Pica in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Eating Non-Food Things?

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.

Pica in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Eating Non-Food Things?

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.

To summarize

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.

Categories: PicaSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

  1. I did not know dogs got pica! I thought it was a cat thing (wool sucking and stuff) so to realise it is a cross species thing and that there could be a lot of different causes is startling.

    I know the symptoms would worry any dog parent so knowing there are several causes gives them options to discuss with the veterinary office and areas to investigate. Knowing somethings let’s you take action which for a dog parent is important

    This is definitely an ‘I had no idea’ moment!

  2. WOW!!! What an informative article. I would never think about a dog trying to eat everything in sight because their stomach was hurting. I would think if their stomach hurt they wouldn’t be eating at all. Very interesting.! I’m tucking this one away in my dog information vault in my brain. Thankfully, Henry isn’t eating everything in sight. Although, he does enjoy grass every now and again. But he’s only thrown up twice since I’ve adopted him. So, I think for now, I’ll store this information for future use. And I’m passing this one along. It will certainly help a lot of other dog parents.

  3. That’s such a great point, that it could be a response to a physical problem, not just behavioral. I’ll have to remember that. I had a foster dog that chewed up everything in sight, including the carpet, floor of her crate, anything. It could have had a physical cause.

  4. My sister’s Pug had pica and needed surgery to remove part of a towel she ingested. I’m not sure what the cause of her pica was, but they did eventually get it under control.

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