Signs, Symptoms and Treatments for Pica in Dogs

Pica in dogs is a condition where dogs consume things that aren’t food. While most dogs chew on various items that aren’t edible, only a small number swallow them — that’s pica. Why is this a problem? Eating and swallowing non-food items could be dangerous and cause serious medical conditions like intestinal blockage, which can be life-threatening.

Here’s what you need to know about this little-known but common disorder’s symptoms, treatments, and prevention.

What Is Canine Pica? What Causes Pica In Dogs?

When a dog consumes non-edible objects, they are said to have pica. This condition can occur at any stage of a dog’s life.

In puppyhood, dogs can’t help but chew on all kinds of things like shoes, furniture, and you. This behavior is typical in puppies, as it’s their way of exploring the world around them. Gnawing on pretty much anything can also be a sign of teething, which typically ends when dogs get their adult teeth (around six months).

There is a difference between chewing and consuming, though. Dogs are natural chewers; it’s how they clean their teeth and burn off energy. When they swallow the inedible objects, however, that’s consuming, and it’s dangerous.

When a dog has pica, they often consume (chew and/or swallow):

  • Rocks
  • Toilet paper
  • Fabric
  • Cardboard
  • Socks
  • Metal or plastic objects
  • Dirt
  • Newspapers/magazines

Some dogs eat their own poop or feces from other animals. This condition is coprophagia, not pica.

Determining the cause of pica can be difficult, as there’s no universal reason dogs consume non-food items. With that said, there are a few physical and psychological issues to rule out as the reason behind pica. Your dog may eat unusual things because of:

  • Hunger
  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Boredom
  • Excessive energy
  • Diseases such as diabetes and thyroid disorders
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Enjoy the taste

Symptoms Of Pica In Dogs

The most obvious sign of pica is your dog eating (chewing and swallowing) something they shouldn’t. However, you can’t keep a constant eye on your dog, so you might not see them consume non-food items.

Here are the signs or symptoms of pica in dogs to watch for, which can also be symptoms of other conditions, which is why it’s important to see a vet if you notice:

  • Gagging or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Choking
  • Drooling (more than usual)
  • Burping (more than usual)
  • Lethargy
  • Bad breath
  • Abdominal pain
  • Ulcers
  • Gastrointestinal blockage
  • Poisoning
  • Trouble breathing
  • Lack of appetite

These symptoms don’t necessarily appear right away. In fact, it could take several hours before you see a change in your dog’s behavior or signs like the inability to defecate. If you witnessed your pet eat a non-food item, contact your veterinarian and tell them what your pet ingested, how much, how long ago, and symptoms or strange behaviors. Contact your local emergency veterinary hospital if your vet’s office is closed, or they don’t have an emergency vet available.

What Do You Do To Treat Dogs With Pica?

Why your pet is eating non-food things will determine the best treatment. Addressing a health problem like diabetes is often easier than a behavioral one. For this reason, if you observe your pet eating non-food items, you should have your dog examined by their veterinarian to rule out or treat pica if the problem is indeed an underlying medical issue. If tests indicate that your dog has a nutritional deficiency, adding a comprehensive supplement may help. On the other hand, if the exam and tests show no health troubles, it’s time to address behavioral issues.

In the unfortunate event your dog ingests something causing a gastrointestinal or respiratory blockage, there are a few approaches depending on the object’s size and your dog. If the item is small enough, the dog may pass it on their own, or your veterinarian may be able to remove the object with an endoscope (a flexible tube that goes down the throat). In some cases, the blockage can become life-threatening and require surgery.

How To Prevent Pica In Dogs

BarxBuddy consulting veterinarian Dr. Sara Ochoa told us, “Some dogs will eat things because they are hungry. Make sure that you are feeding your dog a high-quality diet. Young dogs can be very energetic and burn a lot of energy and need more calories than a smaller or older, more sedentary dog. Make sure that you are feeding your dog enough food to meet their energy requirements.”

Be sure to remove access to non-food items that your pet likes to eat. For instance, if your dog eats socks or underwear, this is a great time to clean up and put clothes away!

For pica behavior related to anxiety, stress, boredom, or for those dogs that just enjoy eating unusual stuff, providing adequate daily physical and mental stimulation and activities may help improve the condition.

Positive reinforcement and training can further aid in addressing pica in dogs with behavioral issues. If your pet goes for something they shouldn’t, give a command such as “leave it” and redirect them with treats or a chew toy that’s safe to gnaw on and keep them occupied (aka out of trouble).

While there’s no single cause of pica, regularly observing your dog and knowing their behaviors can help you address and prevent this dangerous condition.

FAQs About Canine Pica

Can dogs eat cardboard? And, relatedly: why does my dog eat cardboard? Dogs should not eat cardboard and, no, it isn’t safe or healthy or harmless. If you wonder why your dog is eating cardboard, it could be for any of the reasons we’ve mentioned, including “because it’s there.” Even though it is made from paper pulp, cardboard is indigestible and can cause serious gastrointestinal problems. Would you eat cardboard? No. So, neither should your dog.

Do dogs stress eat? Yep. If you suspect that your dog is stress eating, talk to your veterinarian about a healthy, long-lasting food-safe chew that will keep your dog occupied to help him burn off that nervous energy. Regular daily walks and exercise can also tire them out, so they don’t have time to feel stressed.

When a dog chews wood, does that indicate nutritional deficiency? Possibly. Consult your veterinarian about the best food to feed your dog, one that is nutritionally balanced, and consider adding a multivitamin supplement to their food or water every day.

Why do dogs chew on dirt and rocks? It’s possible that your dog has pica, as we described in this article. Not much is known about what drives dogs to eat dirt and rocks — since dogs can’t speak, it’s hard to ask them! Your veterinarian can help you determine if your dog has a mineral deficiency that would benefit from a change in their diet or a supplement. A puppy eating dirt and rocks may be less of a concern, as they’re still learning what’s food and what’s not — still, mention it to your vet to ensure your puppy isn’t suffering from canine pica.

Why does my dog eat tissues and toilet paper? Because it’s there. Because they can. Because they suffer from pica. All of the above. Not much is known about why dogs eat weird things like paper products all of a sudden, but by treating them with your veterinarian, you can prevent and redirect this unwanted behavior.

Should I be worried about my dog eating fabric? Uh, yes, you should. You definitely should. Clothing and fabric are among the most dangerous non-food items that dogs eat. They don’t break down in the digestive tract, and they can cause life-threatening intestinal blockage. Call your emergency vet line immediately, if your dog has swallowed fabric.

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