Dogs are widely known for their dietary indiscretion. From chewing your shoes or eating toilet paper, it’s somewhat typical for a canine to consume inedible items. However, this habit can also turn into a life-threatening and obsessive condition called pica. In this post, we discuss more about this condition and how to treat pica in dogs to avoid its fatal consequences.
Important reminder: the points we discussed here are based on our individual experiences as pet owners. It doesn’t replace the professional diagnosis and treatment from a licensed veterinarian. While we aim to give you more information about the condition, we still highly encourage pet owners to consult their trusted vets.
What is pica in dogs?
Pica is a condition characterized by the ingestion of inedible items among dogs. Unlike typical diet indiscretion in dogs, pica is obsessive and compulsive. Oftentimes, dogs suffering from pica will swallow toxic and awful-tasting items that a normal canine won’t usually put in its mouth.
Moreover, pica isn’t exclusive to dogs. It can affect almost every mammal, including humans. But just the same, the condition involves eating non-edible items.
A dog with pica can eat just about anything: rocks, paper, plastic, glass, and even feces of other animals. Aside from an upset stomach, dogs suffering from pica can also face life-threatening consequences.
Fatal effects of pica may occur if the dog ingests toxic items like fertilizer, cleaning agents, and rat poison. Also, large items can block the dog’s throat and lead to an inability to breathe.
But even if the ingested item passes through the canine’s esophagus, it can still trigger intestinal blockages. This condition can become fatal in a matter of hours, especially if the blockage causes the dog’s stomach to twist.
In some cases, dogs with pica may need emergency surgery to remove the inedible item they consumed. Take note that it’s not just stiff items that could block a dog’s intestines. Even things as soft as a cotton sock or a clump of toilet paper can kill a canine when ingested.
This is the reason why you have to be concerned if your dog exhibits potential symptoms of pica. The veterinarian is always the best person to consult, so your dog will be diagnosed and treated immediately.
Signs of pica in dogs
It’s not easy to identify or diagnose pica during its infancy. It’s because the symptoms are typical to most dogs, especially breeds that are known to be mouthy or aggressive chewers.
Also, symptoms may vary per dog. But to give you an idea, here are the most common symptoms observed in canines with pica:
- Vomiting inedible items
- Black, tarry stools
- Poor appetite
- Frequently biting and swallowing inedible items
- Frequent gastrointestinal upset
- Intestinal blockages
Most of these symptoms are already secondary to the consumption of non-food items. The best way to determine if your dog has pica is to catch the canine in the act of ingesting the item or object.
Nevertheless, the symptoms mentioned above indicate that your dog has been eating inedible items when you’re not looking. So if you doggo gets diarrhea and vomits all the time despite having a good diet, you may want to have it checked at the vet.
Also, if your dog is straining to poop but nothing comes out, it might be dealing with an intestinal blockage brought by its ingested item.
Causes of pica in dogs
In general, pica can either be behavioral or medical. Due to this nature, it can be challenging to diagnose. There’s also a possibility that pica in dogs is an overlapping condition with another health problem.
But to help you understand the condition better, here are the most common causes of pica in dogs.
🐶Behavioral causes of pica
Bored dogs tend to be more prone to pica than other canines. When a dog is left alone at home with nothing to do, it will find ways to soothe its boredom. Unfortunately, this coping mechanism could be eating various items around the house.
On the other hand, pica can be attributed to learned behavior. If your dog realizes that eating random items can solicit your attention, it will continue to do so. In this scenario, your dog sees the attention as a reward for the negative behavior; thus, reinforcing it further.
Moreover, dogs with depression and anxiety can slowly develop pica, together with other negative habits like incessant barking and destructive chewing.
🐶Medical causes of pica
Many cases of pica have a medical correlation. Here’s a quick rundown of medical-related causes of pica that you should get your dog checked for:
- Neurological issues. Canines with declining cognition will often consume inedible items to the point that it’s already classified as pica. Just about any neurological disease can trigger symptoms of pica not just in dogs, but also in humans.
