What Causes Pica in Dogs?

PetMD Editorial
By PetMD Editorial
Published: January 16, 2018
What Causes Pica in Dogs?

By Diana Bocco

Pica is a condition in which dogs crave and eat non-food items. Some dogs may only eat one type of object, while others will eat a wide variety of items. Pica can endanger a dog’s health because what they swallow may be toxic, disrupt normal digestive process, or get lodged in their intestinal tract.

Dogs with pica may eat anything from golf balls to drywall, but items that carry their owner’s scent tend to be a particular favorite, says Dr. Kelly Black, faculty coordinator of veterinary technology at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, Texas. "Things like socks, underwear, and pantyhose seem to be more frequent than others," she says. "Towels and washcloths are also very common, as well as parts of dog beds if they have one."

Other items you may observe your dog eating include rocks, children’s toys, batteries, books, magazines, and even wet wipes, Black says. "I once saw a practice hockey puck that was swallowed intact by a Labrador Retriever," she says. "I think some of the items are eaten simply due to the smells associated with them. The dogs seem to see them as food items and will repeatedly eat the same type of item, even if it causes them to get really sick or require surgery."

Pica should not be confused with coprophagia, or the ingestion of feces. "Fecal ingestion is most common in puppies, but often carries over into adult dogs as well," Black explains. "With coprophagia, it is thought that some dogs simply find the fecal material appealing and actually like the flavor, which makes it a particularly hard habit to break once they get started."

Diagnosing Pica in Dogs

Pica is generally diagnosed as a result of the behavior itself. "There may be abnormalities that can be detected in lab work if the condition is associated with other diseases, but not for pica itself," Black explains. This is because pica isn't always connected to an underlying medical condition.

While identifying pica itself might not be difficult, figuring out what's causing it can be tricky. According to Black, anything from starvation or nutritional imbalances to hormonal imbalances and diseases such as diabetes and thyroid problems can all contribute to the condition. "Some breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers, are more prone to pica," Black adds.

In order to determine if an underlying medical issue is to blame, your vet might need to do blood, urine, stool, and other tests to check for improper digestion/malabsorption, the presence of parasites, and more, explains integrative veterinarian Dr. Carol Osborne of Chagrin Falls Pet Clinic in Ohio.  

In addition, pica can also be triggered by emotional issues such as separation anxiety and stress. "We typically think of dogs with separation anxiety as being destructive, but in some cases, they are also eating part or all of the items they are destroying," Black says. "And boredom will frequently cause dogs with high energy to seek out something to do."

Treating and Preventing Pica in Dogs

Dealing with pica may require two different approaches: addressing any underlying health or behavioral issues and if none are found, preventing the pica itself.

Health problems are often the simplest to address. "For example, if it is found that the condition is due to a nutritional deficiency, it may be an easy fix to either supplement the missing nutrient or switch diets or in the case of parasites, to treat those," Black says.

Osborne also recommends making dietary changes. "Three or four small meals daily are physiologically easier for the body to digest, absorb, and assimilate as opposed to one or two larger daily meals," Osborne says. "Dogs with pica often have some type of digestive disturbance as reflected in their abnormal dietary preferences, and improved levels of nutrition can help to reduce that behavior."

Adding an enzyme supplement, probiotics, and comprehensive supplements such as antioxidants to the diet might also help, Osborne says. "While lab tests are pending, nutrition is the critical missing link," she says. 

On the other hand, if pica is connected to anxiety or boredom, treating the anxiety or supplying more stimulation and activity will often help, Black says. "There are several medical treatments available for anxiety in dogs, and these may help if anxiety is the underlying cause," she says. Some dogs also respond to stimulation—and a wide and rotating selection of chew toys maybe enough to keep them busy and out of trouble.

If no underlying cause to your dog’s pica can be found, there are things you can do prevent further problems, such as removing the kind of items your dog likes to eat. "For instance, if they are eating socks or underwear, getting a hamper that the dog cannot break into would prevent them from accessing the item they crave," Black says. This is especially important if your dog favors objects that can cause gastrointestinal obstructions because of their size or the type of material.

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