It’s not often that a photograph motivates a topic for the blog, but when friend and colleague Melissa McCue-McGrath sent me this image of her dog Captain, along with a suggestion to write a post on pica, how could I resist? In spite of the amusing photo (no, Captain didn’t really drink any booze), pica can be a serious problem. I saw one dog who lived by a rocky outcropping, and ate rocks compulsively. The vet had already done three surgeries to remove them, and said there was too much scar tissue to attempt another.
Pica refers to the ingestion of non-food items, often with an assumed compulsive component to it. This isn’t too difficult to diagnose in people, but gets a bit trickier in dogs. Animals whose name in Navajo is “eater of horse poop” can hardly be diagnosed with a serious behavioral or medical problem if they inherently define much of the world as food, including sunflower seed shells, cat poop and vomit. But there are a lot of substances that dogs can become fixated on that can cause them harm. (Also true for cats–see wool sucking.) Rocks are one example, as is metal, plastic, and cloth. Dogs have also been known to eat marbles, pencils, linoleum, jewelry and, of course, underwear.
However, eating feces (coprophagia) is not considered by most to be an example of pica, no doubt in acknowledgement that most dogs love the stuff, sometimes including their own, and that is often might have some food value in it. On the other hand, I couldn’t find any references that included grass eating as pica, although clearly it’s not food, at least to a dog. Perhaps it is so common that no one wants to categorize as “abnormal”? (But see below for a discussion of why we might include grass eating as an example of pica.) The definition of pica might be a bit fuzzy, but it usually refers both to the item (is it dangerous for the dog or beyond anyone’s definition of food?) and/or to whether the individual behaves as if it were a compulsion, and seeks non-food items out c0mpulsively. Thus you can see that diagnosing pica is a bit squishy, but if a dog has a belly full of plastic because she will move heaven and earth to ingest it, it clearly needs to be addressed.
Causes of Pica? All the answers I’ve seen are some version of “throw every possibility against the wall and see if it will stick”. Here’s what Best Friends, for example, has to say about it: “The causes of pica can be hard to determine, but can include gastrointestinal disease, anemia, liver disease, pancreatic disease, diseases causing excess appetite (such as diabetes), neurologic diseases, poor diet, being on medications such as prednisone, behavioral disorders such as anxiety, or a depraved home environment. Pica can even be a symptom of normal exploratory behavior.”
I’m tempted to add in “sibling rivalry, or being forced to wear pink collars if you’re a male dog”, but the fact is that there seem to be a multitude of reasons why a dog might become obsessed with eating weird stuff. Or at least, stuff we think is weird. (Rotten fish excluded. Dogs clearly think this food is manna to the gods.) We simply often have no idea why dogs become crazed about ingesting pencils, or rocks, or My Pony dolls. We do know that pica in humans is more common in children with developmental disabilities, but that doesn’t help us much with dogs. s
Once you’ve decided you are dealing with pica (remember that the item has to be ingested versus just chewed), then it’s time to look at your alternatives.
FIND THE CAUSE IF YOU CAN: Since some pica seems to be caused by medical problems or a nutritional deficit, I’d start there. My Maggie eats grass, but much more often if I don’t give her a supplement of dried herbs. She gets a good varied diet, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t craving something that her body might be missing. There is some suggestion that individuals might be lacking vital minerals, or even might have ingested toxic substances that they are trying to buffer. If your dog wants to eat a type of plant or substances with minerals, you might want to investigate this potential. This, by the way, is why I wonder if compulsive grass eating might be considered a kind of pica. Just because it is common doesn’t mean it’s an issue. However, canids in the wild are known to eat the stomach contents of ruminants, so perhaps it’s not out of bounds to call grass “dog food”.
Stress is another factor that might motivate pica. Maggie the grass eater, for example, often eats grass after a difficult training session. I don’t worry about it, because, well, it’s just grass, but I do make a mental note that whatever we were working on was stressful for Maggie. Sometimes it’s blindingly obvious, like when an older, sassy ewe challenges her, but other times I would have had no idea that she found the work stressful. In that case there is actually a benefit to her behavior.
But of course, if she was eating large rocks or weird plastic things it would be a big problem. Which brings us to the next alternative.
MANAGE: Even if you’ve found a cause, you are probably still going to need to manage the issue, at least for awhile. Traditionally, owners are advised to prevent the dog from having access to the item it is eating. This can be a lot easier said than done. In the case of the rock-eater I told you about earlier, it wasn’t easy at all. While we pursued questions about the dog’s health and nutrition, we simply had to keep him from eating rocks. And there were rocks literally everywhere. The dogs also was used to being outside, off leash and alone for long periods of time. Eeeps.
To make matters worse, the dog would panic if left inside alone. If outside on leash the dog would lunge for rocks and swallow faster than the owner could stop him. I also knew that the owner had a limited amount of energy and patience for radical changes, even though he clearly adored the dog and wanted to keep him safe. And so we focused on conditioning the dog to a basket muzzle that he always wore when he was outside. This wasn’t a perfect solution, but a practical one that did indeed prevent the dog from eating rocks. (Although I warned the owner that he needed to fit the muzzle carefully, or his very smart and determined Labrador would have it off in a matter of minutes.)
