Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?

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PetMD Editorial
Published: February 25, 2016

By Cheryl Lock

As much as we love our pups, sometimes they do things that just confuse us. One behavior that makes us stop and scratch our heads is when we catch our dogs digging around at the ground and eating dirt. It can’t taste good, right? And do we need to be worried about the fact that our dog just downed some mud? Are there any negative health consequences to this particular action?

For starters, don’t be too worried right off the bat. “Eating dirt is not too uncommon when it comes to canine cuisine,” says Mary R. Burch, PhD and the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen Director and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. “In most cases, unless it is frequent and the dog eats large amounts of dirt, it’s not a problem.”

Of course there are some times when this love of dirt could be cause for concern. PetMD checked in with the experts to get to the bottom of why our dogs eat dirt—and what, if anything, we should be doing to stop this behavior.

Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?

When we think about the things that our dogs love in general, it may start to make a bit more sense why they might be interested in eating dirt. “Dogs like to dig into and consume all kinds of smelly, pungent things, like trash, kitty litter and toilet paper,” says Dr. Oscar E. Chavez, BVetMed, MRCVS, MBA. “For these dogs, dirt is a delicacy and they are eating it simply because that’s what they like to do.”

Of course pure tastiness or interest isn’t the only reason your dog might be doing all this dirty work — he could be attempting to make up for some dietary deficiencies, since dirt is filled with minerals, explains Chavez.

Should I Be Worried About My Dog Eating Dirt?

If your dog has occasionally dipped into the dirt and doesn’t appear to be making a habit out of it, there’s not too much to be worried about (assuming the dirt your dog is consuming is free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals, like snail or slug bait, says Dr. Burch). However, if you’ve been feeding your dog a homemade diet rather than commercial dog food, and you’ve noticed that she’s been digging around in the dirt and eating more of it lately, it may be time to check in with a vet. “Due to a distrust in standard commercial pet food, more and more pet owners are making their own food at home,” says Chavez. “Homemade food can be a great way to feed your dogs, but only if the food is balanced. If you are feeding a homemade diet and your dog is eating dirt, you should be concerned about deficiencies.”

Aside from a potential lack of general nutrients in your dog’s diet, there are a few others things to be on the lookout for when it comes to your dog’s love of dirt. For starters, in rare cases, Dr. Chavez says that dogs with anemia may take a liking to dirt. “The theory is that their bodies are trying to obtain more iron, specifically, in response to the anemia,” he said. “If this reason is suspected, the dogs should be evaluated by a vet to rule out causes of anemia.”

Additionally, in very rare cases, pica — or the condition of eating or consuming non-nutrients as food — can be seen as a sign of other disorders including gastrointestinal and liver disease. “Again, if the dog is not feeling well or not acting normal, but is eating dirt, then a visit to the veterinarian for a physical exam and basic lab work may be warranted,” says Chavez.

How to Make Your Dog Stop Eating Dirt

As with most things that involve our pups, plain old yelling won’t help and may actually make problems worse, says Burch. “You want to start by asking a few questions,” she says. “How often does your dog do this? Is it periodically, or does she make it her life’s mission to find and eat dirt? There are some compulsive behaviors that look like this, and if the behavior is frequent and intense, you should contact an animal behaviorist.”

If, however, your dog is more of a casual dirt eater, Birch suggests trying the following:

1. Make sure your dog has adequate physical exercise every single day. “Dogs that are well exercised are more relaxed and they get into far less trouble,” she says.

2. Consider training. “Training gives a dog something to think about, and sometimes reduces behavior problems,” says Burch.

3. If you catch your dog getting ready to eat dirt, stop the chain of behavior by replacing it with something that’s acceptable for him or her to chew, or a non-compatible activity, like running and playing ball.

4. Keep a variety of acceptable and safe chew toys around that your dog can easily find. There are several interactive toy options where you can hide a treat, and your dog might enjoy working towards that goal.

5. Control the environment. “If it’s not there, she can’t eat it,” says Dr. Burch. “If the dirt eating is coming from one small area, consider covering it to discourage the dog from eating the soil.

Talk to your veterinarian about the benefits of deworming. Gastrointestinal parasitism may be a cause or an effect of dirt eating.

If your dog is eating dirt for any reason other than a medical one, with just a little bit of extra work on your part, you should be able to get his dirty little habit under control.

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Image: Sally Wallis via Shutterstock