Pica is the term used for the behavior of eating non-food material that can affect dogs and cats. Rocks, dirt, light bulbs, coins, tennis balls, your underwear, wool — such as blankets, socks and jackets — are some of the more common things that an animal suffering from Pica will consume, but some affected animals will nibble on just about anything from plastic grocery bags to litter.
If your dog or cat eats weird things and you believe he or she may be suffering from pica, your first stop is the vet’s office; a serious health condition may be the cause.
There are many possible reasons for Pica behavior such as:
- Anxiety and Boredom
Anxiety leads to plenty of weird behaviors in animals and people (nail biting, anyone?). Suppose your pet has signs of separation anxiety, and also eats plastic bags, but only when she’s alone. It’s a good bet that the two are connected, and that treating one will treat the other, too. (Put the plastic bags out of reach, regardless.) Keep in mind that a bored animal who is not receiving adequate mental and physical stimulation might begin munching on non-food items just for something to do.
Pets living in a stressful environment may try to self-soothe by engaging in pica behavior. If someone in your family treats your dog or cat harshly, find ways to help that person change their behavior. If your pet may have separation anxiety or CCD, or if she generally seems worried or nervous much of the time, medication is appropriate. Talk to your vet, or better yet, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist.
- Deficiencies in the diet
Some veterinarians and behavior experts believe that inadequate amounts of fat or fiber in the diet can lead a cat to crave these nutrients from non-edible sources. Some cats who are anemic may try to eat litter.
- Underlying medical problems
Certain diseases or brain disorders may be associated with pica behavior. A visit to the vet can usually rule out any other problems which can cause Pica.
- Accidental “Pica”
Say you don’t clear the table right away after you finish the takeout. That plastic fork covered with meat sauce smells so good. Your dog does what dogs usually do and snags it, yummy, and in her enthusiasm for the creamy cheesy goodness she winds up eating the fork. Not pica. You do have a trip to the veterinary emergency hospital in your immediate future, though.
Once your veterinarian has determined there is no reason for your pet’s behavior, he or she may recommend supplements. Don’t make any dietary adjustments without consulting your veterinarian. Some supplements may cause the animal intestinal distress if administered improperly.
In the case of the “accidental plastic fork,” the cure is to clear the table right away, or keep your pets away from situations where they could come into contact with non-food plastic forks or paper that was wrapped for food.
Fixes for true pica also focus on prevention, on alleviating boredom and stress and treating CCD if those are at work. If your dog started eating non-edibles in a race to keep you from taking them, you can use reward-based methods to teach him to drop things on your cue. Also teach him to come reliably when called, so you can call him to you away from tempting things. Reward him generously for his good response.
If your dog has true pica, make sure she’s getting plenty of exercise and play time, as well as reward-based training to tire her busy brain, lower her stress level, and help her relax. Any food you don’t use as training rewards should come out of interactive food-dispensing toys – Kongs, Amaze-a-Balls, and Dog Pyramids are a few of the many excellent options.
Train yourself to pay attention to your dog when she’s doing things you like, not only when she’s responding to your cues, but also when she’s just hanging around, being quiet and relaxed or working on a chew toy that you gave her.
If the problem persists you may want to seriously consider consulting an animal behaviorist. In the long run it will probably be a lot cheaper than a visit to the pet ER.