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If you accidentally drop food on the floor, it’s no surprise if your dog tries to wolf it down. But what about when your dog eats things that aren’t food? Whether it’s dirt in the backyard or an elastic band from the garbage, why would a dog eat something that doesn’t provide dietary value? Known as pica, this condition seems odd, but some dogs do it. However, there are dangerous consequences, so it’s important to learn the causes of pica and how to prevent it to keep your dog safe.

What Is Pica in Dogs?

Pica is the consumption of non-food items. Although chewing sticks, sneakers, and baseboards is typical canine behavior, most dogs don’t eat what they’re gnawing on. Pica is not the occasional taste of something to test it out, it’s consistently eating substances that provide zero nutrition or physical benefit to the dog. For example, the dog might eat stones, wood, plastic, or string. Some will even eat socks, dirty underwear, or used wet wipes.

Consuming these types of materials is potentially harmful. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs and treat the condition. Here are some of the issues your dog could face if they have pica:

  • Choking or getting a piece of the item caught in their windpipe.
  • Intestinal blockage. The foreign object can prevent food and water from passing through the intestines and limit blood flow to the intestinal walls. Strands of string or ribbon can bunch and tangle the intestines together as well.
  • Perforation of the stomach or intestines. Sharp objects, like a shard of wood, can pierce a hole in an organ.
  • Broken teeth. Your dog can fracture a tooth or suffer other oral trauma when chewing hard or sharp objects prior to consuming them.
  • Poisoning. Your dog could eat something that simply upsets their stomach, or the item could be toxic.

What Causes Pica in Dogs?

There are many potential causes of pica. In some cases, the dog may have a nutritional deficiency and is eating an item like dirt in an effort to compensate for missing minerals. Or there might be another medical issue at play like anemia or infection with a parasite. Pain can even be the cause of pica. For example, a recent study on pain and problem behavior in cats and dogs included a case study of a Labrador Retriever with pica. The dog was consistently eating stones until they received treatment to manage hip pain. Once the pain was under control, their pica disappeared.

But the most common cause of pica is behavioral. Boredom and lack of enriching and mentally stimulating activities can lead dogs to eat unusual things. And when your dog learns that eating something they shouldn’t results in getting attention, the problem can intensify. Anxiety can also lead to pica in dogs. Finally, compulsive disorder is another cause. This is where a dog does something in an extreme and repetitive way until it interferes with their ability to function.

Is Poop Eating in Dogs Considered Pica?

Whether it’s eating cat poop, dog poop, or rabbit poop, many dogs consider it a delicacy. Poop eating, or coprophagia, is disgusting to us humans, but dogs evolved as scavengers and may have consumed poop as a survival strategy. Therefore, their opinion of feces is the opposite of our own. So, although we might want to label coprophagia as pica, Dr. Sagi Denenberg, a veterinary behaviorist at North Toronto Veterinary Behaviour Specialty Clinic, says not to be so hasty. “The problem/issue is semantics. The word ‘pica’ refers to eating non-food items. We humans consider stools as non-food. Dogs will disagree. We tend to group it, but it should not be included,” he says.

Bichon Frise sitting next to his owner while she picks up poop in the park.
humonia/Getty Images Plus

Which Dogs Are Most at Risk?

Some people consider dogs from the Sporting Group, such as Retrievers, to be more at risk of pica, perhaps because they have such a strong instinct to carry things in their mouths. But Dr. Denenberg believes there isn’t a strong difference between dog breeds in their susceptibility to the condition. Instead, he says puppies are more prone. That could be a result of all the exploring they do with their mouths or all the chewing to relieve teething pain. Finally, he warns, “Dogs with a lack of enrichment are more likely to suffer from pica than those with optimal environments and routines.”

How is Pica in Dogs Diagnosed?

Because there are so many causes of pica, it can be challenging for a vet or veterinary behaviorist to narrow down exactly what is going on with a specific dog. Dr. Denenberg says, “The first step is a complete physical examination, including blood and urine and, in some cases, abdominal radiographs. It may be challenging, but ruling out pain is essential.”

Once your vet is confident they’ve eliminated physical causes, they’ll look at your dog’s lifestyle and behavior. According to Dr. Denenberg, “I want to ensure all their needs are met and that there are no indications of boredom and anxiety. I would then look at the items the dog is eating, the frequency, and any associated behaviors, including responses when the owners approach or try stopping the pica. I want to ensure the pica is not part of an attention-seeking complex, meaning the dog learns that if they chew/eat an item, the owners will react to them.”

Dachshund with its owner getting checked by a veterinarian.
Alexander Raths via Getty Images

Treatment Options for Pica in Dogs

The treatment and management of pica will depend on the reason behind the condition. If the problem is physiological, such as a disease or the dog being in pain, then that needs to be addressed. If the physiological issue is cleared up, the pica could stop on its own. However, for some dogs, particularly those where anxiety or compulsive disorder is a factor, medications may be required to address the underlying pathology.

Your dog’s behavior needs to be addressed as well. That will involve preventing access to the non-food items they like to eat and meeting all your dog’s needs, as well as managing their behavior and providing alternative behaviors for your dog to perform in moments of temptation.

Dr. Denenberg suggests owners try to prevent the problem by supervising their dogs and keeping them on a leash to allow greater control. You can also use a basket muzzle in those situations where supervision is impossible, yet the pica could occur. For example, a rock-eating dog out in the yard on their own. Unlike a nylon muzzle, a dog can drink and pant while wearing a basket muzzle, which is much safer for this purpose. If you choose to use a muzzle for management, first teach your dog to feel comfortable wearing one.

It’s also important to ensure all of your dog’s needs are being met. That includes physical exercise, mental stimulation, attention, and time for rest. Dr. Denenberg suggests, “Using feeding toys instead of a bowl is helpful. Feeding multiple small meals, especially when the owner cannot supervise the dog or the dog is more likely to eat non-food items, is helpful, too.”

Managing Pica in Dogs

Beagle eating from a bowl full of kibble.
©alexugalek -

You won’t always be able to prevent pica from occurring. Therefore, you also need to manage the problem. Dr. Denenberg recommends using a technique known as response substitution. That’s where you give your dog an alternative behavior to perform instead of pica. For example, when your dog starts to eat a non-food item, ask the dog to look at you using a “watch me” cue. When the dog looks, give them a tasty treat. The dog will have to drop the non-food item to take the treat.

Once your dog is consistently looking at you and taking the treat, you might notice them picking up more items to bring to you for rewards. That’s okay. Now you can start shaping the behavior, such as asking the dog to look at you for longer and longer before providing the treat. Dr. Denenberg suggests that at this point you only reward your dog when you’ve asked them to look at you rather than when they offer the behavior voluntarily. Finally, you can move to rewarding your dog for every couple of repetitions instead of each one.

Following all the treatment options and management techniques above will reduce the likelihood of your dog continuing to eat non-food items. But don’t be afraid to consult a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist to help you provide your dog with a full and enriching life or with the response substitution. Treating pica takes time, patience, and potentially lifelong management, but your dog will be safer and healthier for your efforts.
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