How to Help Dogs with Compulsive Pica

August 1, 2013

By Langley Cornwell

We’ve all laughed over the old excuse “the dog ate my homework,” but even a phrase as innocent as that might not be funny to someone whose dog has compulsive pica.

Pica is characterized by a desire to consume substances that are non-nutritive, and it can affect not only dogs but also cats, as Julia covered in her article Does Your Cat Eat Strange Things? In fact, people can suffer from pica, too.

The first dog I had as an adult—a rescued black lab—had pica and I didn’t know it. When she was 10 years old she got very sick. My regular vet and an emergency vet had no idea what was wrong and, surprisingly, multiple x-rays revealed nothing. I lived in a college town with a well-respected veterinary school, so my vet took my dog to the school for examination. After more fluid-bags and pills than I could count, with my sweet baby barely hanging on, my vet said the only thing he could do was exploratory surgery.

I still credit that vet with saving Sadie’s life. Apparently she had an extreme case of pica. He had a quart-sized bag full of treasures that he found in my dog’s intestinal tract, including seashells, twist ties, rocks and the finger of a garden glove. He said her system had probably done a good job of passing these things in the past, but what got her in trouble this time was a pinecone with a piece of twine wrapped around it. The piece of twine was long and prohibited the pinecone from passing through.

Everyone on her healthcare team was amazed that none of these oddities showed up on her x-rays. The way the objects were located in the folds of her intestines masked their presence. She became a case study for the vet school, but more importantly, she recovered fully and went on to live seven more happy, healthy years. Of course, I watched her like a hawk after that, and made sure she stuck to eating only good stuff, like Canidae PURE dog food.

There are two key reasons why adult dogs eat non-food items: physical and behavioral. One physical reason is because a dog’s diet is lacking important nutrients. Another physical reason could be disease related, such as digestive disorders, parasitic infections or even poisoning. If your dog consumes inedible things, see your veterinarian first to rule out any physical causes for pica.

The behavioral reasons that a dog ingests non-nutritive items are usually because the dog is bored, anxious or seeking attention. If there is no medical reason your dog is eating weird things and his penchant for rocks and twigs is behavioral, then his condition is considered compulsive pica. The most common things dogs with compulsive pica eat are rocks, plastic bags, plastic containers, socks, gloves and wooden objects.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports that compulsive behavior isn’t something that just goes away. It requires special training to restrain this possibly dangerous activity. As in the case of my black lab, Pica can be a serious problem; items like rubber bands, socks, pinecones and twine can severely damage or block a dog’s intestines.

Marthina McClay, a certified dog trainer in San Francisco, has helped plenty of rescue dogs with compulsive pica. Her therapy includes keeping hard chew toys on hand to keep her dogs busy, which keeps compulsive pica at bay. McClay also recommends being proactive with your pet. It’s a good idea to curb the behavior before it starts, by engaging your dog in activities that he finds fun and rewarding.

Another successful strategy involves spraying inedible objects with a deterrent designed specifically for this use. The ASPCA suggests that when first using a spray deterrent, apply a small amount to a piece of tissue and place it directly into your dog’s mouth to see if he finds the taste unpleasant. If so, he will begin to associate the smell with unfavorable things. Spray the deterrent on non-food objects that he usually eats, and reapply every day for two to four weeks to reinforce the avoidance behavior.

What about your pets? Do any of them eat things they shouldn’t?

Top photo by shoe the Linux Librarian
Bottom photo by ferrabone carlos

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. catharin says:

    My 20 week old German Sheppard husky mix eats everything!!! ROCKS, Toilet paper, aluminium cans, plastic, wood, EVERYTHING! Im a helicopter mom and I watch her like a hawk but some how she manages to to get a hold of something. and every day its something new that i have to watch out for. IF she cant get a hold of a rock or toilet paper she finds something new to eat every day. she has more toys than a puppy could possibly play with but for some reason she rather chew on other things. I noticed her behavior a week after a got her when she was only 5 weeks old.

  2. Diane Sigler says:

    Our Yellow Lab, 9 yrs old, seems to have compulsive pica. She not only eats these items, she gorges on them until she pukes. She sweeps the floor, meaning she eats anything, furballs, dirt, rocks, lint, and everything off the floor. If we put her outside, she does it out there. Then she vomits a huge amount of what she’s eaten. It’s awful. There are 3 other large dogs in the house and 6 cats. Savannah almost died twice in 2015. Once was from a traumatic birth due to a ruptured uterus, and again after a rattlesnake bite. Just a quick history for you.