- Digestive problems. Dogs suffering from poor nutrition will often try to compensate by ingesting various items. This behavior can become very compulsive, especially if the dog is left unfed for long periods. Also, low levels of digestive enzymes may push a dog to swallow various items in and outside of your home.
- Parasitism. Intestinal parasites can wreak havoc not just on your dog’s digestion, but also on your pet’s eating habits. A canine may feel compelled to eat just about anything to ease its upset stomach.
- Metabolic conditions. Dogs with diabetes and endocrine problems are likely to develop pica. It’s because these conditions can mess up a canine’s hormones, which can lead to abnormal cravings and insatiable hunger.
- Drug-induced causes. Some medications, including steroids and progestins, can trigger excessive eating in canines. If paired with other causes here, a dog may develop a serious case of pica.
How to treat pica in dogs
There’s no single cure for pica in dogs. The treatment of this condition is as multi-faceted as its causes, so the expertise of a veterinarian should be involved in the process.
To begin with the treatment, the veterinarian will have to determine whether your dog’s pica is medical or behavioral in nature. From there, the vet will formulate a possible treatment plan.
Overall, pet owners can also practice the following steps:
🐶Get your dog checked at the vet
Before you jump to conclusions, it’s best to get your dog checked at the vet first. Make sure that you provide the veterinarian a list of symptoms you observed to make diagnosis much easier and more accurate.
First, the veterinarian will have to rule out potential medical causes of pica. The process may or may not include bloodwork, stool/urine test, and X-ray in case there are concerns about intestinal blockages.
Aside from that, the vet will observe your dog’s behavior. This is to identify whether the canine has signs of neurological disorders that could be contributing factors to pica.
If the vet didn’t see any medical problems on your dog, the cause of pica is likely behavioral. The vet can still advise about this aspect, but it’s best to hire a pet behavioral expert to get to the bottom of the problem.
🐶Remove your dog’s access to inedible items
Blocking your dog’s access to inedible items is the next step to avoid further risks. You can put a muzzle on your dog if you can’t isolate it in a separate room.
If you are to use a muzzle on your dog, you should watch out for overheating. This is much so if your dog is a brachycephalic breed, like English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and so on. Overall, I recommend muzzles with enough opening for the dog to keep its mouth ajar for thermoregulation.
Aside from that, you should remove any object off the floor, that your dog could chew. If your pet targets the furniture, you can try spraying it with bitter apple. The bad taste of this spray will help deter the chewing habits of your dog.
🐶Provide more physical and mental stimulation
Another way to help curb symptoms of pica in dogs is to provide alternatives to the behavior.
For example, instead of eating your shoes, you can engage your dog in chewing KONG toys filled with peanut butter. This will help divert your dog’s attention into something productive, not to mention that such interactive toys also provide mental stimulation to your pet.
It also helps to drain your dog’s excess energy by providing enough exercise. It can be walks around the neighborhood or playtime sessions indoors. Just make sure that the level of physical stimulation suits the needs of your dog.
Overall, this step is very helpful if your dog has pica that’s behavioral in nature.
For dogs with anxiety-related pica, sedatives can help a lot in reducing the symptoms. The sedatives will calm your dog, so it won’t resort to eating inedible items to soothe its anxious feeling.
It’s important to discuss this option with your dog’s veterinarian to ensure your pet’s safety. Your dog’s veterinarian can recommend the right sedative and dosage you should follow.
Nevertheless, there are over-the-counter calming aids that you can try. One good example here is artificial pheromones, which mimic the scent of mother dogs. It helps calm the nerves of anxious canines and potentially reduce their compulsive eating habits.
🐶Switch to a high-fiber diet
A high-fiber diet can fix pica if the condition is triggered by poor nutrition. Sometimes, dogs seek grass and anything that resembles it to compensate for the low fiber content of their meals. In this case, a new dog food formula might just be the solution you’re looking for.
Still, I highly recommend that you consult your dog’s veterinarian about this potential change. This is much so if your dog has a history of digestive problems and food allergies.
If you don’t like to change your dog’s food, you can add fiber into its diet by feeding your dog with high-fiber treats. These are available over-the-counter and marketed just like any dog treat you can find on the market.
