As any dog caregiver knows, dogs can sometimes be less than discriminating about chewing and swallowing inedible things, including rocks, gravel, wood, string, pantyhose, and sometimes feces. The official name for eating non-edible objects is “pica”, and it is frustrating to the human, but it can be downright dangerous to the dog. Pica can cause broken teeth, intestinal blockages, vomiting, diarrhea, and possible death.
Probably the most distressing form of pica is coprophagy—a Greek word that literally translates “eating feces.” As humans we find it disgusting, but it is not unusual for dogs to eat their own stools or that of other dogs, or the deposits left in the cat’s litter box.
So why do dogs eat weird stuff? No one really knows, but many animal behaviorists offer these theories:
- Instinct…in the wild parent dogs consume the waste of their young offspring to keep their dens clean.
- Frustration or boredom. Mindless eating is sometimes a reaction to stress or anxiety. Dogs can’t refill their own food bowls when they are hungry or bored, so they may turn to the environment for something to eat.
- Nutritional deficiencies. Experts speculate that dogs eat things like rocks or feces in order to obtain some nutrient missing in their diets, but there have been no documented studies to support this theory.
- Chewing compulsions. Some claim that dogs who are avid chewers simply get carried away and swallow non-edible objects that they are chewing on.
Veterinary Practice News editor Marilyn Iturri created a contest in 2007 to showcase the humorous situations vets and pet caregivers face when dealing with dogs eating inappropriate objects, and the competition was a hit with readers, so each year they have a “They ate What?” Contest. Iturra said that dogs seem to often eat golf balls, small rubber balls, rubber ducks, and clothing items, plus a variety of metal objects not meant for consumption
The last contest included a 2-month old rat terrier experiencing with vomiting and stomach pain. Radiographs found a small metal clip, and approximately 14 inches of a bra and bra strap had to be surgically removed from the stomach and small intestine. Norris is thriving, but he is no longer allowed in the family laundry room.
Another entry was a Great Dane who started vomiting, and after exploratory surgery, the family was shocked to find out that their dog had eaten 43 socks… actually 43 ½ socks!
Colby, a l0-month old Golden Retriever, threw up for nearly two days before his owners took him to the vet where they discovered he had eaten a light bulb…an entire, intact light bulb. After a day of intravenous fluids, he passed the light bulb intact.
Hopefully your dog won’t eat items that could be hazardous to his health, but it is important to try to control your dog’s eating strange stuff.
- Visit with your veterinarian to rule out medical problems, and make sure your dog is getting good nutrition without a lot of fillers or chemical additives in their food.
- Manage the problem, by supervising the dog to prevent him from ingesting non-edible objects, and when you can’t be there, keep the dog in an environment free of weird objects that they might eat. Provide appropriate, inedible play and chewing materials.
- Provide positive attention, exercise, training and play. Tired, socially tended dogs spend less time expressing oral energy than their wired, lonely counterparts do.
- Treat the objects your dog is attracted to with something that has a bad taste. Listerine, vinegar, or commercial products like Bitter Apple will usually discourage her from eating them. When you do catch your dog eating a nasty thing, take the object away, and redirect her to an acceptable chew toy.
- Resist the temptation to scold, as this may be interpreted by your dog as attention and inadvertently reinforce the behavior…Never punish your dog for this behavior…It will only make him fearful or aggressive.
Be alert for symptoms that suggest your dog has swallowed a substance that may form an indigestible mass and has blocked the intestines. When symptoms such as pain, lack of bowel movements, abdominal bloat or distention are present, immediate medical evaluation is needed. Swallowed objects can present a medical hazard to your dog, (and can be very expensive) so it is important to do all you can to prevent serious problems and keep your dog’s digestive system free of foreign objects.