One good way to managing this issue is to teach the dog “Leave It” (See Family Dog Training). Of course, it has its downsides–the owner has to want to train it in a step-by-step fashion and 100% might be unrealistic. Ifs the dog was too motivated for the reinforcement, or the owner didn’t see the object before the dog eats it, it’s not going to work. But it’s not all that hard to train and can work incredibly well, especially if the object in question isn’t dangerous. I use it all the time at the farm (dead rabbits, dead mice, dead anything for that matter) and although I’ve been a bit lazy lately with reinforcements (note to self), it works 99% of the time.
Another and even better way to manage pica is to use the object itself as a cue to get something better. This only works if the dog is focused on only one type of object, but it’s a favorite because it takes the owner out of the picture and teaches the dog to make the decision herself. That’s the beauty of this kind of operant conditioning, in which the dog learns that if she seeks socks (for example), she’s going to get chicken if she turns around and goes back into the kitchen. If you know the basics of training, and if the object is consistently identifiable, and IF the dog is not so compulsive it has no control over itself, this is the way to go. I know, lots of ifs… but if possible, it’s a great thing to try.
All that is required is letting the dog see the object (without being able to get it), using a cue like “no socks!” and reinforcing the dog for turning away. I’d help the dog by luring it first, but drop it out as soon as I can. Once the dog turns away to “no socks”, I’d repeat the exercise several times in a row, drop out the verbal cue on the 4th or 5th repetition, and wait for the dog to anticipate you saying it and turn all by herself. If that happens, Whoo hoo! Best reinforcements ever for doing it on your own! If not, just go back to saying the cue, and try dropping it out later. This is all easy enough to describe, but if you are not a professional trainer, or well-versed in operant conditioning, I’d bring in a coach for a few sessions. Coaches are great, right? What professional athlete would be without one?
One last thing before I turn it over to you and your experience with pica. Please, please don’t correct the dog. If the dog’s behavior is truly compulsive, then corrections are just going to make it worse. We all know how fast a coprophagic dog can gulp down feces if she’s been corrected for it–it just makes her more determined to swallow before you can stop her.
So… now it’s to you. Have you had experience with pica? (I initially meant with your dog, but since it happens in children especially, we’d all learn a lot if you’d share any experience you’ve had no matter the species.) I’m especially interested what has worked for you, or not worked, if you’ve had to deal with this issue.
By the way, the rock-crazed Labrador was doing very well for a few weeks, but then I lost touch with the owner and I can’t tell you how it went long term. I have to admit I was always a bit worried. Hope you’ve never had to deal with it or had a positive experience.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I can’t write much because I’ve got 4 talks in 3 days to finalize and I’m running out of time. This Thursday I’m giving the Anne Lydecker Lecture at UW River Falls at 5 pm on campus. Friday I speak to two high school classes in Eau Claire, then speak on Saturday at the Chippewa Book Festival. I get home Saturday night and then spend Sunday at a sheepdog training clinic. I can work Maggie now for very brief periods of time (yay!), but I’m taking Willie too so that he can help me learn to shed (seperately one to two sheep off from the group).
Here’s some great news! There is some sun today, warm, gorgeous, beautiful sun. After the continual deluge that we’ve had for literally most of the summer, and never ending clouds, a little sun goes a long way. We’ve had so much rain, by the way, that everyone’s sheep are fat. Seriously. They actually jiggle when they walk. Our Cupcake ewe has always been, uh, robust, but now I describe her as having icing on top.
The dogs have been enjoying the sun too. Every one of them has been lying in a patch of sun as I write this:
Hope there’s some sun in your life too.
Chris from Boise says
Congratulations on the sunshine!
Mike’s brother had an adolescent Lab that ate a blanket. They didn’t realize it till it came out the other end, miraculously intact. Fortunately he didn’t make a habit of it.
I knew an Airedale that would pick up rocks, especially from lake bottoms, and carry them around. Jules never swallowed them, but he did wear his teeth down prematurely.
Two not-entirely-on-topic notes:
Our dear departed heeler Pica was not named after “the uncontrollable urge to eat anything”, but rather after the black-billed magpie – Pica pica (which bird WAS probably named for such behavior). Magpies are bright-eyed, alert, and very intelligent, as was our Pica. Pica never chewed on anything that wasn’t hers, even as a pup. She took out all her mandibular energy on the twigs and small branches that fell in the back yard. We should have called her Chipper/Shredder. It never caused her gastric distress, so we never worried about it.
This past weekend we spent a day at a national point qualifying sheepdog trial. We had seen county fair sheepdog trials, but this – oh my! It was a huge step up in difficulty and caliber of teams. Both the course and the wily range ewes were gnarly. Only three teams the day before had managed to get all the way through the course, and in the five hours we watched, only one team (Patrick Shannahan – you’ve attended his clinics, so we knew his name – and his border collie Glen) successfully penned their sheep. Not knowing who they were, we happened to watch Glen for a few minutes before their turn. He was a goofball, turning somersaults and rolling on his back, then turning to Patrick for a few pets, then it was time to step into the field and get down to work and BOOM he was all business. Such a nice relationship between them. They were cool, calm and collected, and the sheep responded in kind (more or less). So now we can appreciate a little better what you and Maggie (yay Maggie able to work a little!) and Willie are up against when you have to lift and fetch and shed. Have fun this weekend at the clinic (and best of luck with the talks. Lucky high school students!).
