Overview

Severity: Medium - High
Life stage: All
  • Pica in dogs is characterized by the compulsive ingestion of non-food items.
  • Dogs with pica might eat cloth, plastic, wood, paper, or even rocks.
  • The root cause of pica in dogs can be behavioral or medical. 
  • Treatment depends on the cause. It may include medications or behavioral modification.
  • Exercise, mental stimulation, and a proper diet are the best ways to prevent pica.

When it comes to eating, dogs don’t always have the most discerning palates. Most dogs will happily wolf down any food that seems remotely edible.

But sometimes, a dog’s eating habits cross over into a health or behavioral problem. Is your dog eating grass or paper? Is your dog eating wood? Or maybe your dog is eating poop. If so, your dog might have a condition known as pica.

Learn more about pica in dogs including the symptoms, causes, and treatment options. 

What is Pica in Dogs?

Pica in dogs is a health condition characterized by the compulsive ingestion of non-food items like cloth, plastic, wood, paper, or even rocks. Dogs with pica might be obsessed with eating one type of non-food item or they might eat anything they can get their paws on.  

Pica may have an underlying medical cause or it may be behavioral or psychological,” says Dr. Karyn Collier, medical director for wellness medicine at Saint Francis Veterinary Center of South Jersey.

Pica in dogs is typically seen in adolescent and adult dogs. Puppies often ingest non-food items, but this is generally part of normal puppy behavior. Much like human babies, puppies use their mouths to explore the world. While they are experimenting and learning what is and is not food, many puppies chew and swallow things they shouldn’t. Most puppies grow out of this phase. 

Pica disorder in dogs can cause a lot of frustration for pet owners when dogs chew and eat non-food items. But pica is more than an annoyance. Chewing and swallowing non-food objects can be extremely dangerous for a dog. 

Dogs with pica may ingest something toxic or develop gastrointestinal blockages or perforations from swallowed materials. If objects lodge in the stomach or intestinal track and cannot pass through, a veterinarian might have to perform surgery to find and remove the objects. Cases of perforation (where a sharp object pierces the stomach or intestines) can be especially dangerous, requiring immediate surgery.

Symptoms of Pica in Dogs

Symptoms of pica in dogs

Symptoms of pica can be easy to spot if you are around when your dog consumes non-food items. Sometimes, though, the dog might be consuming non-food items in secret. 

A pet owner might notice that their dog is acting sick, showing signs such as vomiting or diarrhea, but might not realize that their dog is eating objects.  

Symptoms of pica in dogs may include:

  • Swallowing non-food items like clothing, plastic, wood, cardboard, dirt or rocks 
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite

What Causes Pica?

The root cause of pica in dogs can be behavioral or medical. 

Behavioral pica is sometimes called stress eating. “Stress, boredom, and anxiety (particularly separation anxiety) may cause a dog to be destructive and ingest things such as bedding, items of clothing, or items from the trash,” Collier says. 

In medical cases nutritional imbalances, endocrine diseases (such as diabetes or thyroid disease), or diseases of malabsorption or maldigestion can cause pica, adds Collier. Pica can also occur as a result of anemia, gastrointestinal parasites, and liver disease.

In some cases, pica might occur as a side effect to a medication, such as steroids, that a dog is taking for an unrelated medical condition. 

Diagnosing Your Dog With Pica

If you or your veterinarian suspect your dog is exhibiting signs of pica, the veterinarian will first perform a complete physical exam to evaluate the dog’s general body condition and look for signs of disease. Your veterinarian will also collect a complete history, asking you detailed questions about your dog’s eating habits, including what food you feed, how frequently the dog eats, and how much. 

The vet will also ask about the dog’s general lifestyle and living environment, like how many people and other pets live in the home, how much time your dog spends alone daily, how much and what type of exercise your dog gets, and other questions that might help the veterinarian narrow down the cause of the pica. 

If the vet suspects a medical cause for the pica, he or she might recommend other tests, such as blood work and a urinalysis. If there is any concern that the dog might have ingested something that is not passing through the digestive system, the veterinarian may also suggest diagnostic imaging, like X-rays or an ultrasound, and possibly surgery. 

