What is Pica?
Pica is the term used to describe eating inedible or non-food items. It occurs much more frequently in dogs than cats. Pica in puppies is not a concerning behavior. It is normal for them to chew on and eat non-food items as a means of learning about their environment.
The origin and cause of pica is either medical or behavioral related. The majority of cases fall into the behavioral group, however, it can be a symptom of metabolic, digestive and neurological diseases or a side effect of medication. Underlying disease processes of pica should be ruled out by a veterinarian before treating it as a behavioral based problem. Pica originating from a disease process will typically resolve once the medical condition is either treated or controlled.
Dogs with pica may be obsessed with eating a specific inedible item or lack a preference and eat anything and everything. Some items I have seen or heard of being ingested include paper products, food containers and wrappers, articles of clothing, personal hygiene products, small metal objects, toys and stuffing, sand, pebbles and rocks.
Most inedible objects ingested are either unable to be passed or cause damage as it moves through the digestive tract. This can result in obstruction, tissue damage, metabolic and electrolyte disturbances, infection and toxicity. The severity of the situation largely depends on what was ingested and in what volume. Ingestion of a foreign body can be life threatening if left untreated.
Clinical Symptoms of a Foreign Body Include...
- Abdominal pain
- Straining to defecate
- Abnormal behavior
- Licking or biting at the abdomen
Diagnosis and Treatment
Radiographs (x-rays) are typically performed to diagnose a foreign body. Patients with a foreign body obstruction or a foreign body that can cause tissue damage will typically require surgery. The method of removal will depend on the nature and location of the foreign body. Once the foreign body is successfully removed, assuming no permanent damage has been caused, the patient is usually fine. The longer the object remains inside the digestive tract, the higher the risk of serious complications.
Behavioral-related pica can stem from boredom, anxiety or attention-seeking behaviors and can be challenging to resolve. Get to know your dog. What non-food items do they have a tendency to chew or eat? Limit access to these desirable items, especially when no one is around to supervise. Reduce stress and provide environmental enrichment.
In order for the descendents of dogs to survive in the wild, they had to be able to adapt to new environments. Companion dogs today rarely have the need to utilize this trait which can lead to boredom. Environmental enrichment is achieved by adding stimulation and variability to your dog’s life. This can be achieved through visiting new places, meeting new people, going to the dog parks, offering new treats to try, playing with different types of toys, etc.
Most dogs today do not meet their daily exercise requirements. If your dog is friendly and enjoys being around other dogs, take them to a dog park where they can socialize and be active. If that’s not something that appeals to you or your dog’s behavior, don’t worry there are several activities you and your pup can enjoy doing together!
My favorites include: going for a walk around the neighborhood, playing ball or frisbee, exploring a nearby hiking trail and going to the lake to swim!
Seven Dog Breed Groups
Dog breeds are broken down into 7 groups: herding, sporting, non-sporting, working, hound, terriers and toy breeds. It’s beneficial to know what group your dog breed falls under in order to provide tailored enrichment for their natural instincts. For example, retrievers are sporting dogs used to retrieve dead and wounded prey. They have a natural tendency to want to retrieve, therefore, playing toss and fetch or something of that nature would be a good activity to do together.
Environmental enrichment can also be achieved in the comfort of your home with the use of a variety of interactive and stimulating dog toys. I recommend trying out a few different toys and seeing which one works best. Highly food motivated dogs will likely find puzzle toys that you add treats to engaging and fun.
My favorites include: a Kong filled with frozen natural peanut butter, wooly snuffle mats and IQ treat balls.
Stress and Anxiety
Pica can also stem from anxiety. Having a fairly consistent routine can help provide comfort and alleviate stress for anxious dogs. There are also a variety of products that can help decrease anxiety. If none of these products are effective, prescription anti-anxiety or sedative medications can help.
Examples of Calming Products…
- Calming chews (contains melatonin, thiamin, chamomile, L-theanine, L-tryptophan)
- CBD treats
- Pheromone spray/diffuser
- Calming jackets/coats (ex: Thunder Shirt)
Again, know your dog. What typically makes them anxious? Is it generalized anxiety? Or is there a specific trigger, such as meeting new people or loud sounds?
Examples of Calming Techniques…
- Relaxing music
- Physical contact
- Interactive/chew toys
- Designated “safe space” ex: crate
Quick Desensitization Tips
You may be able to decrease exposure to certain triggers, but that is very difficult for a dog with generalized anxiety. Try not to overwhelm an anxious dog. For example, if a dog is anxious about meeting new people or going to new places, introduce them to a new person or place for a short period of time. Once more comfortable, increase time intervals and variables.
(If your dog reacts aggressively out of fear, do not do this and seek professional help. Make sure to let others know in order to protect the safety of your dog, yourself and others.)
Separation anxiety can stem from fear of abandonment. What is your typical routine before leaving the house? Perform your typical routine, leave for a few minutes before returning. Slowly increase the time interval between leaving and returning. This may help desensitize fear of abandonment, strengthen trust and reassurance that you will be coming home.