Charlotte Kasner says
I acquired my dog at 3.5 years old, severely malnurished and with diarrhoea that lasted for the best part of 9 months. He was always a grass eater and would seek out dock if he felt nauseous, usually following vomiting a small amount of bile. After 6 years of a fish-based complete dry diet and fish skin treats, the vomiting stopped. He still ate grass and I assumed that it was his way of creating dietary balance and/or a habit.
Sadly , just before he turned 11, he was diagnosed with a hepatocellular carcinoma. Hard to find any good news in this, except that he has almost entirely stopped eating grass. Every cloud…
Regina R Allen DVM says
My 10 yr-old Toy Manchester bitch will destroy stuff (usually plastic or wicker) and eat parts of what she just tore up when her stomach is bothering her. Same with grass-eating – she’s like a cow, just trying to get something on that stomach to stop the acid reflux. Pepsid AC and getting her meals on a regular schedule takes care of the problem. So in her case, it’s not a compulsive behavior, it’s a medical one.
Jennie Berkson says
Our Lab/Chessie Belle seems to be particularly interested in partially burned firewood. We live on rural dirt road with several neighbors and a beach. People leave their beach fire/BBQ (leftovers — wood not food) along the road or on the beach. Belle is very attracted to those piles. She got away from us the other day. We got her back and then she spent the next couple of days pooping out something gray and grainy. “Leave it” works well with this, but I’m wondering if it might be some kind of dietary deficiency ….
Catherine M Noftz says
Around here the non food item of choice is pine bark. We have 8 dogs, only 2 have a bark problem. Ha! Tree bark that is. Our leo and our mastiff x love the stuff. We walk out the door into the woods, so it’s readily available. “Stop eating the trees” is a mantra on some walks. They totally listen and leave it……for a bit. On exit (ahem) there is often more bark than poop. I have researched the minerals found in wood bark. Maybe there is a need there I haven’t found.
Many dogs through the years have enjoyed a bit of pine bark, never a real problem. These guys though….they have a real jones for the stuff.
MaryBeth Eldred says
Thank you for your interesting article on pica . 3 of my dogs ( 2 are 13yrs and one is 6 yrs)like to eat dirt ???!!! this bothers me as our 15 year old mini Schnauzer Yogi started eating dirt before we lost him to nasal cancer -all are on a raw food diet and following guidelines of Dr. Judy Morgan , DVM from her book The Yin and Yang of Canine Nutrition – consisting of green tripe ,steamed veggies and fermented goats milk -during the rains here from Hurricane Michael here in Western NC am grubs appeared and am considering that they may be going for grubs -they only are going to one spot and yes they periodically eat grass -as they do not exhibit distress am keeping an eye on them and distracting when possible –
Kitti Wielandt, DVM says
‘Outfox field guard’ is a mesh hood that fits over the dogs head and prevents ingestion of everything. Designed for preventing foxtails in the mouth, a friend uses it on a Lab for rocks (after 3 abdominal exploratories for rock ingestion). Google it. Worth a try…
Brèagha and Me says
When Brèagha was a puppy, she used to eat wood chips from the wood we used in our fireplace. But then, she was a puppy. Puppies are insane. 😉
I live on the Oregon coast and my dog will eat all kinds of things at the high tide line on the beach – not sure this qualifies as pica – much of what is there is fish debris. I worked like crazy on recall, but when there was something good to eat she wouldn’t pay any attention to me. After trying all kinds of things, including only walking her on the beach at low tide, and only keeping her on leash which had its own problems, I opted for a basket muzzle. She doesn’t like wearing it, but I can have her off leash if she’s muzzled. She will try to pull it off by putting her head between my legs – a little painful when I’m wearing shorts! – and she has tried to rub if off on strangers which has been a little embarrassing, but lucky for me these people have been very understanding.
I love the three pictures of sunning dogs — each one’s personality is illuminated by the light. Even if we didn’t know about each one already, you could read what they are like by these photos. Wonderful!
No pica in our household (knock on wood, it’s one of the few things we haven’t encountered in our dogs . . . yet). But, the two dogs who had strong coprophagia both had sketchy puppyhoods and were very malnourished. My hunch is it became a compulsion that began as a matter of survival. Our only solution is to go out with the dogs and poop scoop immediately. Not ideal, but if they can’t reinforce this behavior, it may weaken a little. At least that’s the theory.
Tiffany loves eating grass. So much that I sometimes joke that she thinks she is a retired race-horse, rather than a ex-racing greyhound. She’s always done it, no matter what kind of food she’s been on, so I think she just actually likes eating it. She will seek out the right spots where the grass is nice & fresh… I don’t worry about it as it is just grass.
Sadly she also LOVES eating fox or cat poo. Although I don’t really tell her off, I will try to pull her away from it – if I spot it first – and she kind of knows she isn’t meant to eat it… When she does manage to get some she looks what can only be describe as ‘smug’… running away from me, tail wagging & big smile on her face…
MaryLynne Barber says
My Rottweiler ate many things in his short six year life – socks, a handkerchief, a gardening glove – but his most favorite was paper. Anything paper was not safe around him. He especially liked used Kleenex and paper towels. Had to warn anyone with a piece of paper in hand that it was in danger of being grabbed and eaten. Luckily everything (including the glove) passed through with no problems and he never ate a piece of paper that was particularly important. We just learned to keep paper products out of his reach as much as possible. Unfortunately we lost him to bone cancer in February of this year.
