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

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4 min read

Key takeaways

Pica in dogs is an uncommon, abnormal behavior where dogs will obsessively or habitually consume non-food items (rocks, clothing, sand, metal) with no nutritional value or benefit

  • 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 intestinal parasites or an 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
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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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Possible causes

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.

Risk factors

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.

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.

Associated symptoms

Note: Dogs presenting with abdominal pain should be taken to an emergency veterinary hospital immediately.


Smith, F.W.K., Tilley, L.P., Sleeper, M.M., Brainard, B.M. - Writing for Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline. Seventh Edition.

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