Pica in Dogs: Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

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Black Chihuahua who has received help for pica disorder

The ingestion of non-food items, such as rocks, dirt or fabric, is called pica disorder and it’s a fairly common occurrence in pets. Pica doesn’t include the ingestion of trash or feces, since the consumption of such things is often driven by different motivations.

What causes dog pica?

The causes of pica can be hard to determine, but can include gastrointestinal disease, anemia, liver disease, pancreatic disease, diseases causing excess appetite (such as diabetes), neurologic diseases, poor diet, being on medications such as prednisone, behavioral disorders such as anxiety, or a depraved home environment. Pica can even be a symptom of normal exploratory behavior.

Examining an animal’s environment and lifestyle

When attempting to assess why your dog (or cat) may be engaging in this habit, consider the animal’s environment and lifestyle. Does the animal get enough exercise? Does he or she get an appropriate amount of attention? Are appropriate chew or play toys made available? Is there competition for resources? That is, could the dog or cat be eating inappropriate things to prevent another pet from getting to it first? Does the animal have a fairly consistent routine? Are there other things that could be causing stress for the animal?

Diagnosing pica by visiting a veterinarian

If you think your pet has pica, a thorough medical work-up is recommended. Along with a complete physical exam, this should include a fecal examination to check for gastrointestinal (GI) parasites and blood work to look for conditions such as anemia, liver disease, diabetes or pancreatic disease. Depending on the signs your animal is showing, more specific blood work, to see if the GI tract is perhaps not absorbing nutrients, may be required. Typically, this involves checking folate and cobalamin levels and doing a TLI (trypsin-like immunoreactivity) test to check for pancreatic function.

X-rays may also be warranted if there is concern about a GI obstruction and to rule out other potential causes of pica. Of course, if abnormalities are noted, further testing may be needed. Describing all the diagnostic options could fill a chapter in a textbook. If an abnormality is found, the best course is to treat for that abnormality and see if the pica improves.

The cause of pica in a particular animal can be difficult to identify. It can be frustrating not having an answer that allows for specific treatment, but if a medical cause is identified, it usually either carries a poor prognosis or is expensive to fix.

If the problem isn’t medical, but behavioral

If medical reasons have been ruled out, then it’s worth consulting a veterinary behaviorist. If one isn’t available in your area or within your budget, consulting with your veterinarian or a trainer may be helpful. Your veterinarian should be able to direct you to other professionals with expertise in dog and cat behavior.

There are some basic things that you can try without working with a behavior specialist, although working with one does allow for the greatest chance of stopping the pica behavior. First, make sure the animal is on a good-quality diet. Sometimes this change is all that’s needed. Along with diet, make sure the animal has plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. Give the pet appropriate toys to play with, make sure he gets plenty of human interaction and, of course, take him for walks.

Next, if possible, limit the animal’s access to the items he constantly tries to eat. For instance, if your dog eats rocks, keep him out of rocky areas of the yard or parks. If this is too difficult or restrictive, have more attractive options available for the dog — such as treats or a Kong — when he’s in rocky areas. In extreme cases, a basket muzzle may also be helpful, but make sure the muzzle doesn’t restrict the dog’s ability to breathe. Remember, too, that the dog should not wear the muzzle for extended periods of time.

Reducing anxiety in pets

Another thing to do is to remove any obvious stressors. For example, if your pet gets nervous when you play loud music, turn down the volume or wear headphones. If your dog gets agitated when the neighbor mows her lawn, keep your dog inside or take him on an adventure away from the activity. Also, provide a regular schedule for your pet. Regular walks, feeding times and play times let an animal know that these things are coming and can decrease anxiety. Above all else, don’t punish your animal for eating inappropriate things. This is not an effective training method.

When pica is believed to be associated with anxiety, there are some medications that can help. However, it is important to use medications only under the direction of a veterinarian, and to make sure you are working on the behavior as well. For instance, a dog who is anxious because he gets inadequate exercise will not be made better by putting him on a psychotropic drug. Rather, the dog needs regular exercise appropriate for his age and breed.

Managing pica disorder

In a lot of cases, pica can be managed. If it’s not managed, though, it can lead to destruction of belongings, dental problems for your pet or, worst of all, emergency medical problems if the consumed object causes an obstruction or is toxic to your pet.