Mary Ann O’Grady says
i adopted my little mutt Pixie from the local kill shelter 8 years ago. History/background unknown. As a former trainer who specialized in behavioral issues, imagine my surprise when he removed and ingested most of the zipper pull off an old winter jacket. His favorite items are metal; zippers, paper clips, but especially coins, screws, nails, etc. once I realized he had this Pica issue, I became a better housekeeper. Thankfully, the items he injected were eventually found in his feces, as I carefully followed him on his potty outings. He is a very calm dog, no issues whatsoever other than his Pica. My vet and his staff are aware of Pixie’s Pica propensity.
Carol pleskoff says
Our about 6 yr old springer spaniel. , not sure because he was a rescue, eats grass and wood out of the yard. When I am with him he will listen to leave it. Then he waits till he can go out alone after dark and is back at it.
However we had problems with his not eating for a day, as well as a lot of gas, then his strool is full of grass and wood.
Next day he is back at eating his food. This pattern has happened several times.
We were wondering what was missing from his diet, a premium dry food or if we are not giving him enough food.
I had a rescue who had been a stray and had a starvation history. His motto was “If it’s food, eat it. If it might be food, eat that, too.” I made many a call to the vet with “So here’s what he ate. How worried should I be?” He once broke the sliding door off a closet trying to get at the cat food. Perhaps the most memorable was the time he ate a candle. Thankfully, he never trie to eat blatently non-food items. Only “could be food” ones.
Mine don’t eat rocks or minerals, thank heavens, but thoroughly enjoy cow pats, sheep droppings and rabbit berries, and Poppy seeks out particular grasses when she is suffering from an acid stomach. I have noticed, though, that well cooked mixed vegetables in their diet reduces their urge to eat pre-digested vegetables. I remember that my mother’s dog would raid the coal bucket and the vegetable basket when she was pregnant- very definitely in search of something missing from her diet. That was over 50 years ago now – perhaps dog food has improved wince then!
carol pleskoff says
Our springer spaniel loves to eat both wood sticks and grass. When I am with him he won’t usually eat it because I have said leave it so many times.
However he waits until dark when we can’t see him in the fenced yard and eats what ever he can find. We know this because he has days when he ignores his food, acts lethargic for hours until he has a stool filled with grass. He will then eat his food.
We are wondering if he misses something in his food, a premium dry food.
He is about 6, not sure because he was a rescue. Should we be adding something to his diet.
Our dog Bleu (lab/golden) who recently passed of bladder cancer would chew drywall and wood. She had anxiety, we believe from being kenneled before my husband adopted her. She would also suckle on pillows to sooth herself to sleep. When I would notice her licking or chewing the wall, I would offer her one of her pillows instead, which would eventually stop the drywall chewing. However, much of the time she did the chewing while we were away from the house. We have a doggie door so she could come and go freely into the backyard, so it wasn’t like she was cooped up. We weren’t really sure what to do about it, and were never were able to really break her of the habit.
Last month my four-year-old supermutt and I spent six hours at the emergency vet, because he had eaten what the vet called a “copious amount of fabric.” This was new and surprising behavior. He seems to have eaten it over the course of several days, and it was all in places that I didn’t notice until he vomited up a lot of it. Since then I’ve been trying to address the possible cause(s) and manage his environment, but I also worry, because some of the fabric remains unaccounted for, and his vet said that some foreign bodies can stay in a dog’s stomach for months (!). This makes me miss the days when my only worry was a poop-connoisseur Corgi.
Richard Phillips says
Our 13 yr old BC digs holes and eats dirt. She digs down until she finds whatever it is she is looking for, and then starts eating. She has done it ever since we adopted her at 5 yrs. but in recent years it has increased to the point where some of her poops are just dirt.
We have done nutritional studies that don’t show any deficiencies.
Based on the article, perhaps it is stress, although she doesn’t seem stressed out. We adopted her at 5 yrs due to a hearing loss after herding sheep for a living. She is now mostly blind and recently had an episode that left her with Old Dog Syndrome.
I am not sure how to keep her from eating dirt, there seems to be a lot of it around.
My 2 year old lab has recently (finally) diagnosed with PICA.
He’s eaten too many things too numerous to mention, most notable: four foot rope, rocks, an entire roll of scott shop towels, large pieces of bedding (sheets and blankets) and the list goes on.
It has been quite expensive as almost every few months he suffers a major infection or obstruction.
Initially, our doctor felt it was anxiety related due to his being abandon very young.
But, we are re thinking this because none of the antianxiety treatments are making a difference.
The most recent break through is when we noticed he was eating grass in large amounts in correlation to gastric events like belching, chronic diarrhea and gas.
We have started treatment for IBS and are being aggressive because this latest incident was quite scary. Here’s hoping this works.
Also, and by the way- it is allergy season and even in humans allergies can cause GI symptoms to be worse.
If there is any more information please keep posting.
Jann Becker says
Pica: Do acorns count? We have hundreds on the deck and whenever I’m out there with the dogs, they’re munching away. I think our younger picked up this dubious habit from the elder. I can’t tell if this is some sort of mental compulsion or if acorns are delicious, by their standards.
