Pica is a disorder in which dogs compulsively eat things that aren’t food and that are potentially dangerous. Chewing on an old sneaker doesn’t indicate pica—we all know some dogs simply can’t resist the lure of an gnawing on an object that doesn’t belong to them—but ingesting inedible things such as clothing, garbage, paper, dirt, plastic, rocks, and even metal (yes, really) is a key sign of the condition. The most common form of pica is consuming feces, also known as coprophagia. Obviously, depending on what your dog eats, and the quantities, pica can become a life-threatening emergency.
The condition occurs most often in adolescent and adult dogs; as we know, curious puppies put everything in their mouths as a way of exploring their world, and that’s normal. (They tend to outgrow that phase as they mature.)
What is pica, and what causes it?
Pica in dogs can be brought about by medical conditions such as anemia, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), hyperthyroidism, and nutritional deficiencies; and by certain corticosteroids and anti-seizure medications.
Perhaps more commonly, the condition can also arise from mental health issues such as boredom, depression, and anxiety.
In these cases, to eliminate the compulsive behavior you’ll need to address the underlying causes: why is your dog experiencing more stress? Has something changed at home to make your dog feel anxious, such as increased daytime separation, or a new baby or pet addition to the household? Is your dog getting adequate exercise? Does your dog generally get enough mental stimulation during the day?
Note that high-energy breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, are more prone to pica when they get insufficient exercise. Providing long daily walks, runs, or games of fetch may prove helpful, as well as redirecting attention by providing interactive toys or safe chew toys. No matter the breed of your dog, creating an enriching environment is key to their wellbeing. Sometimes this requires getting creative to find new ways to help your dog burn off extra energy through healthy outlets.
If you’re out in the daytime, or need to make sure your dog stays safe while you’re asleep, you might need to crate train your dog or limit the room(s) where they can be, just while the pica is still an issue.Pica can result in a scary and life-threatening situation when an ingested object causes a blockage in the intestinal tract—or when a dog eats something toxic, or appears to be choking on something. If you suspect your dog has swallowed something dangerous, take them to the vet or an emergency vet clinic as quickly as possible.
What are some signs of pica?
- Bloated stomach
- More drooling than usual
- Visible distress
- Black or tarry stool
How is pica diagnosed and treated?
The first step in treating your dog for pica is getting help from your vet, who can discuss your dog’s nutritional needs (and identify any deficiencies), and determine whether the cause may be underlying conditions such as anxiety or depression. The vet may do a behavioral consult and physical exam, and also run blood tests, a fecal check, and urinalysis.
Depending on whether the cause of pica is behavioral or medical, the vet will decide on a suitable treatment; for example, if the cause is deemed to be anxiety, the vet might prescribe medication (or herbal remedies) to help manage it, or probiotics to promote gut health, along with guiding you on strategies to modify your dog’s behavior. In certain instances, the vet might suggest hiring a trainer to work with your dog.
If your dog has pica and ingests a dangerous object, bring them to your vet for an emergency appointment. In the event of a gastrointestinal blockage from the inappropriate object they ate they will need X-rays or an abdominal ultrasound to identify where the obstruction is, and will likely need to be hospitalized for care and possibly a surgical procedure. This will require general anesthesia, and followup visits to check on the incision and monitor healing post-surgery.
Whatever the source of pica, you can expect subsequent visits to make sure the cause is fully identified, the treatments are effective, and to come up with a new plan if the pica persists.