Pica: The Funny Little Word for a Potentially Serious Pet Behavior Problem

Patty Khuly, DVM
Written by:
Published: March 9, 2011
Pica: The Funny Little Word for a Potentially Serious Pet Behavior Problem

I was sitting around the house this past weekend, fretting miserably over my next blog post's topic-lessness, when Slumdog, my genetically challenged pug mix, came prancing in from the back yard with a half-eaten cardboard box in his mouth. Twenty-four hours later would prove it: Slumdog had actually eaten the other half of the box.

Lest you fail to grasp the importance of this event in normal pet terms, let me describe the box in question: It was approximately 12 by 12 by 18 inches. It had until recently held a large copper sconce I'd had installed in my back patio. And now, more than half of its fibrous bulk was slowly making its way out into the world via Slumdog's intestines.

But have no fear — Slumdog's guts have seen far worse. Indeed, I have to assume they are insensitive to the kind of insult a mere half-box would offer, seeing as he's consumed entire rolls of toilet paper (once, while sitting in front of the object as it gradually unspooled), cat-soiled magazines, swaths of used butcher paper (yummy!) and multiple used food containers (paper, preferably).

What can I say? The dog has always had a thing for paper. And thankfully, it's not yet killed him. Nor is it likely to, given that he seems to love chewing it. But why does he do it? Damned if I know.

Pica, we call it. That's the medical term for eating stuff that's not meant to be eaten. And why animals (or humans) do it has been a subject of intense debate for millennia. Is he hungry? Is he lacking nutrients in his food? Does he need more outlets for his chewing (teething) drive? Does he have a mental health disorder?

The honest truth is that we don't really know; a fact that may be reflected in this excellent explanation of the derivation of the term itself (etymology courtesy of the scholarly publication, Pediatrics):

Pica was first used as a term for a perverted craving for substances unfit to be used as food by Ambrose Paré (1509-1590). Pica is the medieval Latin name for the bird called the magpie, who, it is claimed, has a penchant for eating almost anything. When we say a child is suffering from pica, we are really calling him a magpie.

In the case of pets — as for human infants and children — pica is an issue largely complicated by the inability to easily communicate with the patient. Why the creature is trying to consume non comestibles is just not something we can readily fathom without the option of verbal explanation.

So what's a veterinarian (or pediatrician) to do?

In Slumdog's case, as for most of my patients, the issue comes down to several major points of order:

1. Is the animal receiving appropriate nutrition (calories and nutrients)?

2. Is the animal suffering from any discernible biological imbalance?

3. Is the animal allowed sufficient opportunities to display normal chewing behavior?

4. Does the animal display any other behavioral abnormalities that might be relevant to this one?

5. Is the animal's health threatened by this behavior?

The approach here is to rule out other conditions — especially those that have a discreet treatment pathway — and when none are identified, to decide between the following options: (a) stop the behavior at all costs; or (b) ignore it.

In Slumdog's case the penchant for paper has rarely proved dangerous. Though I do my best to keep bathroom doors closed and paper napkins from hitting the floor, paper products will invariably go astray in a household whose thirteen-year-old member hasn't yet acquired an adult sense of responsibility in these matters.

The rationale for my little magpie's kooky antics will probably ever elude me, but I suspect it has something to do with his neurological disease (hydrocephalus). That and his extreme feeding behavior, which I've detailed here in the past.

What can I say to excuse his behavior? Nothing. But at least there's one foul pica behavior that I can rest assured he’s not engaging in: stool snacks.

Thank God for small favors, right?


Dr. Patty Khuly

Image: Micimakin / Shutterstock

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