Re salad: if you have a dog like Kira that likes grass (the garden kind) don’t put anything on it to kill weeds, fertilize it, whatever. We’re on a wooded lot and actually sold the lawnmower when we moved in.
Many towns still seem to have a running contest for Best Lawn that seems to involve chemical warfare on weeds, pH control, mineral supplements that would definitely be bad for dogs.
Pamela Willis says
My red Doberman, who I dearly loved, was absolutely exasperating. I had him from 1987 til he passed in 1998. He ate everything. After he ate my husband’s tube sock , had it surgically removed and lost 4 ft. of intestine , I started keeping peroxide on hand to induce vomiting if necessary. (Not a complete list, but) he ate; the handle off the lawn mower pull cord, an entire four foot long zucchini, twelve raw crappies (pan fish) that were in a bucket. He then vomited the fish all over the living room. My husband’s lunch money and my checkbook, a man’s size 12 leather slipper (one was chewed and the other was missing, I induced vomiting and the other slipper came up in two pieces), the clutch mechanism cover off the lawn mower, underwear, pencils, pens, Tupperware lid, bark mulch, sticks…the list goes on. Never could figure out why, and back then behavioral studies weren’t what they are now. We just accepted the behavior as a ‘quirk’ , tried to live with it and tried to keep things away from him….but he was relentless.
I know puppies are constantly exploring with their mouths but my recent rescue pup was unreal when it came to inhaling everything, rocks included. She had a massive worm load when we got her and was always hungry and this may have contributed to the issue but she was literally like a vacuum with no off switch. Taking her for a walk was hazardous to her health. I received lots of advice about teaching “leave it” or even muzzling. I DO muzzle train my dogs in the event they ever need to wear one but I hated the idea of an 11 week old having to wear one. We settled it with bringing a special toy on our walks. It was only used for walks and was her favorite. I could throw it out in front of her or hold on to it and let her wrestle with it while we walked. As she got bigger, I attached it to the end of a flirt pole so I could hold it out in front of her. Kept her attention really well while we walked so she wasn’t eating everything along the way. Thankfully, she has outgrown this and now only puts rocks in her mouth if she’s bored because I am talking with someone and not moving forward on our walk!
Marjorie Sovec says
You mentioned “herb supplement” which helps curtail grass eating. Can you tell me more specifically what supplement you use! My Doberman is and has always been on a high quality diet with much variety, she gets tons of exercise and much training–body conditioning exercises, free runs, nosework training, obedience training, etc. I say this because I don’t think eating grass has to do with boredom. Thank you
Honey Loring says
Just to pass along what seems to be working quite well with my standard poodle Gallant in terms of eliminating gas. After his evening meal he would stand absolutely still and with his neck bent, almost like a horse being shown in dressage. Eventually he would come “out of it.” It looked like he was meditating, which of course he wasn’t, so eventually I took him to a vet who is an ultra-sound specialist. She said he was full of gas and if he hadn’t been tacked, he would have bloated. Six weeks ago he did bloatand because I was far from home with no nearby good emergency vet, he almost died. Six weeks later he is his beautiful, elegant, prancing self. One of the emergency vets said to give his GasX. I tried it myself when I had indigestion and it did nothing! What works for me is omeprazole, known as Prilosec. So now both of us take one a day, same dosage and so far no more gas problems. fingers and toes crossed.
What a lucky dog to have such a committed owner!
It’s from Dr. Harvey’s line, I’ll let you know exactly which one when I get home!
As a young dog Ranger once ate a stamp pad/ink pad one of the children had neglected to put away. Not really pica since it was only one incident. I mention it because it resulted in two days of florescent orange poop. It does make it really easy to find to clean up. I think of that from time to time in the fall when I’m searching through the fallen leaves for something that’s the same brown as the leaves and have on occasion debated the idea of adding some good vegetable coloring to meal time. You can tell my least favorite thing is hunting poop in the leaves.
Finna is a dedicated grass eater. She came from pretty bad beginnings and I’m pretty sure the grass eating was a way of filling up her empty stomach and is now just a familiar habit. Since she isn’t interested in grazing the lawns that are heavily treated with chemicals I’ll let her graze for a few seconds when we’re walking before asking her to walk on. Finna’s other thing is chewing up hard plastic. She isn’t interested in eating it but she is obsessed with chewing it to shreds. We’ve lost more dust pans that way. If we catch her at it we trade a good chew for the plastic and she’s happy to make the trade.
One of my dogs, a 14 yo lab, has been obsessed for at least the last 6 months with eating dirt. Has anybody else experienced this? I stop her whenever I catch her at it because it just doesn’t seem like a great idea, and once it made her vomit. She has always liked to dig. Now, she seems to be digging in order to expose fresh dirt (or sand, on the beach) to snack on. Somebody told me they thought dogs like to eat dirt because of the bugs it might have.
We muzzle our dog on walks because she is highly motivated to eat roadside litter. From days old thrown out food, pot edibles (lovely vet bill), to paper products. Many of these may seem relatively harmless, but for a dog that has had about a half dozen staph infections from food allergies and the highly concentrated pot available in our area that is often masked in something yummy (we suspect the culprit that sent her to the ER was liquid in a Dairy Queen cup on our walking path) we decided it was prudent to muzzle her for her walks.
We are working on strengthing her leave it, but have choosen not to rely on it as litter can be well hidden in grass. We still do short potty walks and store trips without a muzzle. It’s had a handy side benefit of helping motivate illegally off leash dog owners to fetch their dog quickly when I point out the muzzle and demand they get their dog.