Pica Treatment for Dogs

Veterinarian treating pica in a dog

Treatment for pica in dogs depends on what’s causing the dog to ingest non-food items. 

“First and foremost, we want to try to determine what the underlying disease process is and treat that,” Collier says. “If we eliminate the underlying cause, the pica should improve.”

If the pica is being caused by a medical condition, providing treatment for that specific health problem might be all that’s needed to put a stop to the inappropriate eating. 

Sometimes, however, the pica could develop into a bad habit of sorts, especially if the dog has been ingesting non-food items for a long time. If that’s the case, the pet owner might still need to be diligent about keeping items the dog likes to eat out of reach, even after treating the underlying medical condition.

If the pica is due to a nutritional deficiency, your veterinarian might recommend a different type of food, a different amount of food, nutritional supplements, a different feeding schedule or a combination of several of these changes.  

Behavioral pica can be challenging to treat. Resolving the pica is often a combination of training, behavioral reconditioning, environmental enrichment, reducing anxiety and stress, and keeping desirable items away from the dog.  

“For dogs with separation anxiety, owners should provide training and exercise,” Collier says. “It’s also important to make sure that high-energy dogs have appropriate outlets for that energy. Secondly, we eliminate or limit the pet’s access to those items we do not want them to eat.”

For dogs with stress-related pica, make sure the dog gets daily vigorous exercise in the form of walking, jogging, or off-leash play. Provide lots of acceptable chew items and interesting toys to play with, and rotate them regularly (put some away for a few weeks, then bring them back to reinvigorate your dog’s interest in them). 

Examine your dog’s environment for possible anxiety triggers like children who are not interacting responsibly with the dog, other pets in the home that might be causing stress, too much time alone or other things that might be upsetting the dog. 

Your veterinarian will help you develop a treatment program for the pica. With mild cases, you might be able to work with your veterinarian and possibly a dog trainer to identify and eliminate the dog’s stress triggers, as well as train the dog to leave non-food items alone. 

You can also ask for a referral to veterinary behaviorist, who can address both behavioral and medical issues, and even prescribe an anti-anxiety medication if he or she feels it might help the dog. 

Common Medications for Pica in Dogs

Fluoxetine hydrochloride (Reconcile): Reconcile is the veterinary brand of fluoxetine hydrochloride, better known as Prozac in humans. Fluoxetine hydrochloride is type of drug known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Reconcile is FDA approved to treat separation anxiety in dogs. It should always be used under the supervision of a veterinarian and in conjunction with a behavior-modification program.

Clomipramine hydrochloride (Clomicalm): Clomicalm is a type of drug known as a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA). Clomicalm is FDA approved to treat separation anxiety in dogs. This drug should always be used under the supervision of a veterinarian and in conjunction with a behavior-modification program.

Dog-appeasing pheromones (Adaptil): Dog appeasing pheromones (DAP), are a non-drug, natural option designed to help dogs with stress and separation anxiety. Available without a prescription, dog appeasing pheromones may come as a diffuser to be plugged into the home, a spray, or a collar that the dog wears. 

Cost to Treat Pica in Dogs

The cost of treatment for pica in dogs depends on what is causing the pica. Treatment for underlying health conditions varies widely. 

Dogs that suffer from behavioral pica can incur fees for medication and behavioral training in the hundreds of dollars. 

Any dog that experiences an intestinal blockage or other health problems due to eating non-food items might require hospitalization and surgery, which can cost a few hundred to several thousand dollars. 

How to Prevent Pica 

preventing pica in dogs

Some ways to prevent the development of pica in dogs include making sure your dog is getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation, ensuring his nutritional needs are appropriately met, and reducing any stressors in the environment. 

However, the best way to keep your dog from eating non-food items is to always put away the things your dog wants to eat or block access to them so they are out of reach. If your dog is eating grass, rocks, or wood, keep him on a leash while outdoors to prevent problems.  

The use of crates and baby gates can help keep your dog away from things he should not be eating.

Related Conditions 

  • Coprophagia
  • Intestinal Blockage
  • Diarrhea 

Infographic

Pica In Dogs Infographic

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