Answers provided by Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
This is an issue that comes up frequently with pet parents. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions.
Is it normal for a dog to eat dirt, rocks, or other non-food items?
Yes, this is normal canine behavior (to a certain extent) that falls under scavenging. It is called pica when the behavior appears compulsive and the items ingested are non-food items. Puppies more commonly eat these items than adult dogs, and the eating of feces (coprophagia) is the most common form of pica. There are various reasons for scavenging that include both behavioral and medical causes, but to a certain extent, it is a natural motor pattern that our dogs have been bred to perform. Dogs are believed to have been domesticated over 20,000 years ago because they were the less skittish of the wolf-type canids. They were comfortable enough to come close to human settlements to scavenge food from their garbage dumps. In other countries around the world, the majority of dogs are free-ranging and not owned by humans. They exist by scavenging from garbage dumps, as well as handouts from strangers, so scavenging is something our dogs were naturally selected to be very good at doing! Even predators like wolves and coyotes will scavenge for food at times, including poop and grass. Dogs are attempting to satisfy a need when they are eating these items, whether it is due to hunger, a nutritional deficiency, boredom, anxiety, or another cause.
How can a pet parent differentiate between a harmful behavior and, say, their dog's tendency to curiously chew or get 'mouthy' with unfamiliar objects?
It is normal for dogs to explore items with their mouths. This is especially common with puppies. It is valuable to teach a “leave it” cue to let your dog know that you do not want him to interact with that particular object. It becomes concerning if your dog cannot stop mouthing objects, and especially if he is ingesting them. Ingesting objects can be harmful since they can cause choking, poisoning, or a blockage in the gastrointestinal tract. This can require emergency surgery and even proves deadly for some pets.
Can behavioral issues (like boredom or anxiety) contribute to this condition? Can it be caused by physical ailments or nutritional imbalances?
There are several causes of behavioral pica including boredom, stress and anxiety, fear of punishment, and learned behaviors. A bored dog may find entertainment in playing with non-food items. The items I see scavenged most frequently at clients' homes are pens and papers or rocks and leaves, not roasted chicken or pies. A stressed dog may try to calm himself by sniffing the ground and eating things, including inedible items. A dog suffering from separation anxiety may tear apart bedding and eat it, or pull pens and papers off the counter top and eat those while trying to cope with the panic and stress he is experiencing from the separation.
Dogs may also learn that eating rocks or another non-food item gets the attention of their owner, thus reinforcing the behavior. Dogs have limited ways of communicating to us what and when they need things, so they are excellent at figuring out which behaviors get them what they want.
A dog who is punished for pooping inside the home may eat his poop (coprophagia) to avoid the owner finding it.
Pica with medical causes can be brought about by endocrine issues (thyroid, diabetes, Cushings), malabsorption, corticosteroid use, all of which can increase a dog’s appetite. An unbalanced diet, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, and other vitamin deficiencies can cause nutritional deficiencies resulting in a dog craving unusual non-food items. Neurological issues, parasitic infections, tumors, and other medical issues can also cause pica. It is important to consult your veterinarian to ascertain the cause of your dog’s pica since the treatment will vary depending on the cause. Pica does not go away on its own, so it is important that it is addressed properly depending on what is causing it for your dog.
How can a pet parent prevent their dog from doing this, or put an end to the behavior if they've noticed their pet starting to eat dirt or rocks?
The causes of pica can vary, so as one might expect, the ways it is effectively addressed will be different depending on the cause. Scavenging is a motor pattern dogs need to perform, and we may see it crop up undesirable ways without appropriate enrichment that allows them to perform this motor pattern. If possible, you may want to try to prevent access to the items that your dog is eating, such as putting garden fencing around the shrubs that you dog is eating, but that alone is not going to fix the problem since there is a reason for every behavior.
Snuffle mats, digging for buried treasure, and hidden kibble around the room are great ways to give bored dogs proper enrichment to satisfy scavenging needs. I also like to provide natural chews and interactive toys in the areas where a dog likes to scavenge to give him something else to do so that he does not go looking for entertainment in inappropriate places. We can also teach the “leave it” cue to signal to him to not interact with certain items, rewarding your dog with food, toys, or play (whatever your dog loves!) every time he turns away from the item.
With stressed and anxious dogs, I would advise consulting a CCPDT or IAABC certified trainer or behavior consultant to help create a behavior modification plan that includes positive training to help reduce your dog’s stress and teach more desirable behaviors. Enrichment may help reduce stress in these situations. Pet parents can take their dogs on daily long walks, increase the dog’s social interaction if he enjoys people or other dogs, provide him with mentally stimulating experiences such as food puzzles and interactive toys, lick mats, provide durable natural chew items, or teach new skills or tricks. Depending on the severity of the anxiety, your behavior consultant may refer you to a veterinarian to see whether they recommend behavioral medications to help reduce your dog’s anxiety, in addition to behavior modification training.
In cases involving medical issues, the veterinarian may have recommendations to address the underlying causes. In the meantime while the health issues are being addressed, we can condition dogs to readily accept a basket muzzle so they are able to enjoy freedom inside and outside the home without being able to ingest dangerous items.
Is there a point where this becomes less a behavioral concern and more a question of the pet's health? When would you recommend that a veterinarian get involved?
I would recommend seeing a veterinarian if your dog is regularly attempting to eat non-food items to make sure that there is not an underlying health issue. If your dog has eaten any item you suspect may be dangerous due to size, shape, or potential toxicity, please take him to the vet immediately.
Pica will not go away on its own, and it will not go away with training if there is an underlying medical issue. Once you know that you have a healthy dog, you can begin addressing the scavenging behaviors and emotional state with increased enrichment, increased socialization, and teaching more desirable behaviors with the help of a certified trainer or behavior consultant.