Susan Sanders says
My older dog eats dirt, but only in fields that are used for agriculture now or were recently, like some soccer fields near us. My conclusion is that generations of farmers improved the soil by spreading yummy manure. Both my dogs seek out clumps of grass cuttings that are wet & cohsive & beginning to decompose. They’re particularly flavorful, I guess.
Kat – a little sweetcorn shines out like a good deed in a naughty world!
All our Huskies (4) ate grass in the shedding season, and then they vomit most of the time. When I examine it, it contains a lot of hair, so we think it is their way of getting rid of hair from the stomach.
Janouk, our previous sibe, ate some strange things in his life; a piece of towel, socks stuffend toys and pebbles, but luckily we were able to untrain the pebble eating. But since that was akmost 15 years ago I can’t exactly remember how
Spot chews acorns and then spits them out. I find that pretty weird, but better than Chenak who did that with snails …
(((Been absent here for a while, a lot happened but happy to see you’ll still here. Our summer has been hot and very very dry and even at the moment it’s still to warm for the time of year and we could really do with some rain…. bizarre! ))))
Linda Wilson says
I have English Cockers Spaniels. The breed is well known for its never ending desire to eat! They bring new meaning to food motivated! I have bred all of the ones I have at the moment and they have always been fed a well balanced high quality diet. A couple of them have picked up the habit of digging holes so that they can eat roots. They are both healthy with no underlying medical issues that we can find. My vet says that he has no idea why they are doing this. Any thoughts on this issue would be appreciated.
What a great read. In my house I have a rock and plastic eater. Phoenix eats plastic clothes pegs, pots and laundry basket handles. ( given the chance those are his favorites). At 6 he’s almost given up swallowing rocks but there very few left to find and he will now usually give them up. Mimi the rescue is food obsessed and has been known to strip the vegetable patch bare. She also eats grass, vomits grass and then some days more grass. But you also asked about children. My daughters weirdest non food item was the soles of her shoes. We all managed that as well.
I have a Belgian Tervuren who eats grass. But she is particular, its not all grasses and from what I can gather it is the broader leaf grasses that are tall and healthy. The grass doesn’t seem to bother her and she grabs a few blades here and there as we walk in the mornings. I’ve often wondered if the attraction to the grass is for the high water content.
From the day I brought my 8 week old Border Collie puppy home she was obsessed with chewing on rocks. I taught her to drop it in exchange for a treat (although the idea of bluntening those little teeth was quite appealing). This very quickly progressed to her bringing me a rock, dropping it at my feet then sitting and looking up for the treat.
Erika Peterson says
This is a very timely post for me – a couple days ago, I signed up for pet medical insurance for the first time ever, specifically because I’m afraid my dog will end up needing surgery someday for foreign body ingestion!
Archie is an 8 month-old golden retriever mix, and he is obsessed with orally exploring the world. If he’s awake, he’s chewing, anything and everything. I thought it was just teething (we adopted him at 4 months old, prime teething time) but his teeth are well in now, and it isn’t slowing down.
Mostly he will spit out inorganic things after shredding them (if shreddable) or rolling them around in his mouth (if not shreddable), but the other day I could swear he gulped down a rock.
We’ve been working on “leave it” with some success, but he seems to understand it as “don’t approach that thing”. Once something is already in his mouth, “leave it” just confuses him, so I think we’ll add on “drop it” for those situations. I still worry, though — our backyard is full of gravel thanks to the landscaping decisions of past owners, and if he starts eating that stuff when he’s out there alone, we could be headed for disaster.
I have to laugh in hindsight: the first time we ever saw him, he and his siblings had just been brought to the shelter. The other 11 puppies were going nuts, hurling themselves at the front of their enclosures trying to get to us for petting and attention, but Archie was chill. He was alert and curious, not afraid, but he wasn’t falling all over himself. Then he picked up his water dish and wiggled it around a little before looking back up at us. I interpreted that as “Oh, look, he’s interested in exploring his surroundings! That means he’s smart!” Probably a more accurate version would be “Oh look, he’s so obsessed with chewing that even in an exciting situation, he’s going to try out things to chew on!”
Live and learn…
Kelly Schlesinger says
Our now 13-year-old BC developed pica after going on phenobarbital for idiopathic epilepsy at age 3. Although he didn’t stay on that particular med, the pica remained when he was switched to other drugs. Over the years he had six surgeries to remove obstructions: sock, glove, plastic, hair and two unidentifiable things. He wore a basket muzzle for prevention – you probably don’t think it did much good, but he is still around! He has slowed down a lot and doesn’t show interest in eating things any more, but if he starts eating dirt outside I bring him in the house. Our vet said that a dog eating dirt is not a terrible problem unless he is not on flea/tick/worm meds and ingests a parasite.
Sally R Baskett says
I have a rescue Akbash (we joke he is more like salvage), now about a year old. He has a lot of problems-probably distemper as a puppy, “fly biting syndrome”, very aggressive towards us at times, maybe hip dysplasia. When his aggressive behavior was quite scary, we talked to our vet who believed along with the “fly biting” and other problems was most likely sequela of distemper. He was started on fluoxetine, which has made a remarkable positive difference, also carprofen for probable pain issues. One thing interesting that continues is his grazing on some rather odd items-his favorite is rose hips. No walk where we live in Montana is complete without a stop to eat them! Since I have no reason to believe they are harmful (full of vitamin C!) I indulge him in smaller amounts. Don’t think this is “real” pica, but interesting as pica is associated with dogs who have “fly biting” syndrome. He is much better now, friendly overall, huggable, with only a few grumpy days now and again.
