in dogs include light chasing, spinning, acral lick dermatitis, fence running, and flank sucking. Once the cause of your pet’s pica is found, your vet will discuss a treatment plan with you. Your vet may recommend more physical activity, calming medication, or herbal remedies to calm your dog. A veterinary behaviorist may also put together a training plan for your pup.

Pica Due to Underlying Health Problems

Pica can be triggered by several health conditions. You must bring your dog to the vet to figure out which condition is causing their pica, as this is something that cannot be diagnosed at home. Just a few of the possible medical causes include iron deficiency anemia, inflammatory bowel disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and malnutrition. Some vet-prescribed medicines can increase appetite enough to cause pica too, such as corticosteroids and anti-seizure drugs. If your vet diagnoses your dog with a health condition, a treatment plan will be made for them. Additionally, a special dietary plan may be put in place. Make sure to stick with this treatment plan, and tell your vet if anything seems wrong with your pooch.

Pica in Dogs – FAQs

Have any more questions or concerns about dog pica? Feel free to browse our Frequently Asked Questions section for more details. If in doubt, always ask your vet for advice!

How do you prevent pica in dogs?

Pica can be prevented when caused by behavioral issues. To prevent behavioral cases, there are several things you can do. Make sure that your dog gets plenty of exercise, mental stimulation, and a range of toys. Double-check your breed’s energy levels and adapt your schedule where needed. If your dog is a high-energy breed, like the Weimaraner, you must provide at least two hours of exercise every day. Next, consider environmental enrichment. Your dog needs access to a range of stimulating dog toys, food puzzles, games, and other sources of entertainment to stay healthy and happy.

How common is dog pica?

The exact percentage of dogs in the USA who experience pica is unknown. However, according to the University of Ibadan, 55.7% of dog owners in Nigeria agree that their dogs sometimes eat non-food items. Similarly, a study of canine behavioral problems in Japan found that 34.9% of dogs have pica. This statistic sits just below two other behavioral problems, namely barking at noises inside the house, and barking at unfamiliar visitors. This suggests that pica is a relatively common behavioral problem in dogs. Young dogs are more likely to develop pica than older dogs, according to both studies.

How do I get my dog to stop eating everything?

To stop your dog from eating everything, you must first dog-proof your home. Move any dangerous objects out of your dog’s reach. Next, make sure to correct your dog’s behavior with a calm but firm “no” when you notice it happening. Follow this correction with a redirection, such as a chew toy. Do not correct the behavior once it has already happened. Before your training takes effect, your pup may still eat things that are not food. If this happens, you can take some steps to keep your pooch safe. These include calling your vet for quick advice and continuing to keep objects out of your dog’s reach.

Can pica in dogs be cured?

Pica is a curable condition. However, some cases are very difficult to treat. Pica does not go away on its own and the underlying cause of the problem must be addressed. In most cases, pica treatment is an ongoing project, and dogs can relapse into the behavior after months of improvement. Whilst treating your dog under your vet’s instruction, make sure to keep up the prevention efforts at home. You must keep the non-food objects away from your dog’s reach, and continue to redirect the behavior when you catch it.

Is pica in dogs a mental disorder?

Pica can be an obsessive-compulsive behavior, which makes it a psychological disorder. This diagnosis is only given once problems like malnutrition, anemia, and liver disease are completely ruled out. So what is obsessive-compulsive behavior in dogs? Obsessive-compulsive behaviors are repetitive, unvaried patterns with no apparent purpose. These behaviors are out of context for the situation that they occur in. Over time, this behavior becomes compulsive as the dog loses control over it. This means that the dog becomes unable to choose when to begin and end the behavior. It becomes excessive in duration, frequency, and overall intensity. At its worst, an obsessive-compulsive behavior is extremely difficult to distract from and interferes with a dog’s normal functioning. If not treated by a veterinary behaviorist, pica can become this intense for a dog.

Pica in dogs is a common, treatable, and manageable problem. If your dog develops pica, make sure to check in with your vet as soon as possible.

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