🐶Tackle canine anxiety head-on
Canine separation anxiety can trigger a slew of other behavioral problems, including pica. Tackling this problem as early as possible will help prevent your dog from eating inedible items.
Training and desensitization are the most effective ways to combat the risk of separation anxiety in dogs. It’s also important to understand that some breeds just can’t be left alone for long periods.
🐶Discuss medication options with the vet
If your dog’s case of pica is getting worse despite the steps above, you can discuss medication options with the vet.
For example, if your dog’s obsession with inedible items is due to severe anxiety or depression, the vet may prescribe an SSRI.
SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This drug is an anti-depressant that increases the availability of the serotonin hormone. On the surface, this drug will help your dog become less anxious, which can directly reduce the symptoms of pica.
Another medication that veterinarians use to treat behavioral disorders in dogs is TCA or tricyclic antidepressant. It’s very effective in easing separation anxiety, excessive grooming, excessive marking, and other obsessive behavior.
Whatever medication the vet prescribes, it will only be effective in fighting pica if administered properly and in the proper dosage. And if negative side effects occur, you should inform the vet right away.
Risk factors of pica in dogs
Any dog can develop pica, but there are risk factors that may increase the canine’s likelihood of suffering from this condition. Below are some of these factors that you should be aware of:
- Being weaned too early. Dogs that have been weaned off their mother too early are more likely to develop pica. This is the reason why it’s important to let the litter bond with its mother until it’s 8 weeks old. This way, the canine will have enough time to nurse from its mother dog to prevent the risk of having eating problems.
- Prolonged confinement. Dogs that are locked up alone for long periods may start to chew and eat through inedible items. The same goes for canines that are left in barren yards without anything to get busy at.
- Unstimulating environments. If a dog is raised in a very unstimulating environment, it will start to vent its energy toward negative habits. It could start with destructive chewing and then progress into pica later on.
- Lack of training. Dogs that aren’t trained properly have an increased risk of developing pica later in life. If paired with other risk factors and medical causes, this form of pica can be challenging to fix.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do dogs grow out of pica?
A: Excessive chewing and ingestion of inedible items usually go away once the puppy has turned older and once the teething is finished. However, some pups may retain their chewing habits, which can potentially develop into pica. In this case, it’s best to consult with your dog’s veterinarian.
Q: Why is my dog eating rocks all of a sudden?
A: Dogs can develop several unusual behaviors throughout their lives. Most of them will go away naturally or through training. However, if your pet is suddenly into eating rocks, you may want to check for potential dietary deficiencies. Also, you should get your dog checked for pica, much so if it’s starting to eat other inedible items as well.
Q: Do all dogs have pica?
A: While almost every dog will try to eat non-food items, it doesn’t mean that it has pica right away. Take note that chewing and consuming inedible items can also be a case of boredom, anxiety, and other behavioral issues. The tricky part here is that pica isn’t easy to diagnose because it has overlapping symptoms with other health problems. This is why you should involve your dog’s vet if you suspect that the pooch is suffering from this condition.
Q: Do dogs that eat grass have pica?
A: Eating grass is a common behavior in dogs. Veterinarians attribute this to diet insufficiencies as well as gastrointestinal problems. Nevertheless, it’s rarely a sign of pica. Unless it’s accompanied by other symptoms, your grass-eating dog may just be suffering from an aching tummy or eating food that’s low in fiber.
Q: Why does my dog eat everything outside?
A: Dogs explore the world through their mouths, so it’s not surprising if your pooch will try to consume almost anything outdoors. But beyond curiosity, this habit may turn into a more serious problem called pica. It’s important to observe your dog and talk to the vet to discuss potential symptoms that may point to the condition.
Knowing how to treat pica in dogs starts by identifying its cause. With the help of a veterinarian and pet behavior experts, your dog can fight off this condition.
Just remember that preventing pica is a continuous and life-long process. Take note that once your dog experienced it, there’s a likelihood that the condition will come back.
While there’s no single formula to prevent pica, training and enough stimulation will go a long way. Above all, you shouldn’t hesitate to consult the vet.