The definition of pica is persistent, compulsive eating of non-food things.
That does not include things that are food, just not designated for your dog, things that could technically pass as food to a dog, and poop (coprophagia). It does include items that are unquestionably not food, such as sticks, rocks, DVDs, shoes, underwear … in other words, anything and everything they can get their paws on.
Why would a dog not know what is food and what is not?
Puppies, of course, are a different story; they are still learning what is edible and what is not, and what better way to learn than by eating random things to find out? Puppies explore the world with their noses and mouths, just like kids do. The rationale in their minds is that if it fits in the mouth, it’s meant to be eaten unless proven otherwise. Some of these things might smell very attractive (to a dog), such as dirty socks or underwear.
To complicate matters further, human dwellings are packed with inedible stuff.
Chewing things versus eating them
There is a difference between chewing things up and actually eating them, too.
A bored, stressed, or uneducated dog can shred just about anything they find. Cookie, when we adopted her, would chew up anything in sight. She grew up tied up outside all along. Whatever was there was a fair game. She had to learn that some things are meant to be chewed on, and some are not.
Potential causes of pica in dogs
What if your adult dog starts eating everything in sight?
Typically, pica is chalked up to a behavioral problem. Though that is sometimes true, is that all there is to it? I don’t believe so.
Anxiety, depression, or frustration could cause your dog’s destructive behavior and perhaps pica as well. However, with my dogs, I always want to rule out any possibility of a medical reason first.
“Pica could be related to nutritional deficiencies, metabolic imbalance, intestinal parasites or diseases such as diabetes, Cushing’s, gastritis or inflammatory bowel disease.” ~Dr. Rob Butler
I remember a story from Four Paws, Five Directions about a dog who would wolf down everything in sight to get sick and even require surgery. Trying to manage the problem has become frustrating enough for the owners to consult with an integrative practitioner.
“The dog was trying to put out a fire, literally.” ~Dr. Cheryl Schwarts, DVM
When you’re approach doesn’t get good results, it’s necessary to change a point of view. We ended up dabbling into integrative veterinary medicine for a different reason, but we did that because conventional medicine could not provide an answer or a solution to Jasmine’s problems.
Where is the fire?
What can be this elusive fire the dog is trying to put out?
The better question is, how elusive is the fire, really? Enter Bridget. Bridget suffered from severe pica. She’d eat anything not nailed down. Enough grass to explode, blankets, toys … it was believed she was doing that to make herself throw up. And throw up she did. But why?
It took many veterinary visits until Bridget was finally diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis. That certainly qualifies as fire.
Another friend’s dog would fall into an “eat everything” rage when on steroids. Pica can be a symptom of high blood cortisol levels, whether artificial, such as a dog being on steroids, or internal, such as a dog suffering from Cushing’s disease.
High cortisol, a stress hormone, is another form of fire that the dog is trying to put out.
When dealing with pica, look for the fire. Your dog might suffer from GI issues, stomach pain, tumors, an endocrine condition, diabetes …
I always give my dog the benefit of the doubt. I’d be looking for a cause instead of locking my dog in an empty crate to prevent them from eating everything.
The other day a friend mentioned her dog got sick after eating a bunch of rocks and grass. My question was, did he get sick from eating those things, or was he eating those things because he was already ill? That is the million-dollar question.