Patrick Melese DVM, MA, DACVB says
Don’t forget to consult your local friendly Veterinary Behaviorist if a compulsive/obsessive component is suspected as appropriate diagnosis and treatment of that portion can really help manage/treat some of these cases. We can help both work up physiological rule outs as well as develop a treatment plan (www.dacvb.org) and work alongside skilled dog trainers to help these pets!
Thank you so much for that reminder Patrick. As is true with PhD Behaviorists like me, (CAABs), most areas won’t have a “local” vet behaviorist, but you can connect with one through your local vet or go directly to the DACVB website.
Robin V says
Our 7yr old Golden began one spring going after sod clumps from the snowplow service during the winter. We used to just keep her on a leash until it was either removed, or put back in place. One day though in her kennel (which has a really nice outdoor grassy area), she ate a lot of sod directly from “intact” part of the lawn. It has a laxative type of effect, but we are worried that she could eat so much to cause a blockage. I have consulted with my vet, who is a bit perplexed as well. Our dog is very easy going & is not obviously stressed in her daily life. We have resorted to having a muzzle on her if she is to be outside”free”. I can no longer put her in the kennel (which she did only on days that I worked & had for some years without issues).
The dog who I think could be diagnosed with pica was one who may have been a skinny as a puppy– many pups on the dam. Now a 4 yo Golden, she eats acorns like a deer as well as enough grass and leaves to vomit if unattended. Having a leash is generally sufficient to slow her intake to avoid illness. She’s a bit better about it when we feed some fresh vegetables, perhaps the fiber, perhaps some vitamins/minerals, or simply the stimulation of her jaw?
She is also one who loves rocks and all small metal things– I have a even pulled pins or other unidentifiable sharp bits from her mouth a few times. Fortunately, she has learned to bring them to me rather than swallow.
The other dog has IBD and simply eats grass when he feels sick. It’s a sign that the supplementary meds need to come out…
My first chocolate lab at my pantyhose, fortunately I only wore knee highs by that time in my life! That was a fun job for me when it came time to poop – pulling out the pantyhose! I finally had to make sure they were out of reach from her so nothing bad would happen to her. She also ate her own poop which I detested!
My second chocolate (from the same mother as the first) was relatively normal, just eating grass and rabbit poop, etc as I recall.
My current chocolate lab eats things like grass and rabbit poop, but also likes the grass chunks from the mulching lawnmower, and she mostly enjoys eating paper like someone else mentioned above. She will eat the mail envelopes, (but not the window ones – she’s smart THAT way), wrapping paper at the holidays, or anything I throw in the paper recycle bag. She particularly likes the Rx paper bags from Walgreens, and her favorite items are cardboard tubes – toilet paper, paper toweling, kitchen wrap tubes like from foil, wrapping paper tubes, you name it. She actually waits for them when the last bit of toilet paper comes off the roll for example! I try and limit all of this except the grass – my dogs have never thrown it up and my current dog eats the grass in summer and replaces it with lettuce scraps in the winter – I figure it is a digestive thing. This dog has a bit of separation anxiety – very mild, and also gets excited when she rides in the car. My first two dogs never had such problems, so I figure the paper issue may be a behavioral thing due to her anxiety issues, who knows??
Joyce Sanford says
My young golden retriever came to me at 8 months, a rescue (I was home #3) with a variety of issues, definitely stressed by almost everything a human could do to her. I live in Arizona where our yards are rocks, (xeriscaping) and she loves to carry them around. Seemingly she wasn’t eating them, but I decided to teach her when she picked one up to bring it to me to trade for a treat. Now 2 years later she will only occasionally pick one up but then brings it to me – my pockets are always full of treats, and I don’t leave the dogs outside without me due to the wildlife in my area. Problem more less solved, although I have had many people laugh at my method – I don’t care, it works, no rocks in the tummy.
Faye beckham says
Around here the non sustenance thing of decision is pine bark. We have 2 pooches, just 1 has a bark issue. Ha! Tree rind that is. Our retriever love the stuff. We exit the entryway into the forested areas, so it’s promptly accessible. “Quit eating the trees” is a mantra on a few strolls. I saw this post about online training over at https://www.retrieversareus.com/ I have inquired about the minerals found in wood bark. Perhaps there is a need there I haven’t found.
Numerous puppies during that time have delighted in a touch of pine bark, never a genuine issue.
My 2 yr old chocolate lab has now had 4 surgeries for ingesting rocks. Always the same kind/size, so it’s definitely an OCD issue. I seriously considered cutting my losses and taking him to a no-kill shelter once I had the news that a 4th surgery was needed. This was mainly due to the financial burden it has put on me. This is a serious issue, and he is now muzzled when I can’t watch him. He knows they’re bad, so he sneaks them quickly (from what I can tell). I removed the rocks from my yard, but these rocks are very common 2 in round river cobble used as landscaped ground cover… and they are EVERYWHERE. I am going to try a behavior specialist next, who thinks they can get to the bottom of it. We shall see. ☹️
Jenny Haskins says
In my personal experience, dirt eating seems to come on when the dog is sick with cancer 🙁
Especially if you have damp soil the crust of moss?algae? that gows on the packed surface.
