Pica (compulsive eating of non-food items) in Dogs

Summary

Pica is an uncommon, abnormal behavior where dogs will obsessively or habitually consume non-food items such as rocks, clothing, sand, metal objects, that have no nutritional value and provide no benefit. Pica can lead to an intestinal obstruction, which is an emergency. Pica can be an indication of several different conditions, including, endocrine diseases, gastrointestinal disease, stress, and anxiety. There is some evidence that pica may be a result of nutritional deficiency, which can be caused by heavy intestinal parasite burdens or a home-made or otherwise incomplete diet. A thorough work-up by a veterinarian is required to identify the cause of pica. 

With appropriate identification and treatment of any underlying disease, pica is expected to subside over time. When the underlying cause cannot be identified or is difficult to treat, dogs may display this behavior for their entire lives. In these cases, pica is managed through close supervision and preventing access to objects.

Guidelines

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 should not be confused with normal canine behavior like chewing or occasionally ingesting items that humans consider unappealing.

Possible Causes

True pica is rare and its causes are poorly understood, but evidence suggests it is associated with

• Primary infectious and/or inflammatory diseases of the digestive tract like gastritis and gastroenteritis

Pancreatic disorders like exocrine pancreatic insufficiency • Oral or dental pain

• Metabolic diseases like liver disease • Endocrine disorders like hypothyroidism

• Behavioral disorders (obsessive/compulsive disorders) • Neurological disorders, including brain tumors

• Starvation; lack of available food

Pica may also occur as a side effect of some medications like steroids, phenobarbital, or benzodiazepines

Risk Factors

Severe pica is more commonly associated with underlying disease, rather than anxiety or stress. 

Pica is more severe when larger amounts of non-food items are consumed on a frequent basis because of the risk for obstruction.

Testing and Diagnosis

To determine the cause of pica, the veterinarian may request any of the following diagnostic tests:

• Blood work: Assessing blood values can help diagnose endocrine diseases, electrolyte imbalances and nutritional deficiencies.   • Trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI): This test examines an enzyme for nutrient digestion produced by the pancreas. If TLI is low, the dog may have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. 

• Fecal examination: This test is used to attempt to identify parasites in the dog’s intestine. 

• X-rays or ultrasound: These techniques can identify objects stuck in the intestinal tract.

• Gastroscopy: A small camera is passed down the dog’s throat into the stomach and small intestine, allowing the veterinarian 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.

Through diagnostic testing, a specific cause of pica may be found. The veterinarian will recommend a treatment plan for the underlying condition. To manage pica itself, the veterinarian may recommend:

• Preventing access to objects, e.g. using fences, baby gates, or a basket muzzle • Close supervision when the dog can access to objects

• Teaching commands to drop an object 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.

Similar symptoms

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

It is common for pet parents to jump to the conclusion that pica is the result of a nutritional deficiency, but this is actually very rare. Nutritional deficiencies do not occur in pets on nutritionally complete, commercially prepared foods.

Associated Symptoms

Dogs with pica may also present with:

• Anemia, although the connection is poorly understood

• Vocalizing when chewing, dropping food, difficulty eating or refusing food items

• Weight loss

• Yelping, attempting to bite or whining when the abdomen is touched or pressed. Note: Dogs presenting with abdominal pain should be taken to an emergency veterinary hospital immediately.

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