When your dog eats non-food items such as clothes, shoes, and the ends of furniture, it’s natural to assume that this is normal puppy or adult dog behavior. However, there are times when this habit could be a sign of something more serious, perhaps even a condition called pica. Pica is a compulsive disorder in which dogs compulsively eat non-food items. Rocks are the most common item consumed, but wooden objects, plastic bags, and soil are also common when pica is present. While there are things that can be done at home to help deal with pica, extreme cases might require pet counselling.
Symptoms of Pica in Dogs
Pica can be very hard to identify because puppies and dogs chew on things all the time, so how can a pet owner distinguish a difference between that and pica?
- Puppy years: Just about every puppy chews on something, if not just about anything they can sink their teeth into. Some believe this is due to the fact that they’re exploring their surroundings, but most grow out of it within six months of time. It is a period when just about every item – food and non-food – is fair game, but it is very temporary.
- Eating grass: This is also something that many dogs do quite often. Eating grass is thought to settle upset stomachs, eliminate worms and parasites, and calm animals in general. Eating soil is less common but is also considered fairly normal behavior. Dogs that eat excessive amounts of either of these items however, may have a pica condition.
- Destructive chewing: Dogs sometimes make a point of chewing non-food items in different situations, such as when they’re mad that you’ve left them home alone, or because travel situations have stressed them out. During these incidents nothing that’s chewed and torn is actually consumed and therefore, is not considered to be pica. However, you do still want to check their mouths to ensure that nothing has gotten stuck that they could possibly choke on.
- Medical conditions: There are certain medical conditions that could cause your dog to want to chew non-food items. These include an infestation of parasites, digestive problems, a problem with their metabolism, a dietary imbalance or deficiency in nutrition, or possible poisoning. Before anything is done to resolve the pica, you need to speak to your veterinarian to rule out any underlying issues.
Treating a Pica Problem in Dogs
Once you’ve identified the problem as pica, there are simple things you can do that can help correct the problem.
One of the biggest reasons dogs start eating non-food items is because they are bored and so, many of the remedies for the condition include simple changes in lifestyle. Some things you and your dog might find helpful are:
- Finding appropriate things for the dog to chew on. Lots of sturdy toys such as Tricky Treat balls or Kong stuffed with food or peanut butter are in order here. These toys will stand up to the beating your dog is sure to give them and will redirect their attention from the non-food items you’re trying to keep them from.
- Getting lots of exercise. An exhausted dog is much less likely to wander through the house looking for things to tear up than one that’s been pent up in the house all day and is full of energy. Make sure you take your dog on lots of walks and even run free if that’s possible so they can expend some of their energy.
- Finding playtime. While sometimes you need to just give your dog a toy and let them play with it on their own, they need one-on-one time with you too. While walks are nice, there’s not a lot of interaction during that time so set aside a few extra minutes to play tug, fetch, or whatever your favorite pastime is.
- Changing dog food. Pica can develop when a diet is deficient in the proper nutrients that dogs need. Speak to your vet about the proper diet for your dog and see if that clears up any compulsive behavior.
- Block all access to favorite items. Dogs experiencing pica don’t often have the “anything and everything” mentality that puppies and stressed dogs do. Instead, they usually attach themselves to certain objects to eat and will even go out of their way to find them. When this is the case, block access to the item as much as you can by placing it high in a cupboard or out of reach.
- Monitor your dog at all times. Keeping your dog with you so that you can supervise them will not only ensure that you can stop them from consuming non-food items, but may also help identify that behaviors or stressors that bring on the pica.
- Muzzle your dog. This may seem like an extreme option, but if you can’t monitor your dog, placing a muzzle over them is a gentle way to ensure that they won’t be eating anything they shouldn’t while you’re away.
- Contact a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. If you’ve tried everything you can think of to try and deal with the pica on your own and the behavior still hasn’t stopped, contact one of these specialists. They are experts in dog behavior and can be a great counsellor for your pet.
Some people opt to use devices called “remote punishers” to help treat their dog with pica. These are small devices that will deter your dog from picking up their favorite non-food items either by shocking them slightly or blasting an air horn. Before using these drastic measures, first try to resolve the issue with simple changes in your routine, and by speaking to your veterinarian if those measures don’t return favorable results. We don’t recommend using those devices. Remote punishers can traumatize your pet and are unnecessary when there are much simpler and safer options available.