Tracey Dugdale says
This is a serious problem that my female bloodhound has. She just turned 7, and had her 4th surgery over the weekend for a obstruction. This time she ate about half of a coolaroo elevated outside bed (which she had used for the last several years without touching). Two of the surgeries were for rocks, one for socks and now the bed. She has no soft toys or bedding in the house, is on a leash whenever we walk her or exercise her, and hangouts in a cement floor area (so she can’t get to rocks). But still, even on a leash, she is constantly trying to put anything (grass, dirt, rocks etc) in her mouth. I don’t think she will survive another surgery. I really feel this is more of an OCD thing, than anything.
The best thing to do is keep your dogs hydrated and full. Make sure that they’re fed at the right times and with great food.
Don’t forget about avoiding acorns, too! https://goldenretrieverlove.com/is-it-safe-for-my-dog-to-eat-acorns/
Though dogs might not have Pica when they eat acorns, they’d get a load more of illnesses if they have too much of it.
Anita Longino says
My 6 yr old Pomeranian has always eaten everything he gets his mouth on! First thing he ate was the stuffing out of his dog bed. He eats paper, linoleum, carpet, door facings, walls, chair rungs, plastic, coins…well, you get the idea! I am careful to not leave things lying around in reach and I’ve blocked off favorite areas of carpeting. He’s my baby and I love him dearly but wonder why he can’t be a “normal” dog!
Taylor Keane says
One of my dogs was abused for the first 8 months of his life by previous owners. He is now 14 and is still nervous and anxious but only periodically. He has resorted to compulsive licking… paws, floors, furniture, other dogs ANYTHING.
But when he was younger he would dig and fray carpet runners and towels. Usually I could pull it through his intestines, from his … you know😉…, from his mouth. But once he chewed so frantically and swallowed so much it wrapped around his intestines. He almost died. It took a couple of days for him to show symptoms, but by then he was groaning in pain.
I rushed him to the vet, he had emergency surgery and the vet said my poor dog would have died if he hadn’t been brought in when he had been.
Chance was supposed to come home a couple of days later BUT I got a call at work that something was wrong and I should bring him to the trauma hospital. Dogs don’t usually go home from there. Apparently my vet didn’t do the operation and the colleague who did messed up.
I never knew what really happened but a connected hospital did the 2and operation FOR FREE ($3000)!!
12 years later, he’s still here, keeping up with my 5 year old Great
Dane/ Lab mix, my German Shepherd puppy, and the 2 year old German Shepherd I puppy sit🙂
Needless to say, I have no runners and the towels are out of reach!
Chum Charlie says
Your dogs look adorable in the sun. Terrific photo and great read!
I’ve got an 8 month old cavapoo who I have just brought back from the vets. She ate a toddler sock on a walk. She particularly likes paper and cloth. She doesn’t shred, just gobbles it down. I’ve taught her to drop most things with a chicken treat, but there is no way she will drop a wet wipe or sock. Just too delicious for her. She always gets this stuff on walks. I wish people would be more careful and take this stuff home with them. Does anyone know if she will grow out of it? At eight months old she’s still young. But the look of determination in her eyes for certain textures etc makes me think it’s more than a puppy thing.
Dunno how to break it to you but dogs have zero comprehension of the significance of colors in our particular culture and can’t even see pink. It would look either gray or brown. Humans have weird (and oppressive) ideas about gender and color and clothing and what is appropriate if you’re thought to be male. Dogs don’t. Leave it.
To Lex. Oh my. I was being facetious when I mentioned pink collars on male dogs. I’ll try harder next time to be clear that I’m joking.
I just got a dog two weeks ago, Rufus, that has episodes of pica. It starts with sharp intakes of breath, almost like a reverse sneeze, and intense lip licking. Then he starts eating absolutely anything that gets his attention and is within his reach. He does not try to eat non-food items at other times. If I catch the signs early enough, I can calm him and he won’t start swallowing everything (so far at least) but once he get started eating things, it goes on and on.
Good thing my couch is comfortable, because that’s where I have to sleep to hear him, as it often happens at night. We’re going to the vet tomorrow. Fingers crossed we can figure out what is causing this behavior and treat it. In the meantime, I will probably start training with a basket muzzle, and trying to crate train him.
Judy J Todd says
I am going to assume from all this reading that I cannot break my 8 month old lab from eating poop, hers and my other lab. I try to get to it by going out with her, esp in the morning when she has 2 poos. Me, 82 years old, running around with a bucket at 7 in the morning.
I will try a basket muzzle and using the, leave it with a treat, her fav is tiny hot dogs. Yes, they are awful, but anything that works.
Good thing I live on 20 acres, or the neighbors would have serious doubts about my sanity.
I am doubting it sometimes about getting this second pup. I love her to bits, but she is a handful. I have ordered several of your books, to start training her. I was not able to train her when she was young as I had an accident on my tractor and had a compression fractor at T5, was limited to almost no physical activity. All better , so training starts now. Thanks for all the info. If you have any insite on the poop eating it will be appreciated. She eats a very good dog food.