A closer look: Pica (compulsive eating of non-food items) in Dogs
Pica is uncommon in dogs. Dogs who make a habit of eating nonfood objects should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. In the meantime, the dog should be closely supervised to prevent them from consuming objects and monitored for other symptoms like appetite loss, lethargy, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Pica can lead to an intestinal obstruction, which is an emergency
Pica should not be confused with normal canine behavior like chewing or occasionally ingesting items that humans consider unappealing.
It is important to work with a veterinarian to determine if there is an underlying medical cause of pica. In addition to creating a treatment plan for any underlying cause of pica, recommendations to manage pica itself may include::
- Preventing access to objects, e.g. using fences, baby gates, or a basket muzzle
- Close supervision when there is access to objects, especially those known as targets of the patient’s pica
- Teaching commands to drop or ignore an object
- Providing exercise and mentally-stimulating toys to redirect energy and reduce stress and anxiety
Punishment should not be used to manage pica, as it can increase stress and anxiety.
Nutritional deficiency as an underlying cause of pica can be eliminated by appropriate use of broad-spectrum dewormers and feeding a nutritionally complete dog food.
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True pica is rare and its causes are poorly understood, but evidence suggests it is associated with certain conditions and circumstances.
Pica may also occur as a side effect of some medications like steroids, phenobarbital, or benzodiazepines.
Severe pica is more commonly associated with underlying disease, rather than anxiety or stress.
Ingestion of non-food items creates an increased risk of GI obstruction, which is life threatening. Pica is more severe when larger amounts of non-food items are consumed on a frequent basis as increased ingestion of these items increases the risk of obstruction.
Testing and diagnosis
Diagnostics may include
- Blood work: Assessing blood values can help diagnose endocrine diseases, electrolyte imbalances and nutritional deficiencies.
- Trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI): A test to assess pancreatic function
- Fecal examination: This test is used to attempt to identify parasites in the intestine
- X-rays or ultrasound: These techniques can identify objects stuck in the intestinal tract
- Gastroscopy: A small camera is passed down the throat into the stomach and small intestine to look for objects or damage. A section of tissue may be biopsied for further analysis
- Fecal culture: Overgrowth of bacteria in the intestine may lead to poor digestion and nutrient absorption. A fecal culture can identify the amount of bacteria present
Treatment varies depending on the underlying condition, if one is determined conclusively.
Pica may be confused with:
- Destructive chewing without consuming the item
- Consumption of nonfood items because of an appealing smell or taste (e.g. coprophagia)
- Occasional unintentional swallowing of toys or other household objects.
Note: Dogs presenting with abdominal pain should be taken to an emergency veterinary hospital immediately.