ONE OF THE THINGS our dog care staff (day care and lodging employees) do on a regular basis — literally dozens and dozens of times every day — is pick up feces, or put plainly, poop-scoop. In the process, they often find nondigestible items that have been consumed by our guests — ranging from rocks and sticks to toys, items of clothing (socks and underwear are particularly popular) and mystery items that can’t be identified.
We always inform the dogs’ owners when we see this, to make them aware their dog is eating things that can’t be digested — a condition called “pica.”
Pica involves craving and eating nonfood items. It is different from coprophagia, which is eating feces. As disgusting as this is to us (though not to our dogs), coprophagia is not life-threatening, which pica can be.
Curious young puppies often eat things they shouldn’t, including chewing and swallowing leaves and twigs. It is generally easy to discourage and distract them, redirecting them to something else. But when this interest is a craving or obsession, that is, you are unable to distract your puppy and he continues eating nonfood items, it’s important — even critical — to explore possible causes for the pica. Talk to your veterinarian, who will likely recommend testing to see if there is an underlying nutritional or medical cause. The solution may be as simple as a diet change or dietary supplement.
Adult dogs, too, can have pica. A friend’s dog literally pulled socks off children and swallowed them before she could stop him. One of my Mastiffs had a fondness for rocks — not small pebbles, but substantial rocks. She would go years without swallowing one, but then she would — and would have to have surgery to remove it from her intestine. (After her third surgery, I suggested to our vet that we needed to put in a zipper).
And herein lies the biggest issue with pica — when the nondigestible item is too large to pass through the dog’s digestive system, it causes a blockage requiring surgery to remove it.
If you see the symptoms of an intestinal blockage — vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal pain or discomfort, straining to defecate, constipation, lethargy and other sudden changes in behavior — contact your vet right away. He or she will likely take X-rays to determine if there is a blockage requiring immediate surgery or if it is safe to wait for the dog to pass the item without surgery.
As dangerous as surgery is, there are other potential complications. If the dog has suffered significant bowel necrosis (death of a section of bowel caused by cut-off blood supply), the surgery can be extremely traumatic. The healing process, too, is not without danger. A good friend’s young dog died from an infection following surgical removal of parts of a toy he had swallowed.
If your dog is eating nonfood items, management of the environment is critical. For example, if your dog has a fondness for dirty socks, teach your kids to put them in a hamper, making sure they are out of reach. A few years ago, a Great Dane made the national news when it was discovered he had 43½ socks removed from his stomach! That’s one fortunate dog not to have died.
Most important, if you suspect your dog has pica, talk to your veterinarian. Pica can also be related to anxiety, boredom or other behavioral causes. In that case, your veterinarian may recommend anti-anxiety medications along with a behavior modification program to relieve the stress. That could include training and activities your dog might enjoy that build confidence, such as scent work. And you know me — I always recommend activities that you and your dog will enjoy doing together, pica or no pica.