Thursday, August 1, 2013

How to Help Dogs with Compulsive Pica

By Langley Cornwell

We’ve all laughed over the old excuse “the dog ate my homework,” but even a phrase as innocent as that might not be funny to someone whose dog has compulsive pica.

Pica is characterized by a desire to consume substances that are non-nutritive, and it can affect not only dogs but also cats, as Julia covered in her article Does Your Cat Eat Strange Things? In fact, people can suffer from pica, too.

The first dog I had as an adult—a rescued black lab—had pica and I didn’t know it. When she was 10 years old she got very sick. My regular vet and an emergency vet had no idea what was wrong and, surprisingly, multiple x-rays revealed nothing. I lived in a college town with a well-respected veterinary school, so my vet took my dog to the school for examination. After more fluid-bags and pills than I could count, with my sweet baby barely hanging on, my vet said the only thing he could do was exploratory surgery.

I still credit that vet with saving Sadie’s life. Apparently she had an extreme case of pica. He had a quart-sized bag full of treasures that he found in my dog’s intestinal tract, including seashells, twist ties, rocks and the finger of a garden glove. He said her system had probably done a good job of passing these things in the past, but what got her in trouble this time was a pinecone with a piece of twine wrapped around it. The piece of twine was long and prohibited the pinecone from passing through.

Everyone on her healthcare team was amazed that none of these oddities showed up on her x-rays. The way the objects were located in the folds of her intestines masked their presence. She became a case study for the vet school, but more importantly, she recovered fully and went on to live seven more happy, healthy years. Of course, I watched her like a hawk after that, and made sure she stuck to eating only good stuff, like Canidae PURE dog food.

There are two key reasons why adult dogs eat non-food items: physical and behavioral. One physical reason is because a dog’s diet is lacking important nutrients. Another physical reason could be disease related, such as digestive disorders, parasitic infections or even poisoning. If your dog consumes inedible things, see your veterinarian first to rule out any physical causes for pica.

The behavioral reasons that a dog ingests non-nutritive items are usually because the dog is bored, anxious or seeking attention. If there is no medical reason your dog is eating weird things and his penchant for rocks and twigs is behavioral, then his condition is considered compulsive pica. The most common things dogs with compulsive pica eat are rocks, plastic bags, plastic containers, socks, gloves and wooden objects.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that compulsive behavior isn’t something that just goes away. It requires special training to restrain this possibly dangerous activity. As in the case of my black lab, Pica can be a serious problem; items like rubber bands, socks, pinecones and twine can severely damage or block a dog's intestines.

Marthina McClay, a certified dog trainer in San Francisco, has helped plenty of rescue dogs with compulsive pica. Her therapy includes keeping hard chew toys on hand to keep her dogs busy, which keeps compulsive pica at bay. McClay also recommends being proactive with your pet. It’s a good idea to curb the behavior before it starts, by engaging your dog in activities that he finds fun and rewarding.

Another successful strategy involves spraying inedible objects with a deterrent designed specifically for this use. The ASPCA suggests that when first using a spray deterrent, apply a small amount to a piece of tissue and place it directly into your dog’s mouth to see if he finds the taste unpleasant. If so, he will begin to associate the smell with unfavorable things. Spray the deterrent on non-food objects that he usually eats, and reapply every day for two to four weeks to reinforce the avoidance behavior.

What about your pets? Do any of them eat things they shouldn’t?

Top photo by shoe the Linux Librarian
Bottom photo by ferrabone carlos

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. WOW! A case of the munchies fur sure. That was interesting and I had not heard that term before.

  2. I knew about that in humans but not in this was an eye opener. How is Bella?

  3. I have a 10 1/2 month Golden retriever puppy with compulsive pica! Walking her is a disaster..she eats anything and everything on the ground... Dirt, leaves, twigs, Pennies, name it, she's probably eaten it!

    The other day it was her plastic bath mitt and the top of my sink plug.. I didn't realize it until she threw them up :(

    It's frustrating to be a new mom..and have to watch a puppy like a hawk as well

  4. Thank you very much for the article. I faced the problem a year ago when my rotty was a puppy and had a lot of behavior problems. Dogs are very interested in everything they see around and as little kids they tend to try all strange objects with their teeth. Another good article that helped me was Dog pick up from the ground - how to break this habit at
    I hope it will help you, Brie, and may be other dog owners as well!


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