As a pet parent, you’ve likely found your dog chowing down on all sorts of no-no’s, from shoots of grass in the backyard to crumbs on the kitchen floor. If you’ve discovered your dog eating dirt, though, you’re probably wondering: why?
Typically, the answer to why dogs eat dirt isn’t so worrisome. “In most cases, geophagia (eating dirt) is behavior-driven. It can be as simple as boredom or more compulsive in nature,” says Dr. Kristi Flynn, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
However, sometimes your dog’s dirty habit can point to deeper health issues or put him at risk of developing them, depending on what’s inside the soil he’s eating.
So, what should you do about your dirt-eater? Read on for what you need to know, including why dogs eat dirt, whether it’s dangerous, and how to keep your dog safe from harm.
Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?
“Dogs eating dirt may be caused by an underlying illness, poor nutrition, or a behavioral cause like boredom,” says Dr. Karyn L. Collier, medical director of wellness medicine at the Saint Francis Veterinary Center in New Jersey. It’s a form of pica, a condition where animals eat non-food items.
Often, you’ll discover a puppy eating dirt much like you would a curious toddler with a developing palate—they’re just giving it a taste, says Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, a veterinarian based in the U.K.
Other less common reasons for dogs eating dirt include:
- A nutritional deficiency or imbalance
- Low-quality food
- Upset stomach
“It is thought that dogs with anemia eat dirt because it contains iron, which is essential for growing new red blood cells,” explains Woodnutt. “The soil also contains small amounts of copper, calcium, phosphorus, selenium, and other minerals, so if a pet is deficient in any of these, he may eat soil to try to compensate.” In rare cases, your dog’s food might be at the root of nutritional imbalances that lead to dirt-eating.
Finally, you may find your dog eating grass and dirt (or even stones and gravel) due to gastrointestinal distress.
If you’re concerned about your dog’s dirt-eating habit and want to get to the root cause, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for a complete physical exam and take a stool sample to be tested, suggests Collier.
What Happens if Dogs Eat Dirt?
Whether you’re in your backyard, at the dog park, or out in the woods, dogs eating dirt is rarely dangerous in itself, but it can potentially cause issues.
“When a dog eats dirt, there is a risk that he could ingest [the eggs of] intestinal parasites such as roundworm, hookworm and whipworm, bacteria, viruses, or fungal organisms that could be harmful to him,” says Flynn. Both roundworm and whipworm eggs are hardy and can persist in the environment for years.
If your dog has a habit of eating dirt, and you spend a lot of time in public parks, you should be aware of the parasitic risks. In a recent study of 288 parks across the U.S., roughly half of parks had at least one positive sample for hookworm, roundworm, or whipworm.1 Since there’s no way to prevent exposure to worms at the park, you must take steps to protect your dog against intestinal parasites. By administering a year-round, broad-spectrum parasite control product, such as Interceptor® Plus (milbemycin oxime/praziquantel), you can protect your dog against multiple worms.
See important safety information below for Interceptor® Plus.
While dogs don’t typically eat enough dirt to cause gastrointestinal issues, other than potentially contracting intestinal parasites, dogs eating stones and dirt may develop intestinal blockages, which require surgical removal. If your dog is grinding down on hard or sharp objects like rocks and sticks, he could also damage his gums, teeth, and esophagus.
Finally, if your dog is digging around in areas with known contamination (such as your flower bed, where he may eat poisonous bulbs or be exposed to pesticides and fertilizers), he could risk poisoning himself. In this case, call your veterinarian immediately for advice, Woodnutt says.
1Elanco. Data on File.
How to Stop a Dog From Eating Dirt
“For most growing dogs, eating dirt is a bit of a phase, and they’ll grow out of it,” says Woodnutt. While your automatic reaction might be to yell and pull your dog away, avoid making a big deal of it. This may inadvertently make matters worse by triggering fear, stress, and anxiety—all of which can lead to worsening of the behavior, explains Flynn.
Instead, encourage your dog to stay away from dirt as much as possible with training and rewards. For example, if your dog gravitates toward a certain spot to eat dirt (like the corner of your yard), put him on a leash and when you walk past that spot, reward him with a toy or treats for leaving it alone.
Of course, to stop your dog from eating dirt out of boredom, make sure he’s getting plenty of regular exercise and mental stimulation, adds Collier. If nothing seems to deter your dog from eating dirt, you can also train him to wear a basket muzzle when he’s outside.
Again, if you suspect a deeper health issue may be at the root of your dog’s dirt-eating habit, reach out to your veterinarian for help. In many cases, though, a little training and lots of playtime should do the trick.
Interceptor Plus prevents heartworm disease and treats and controls adult roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, and tapeworm infections in dogs and puppies 6 weeks or older and 2 pounds or greater.
Interceptor Plus Important Safety Information
Treatment with fewer than 6 monthly doses after the last exposure to mosquitoes may not provide complete heartworm prevention. Prior to administration of Interceptor Plus, dogs should be tested for existing heartworm infections. The safety of Interceptor Plus has not been evaluated in dogs used for breeding or in lactating females. The following adverse reactions have been reported in dogs after administration of milbemycin oxime or praziquantel: vomiting, diarrhea, decreased activity, incoordination, weight loss, convulsions, weakness, and salivation. For complete safety information, please see Interceptor Plus product label or ask your veterinarian.
Disclaimer: The author received compensation from Elanco US Inc., the maker of Interceptor Plus, for her services in writing this article.
Interceptor is a trademark of Elanco or its affiliates.
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