  3. Linda says:

    Linda June 16 2017 6:30 am We rescued a black lab who is now 9 mo old that we have had since February of this year. He has been treated for worms twice and has eaten our blackberry bush , bark off trees, and rocks of which he had to have one surgically removed less than a month ago and just this week ate another one but thankfully passed it in his stool. He has also been known to take things off the end table like a bottle cap and a quarter which both were retrieved before he could swallow them. He has been to the vet and is in good health but because he was abandoned and left to fend for himself for we don’t know how long and had worms could that be a reason for this eating problem. He is a very smart and loveable guy and I don’t want to have something bad happen to him and can’t continue to pay expensive vet bills. Any suggestions? ? Could the worms have caused this issue?

  4. Whitney says:

    Hello! I have a 9 year old Standard Poodle who was rescued from a sub-par breeding operation when she was 4. I’ve had her ever since. I have a large fenced in yard, 3 other dogs, 2 children, and quite a bit of company. She’s never been an overly playful dog, but rather somber and very very affectionate. Just in the last 12 months, she’s been eating socks and underwear whole! She’s had 2 surgeries to remove blockages. The first time was just a pair of underwear, the second time was a pair of underwear, 2 socks, and a headband. I keep every door in the house closed, I use a baby gate when necessary (when I’m doing laundry especially), and kennel her when we are gone. This morning I noticed her gagging outside and sure enough, a sock came out! I’m beside myself! I’ve tried a muzzle, much to my dislike, and it only put her into a complete panic. She’s had bloodwork when in the puppy hospital both times and all came back okay with the exception of a heart murmur. The vet said no treatment is necessary at this time for the murmur but I’m grasping at straws here. It’s ironic to me that this has just recently started along with the diagnosis. Any help would be GREATLY appreciated!

  5. Valerie Caldwell says:

    My 9 year old pit bull recently had pancreatitis caused by a bowel obstruction caused by a eating binge for 12 days she wouldn’t eat, kept vomiting she was extremely sick. I kept taking her to the vet and nothing helped. I ended up taking her out of town to see a different Vet. She did a ultrasound and discovered the blockage. So that day when we got home she started passing the objects in her stool. It was sticks, leaves , pieces of wood, pieces of carpet one with a string, pecan husks And different sizes of pecan shells including halfs And lots of grass. So we just had to wait and see if it all passed. I finally got her started eating again. And yesterday the last couple X-rays didn’t show any blockage. So it looks like she’s going to be ok. This time anyway. Now we have to really watch her. We may never figure out why she did it. Could be a vitamin decency, thyroid or even canine diabetes ( which she has) they are always hungry

  6. We have a 11 week old German Sheperd puppy. He eats tissues, paper towels,basically anything he can get his mouth around, but the worse is rocks. I have to pull rocks out of his mouth all day long. I am at a loss.
    It is very concerning to me.

  7. Kelsey says:

    My dog is eating paper/wrappers that are on the ground or under the couch and I don’t think she has pica ?

  8. Keren Gundersen says:

    Hi there, I have a puppy who is 3 weeks & 2 days old. I got her when she was 5 days old, as my daughter rescued her from being drowned like all of her litter mates. I have given her a ton of love, followed feeding guidelines for her weight to the ‘T’, and have provided her with plenty of chew toys. I have noticed after feeding she likes to lie stretched out & commando crawls along the edge of my couch till she gets to the little wooded feet on it, then licks the wood. I am worried she might have pica, & wondered if anyone could tell me how early the behaviour starts? And if it is Pica, what can I do from this early age to prevent it? She is not due for another vet visit until she is 8 – 10 weeks old, & I don’t want to wait until then to ask the vet about it, but don’t want unnecessary vet charge if it is just commen puppy behaviour. She is a Staffy crossed with a Pit Bull, and as these breeds have a tendency to be aggressive, I want to do everything I can to give her the best & most secure start to life using positive methods in order to help assure the aggressive tendencies are kept dormant for the rest of her beautiful life with us. Any positive feedback would be much appreciated.

  9. Art Abrigo says:

    I have a Beagle/Chiwawa mix…, my dog licks the carpet, if hes not eating grass, then throws up??? Sometimes when hes having one of his episodes keeps me up in thr middle of the night, so lock him up in the bathroom, making sure theres nothing on the floor, poor guy, can I get some help. TY

  10. Tanya says:

    I rescued a starving dog in July and adopted him from the shelter on Aug 9, 2016. He’s chewing everything in sight like most people mention but yesterday he chewed the weather stripping off the front door, chewed the molding around the door and toda I came home from work and he chewed a fist-sized hole in the WALL! I live in an apt so I can probably kiss my deposit goodbye if I don’t get a handle on this.

    I crated my dog for two weeks when I first got him because I didn’t know if he was house trained or not (he is) and was happy to finally let him roam.

    Now I have to either put a muzzle on him or crate him again while I’m at work. I don’t want a dog who spends the majority of his day in a crate but it’s best for now.

    Very frustrating because he has other issues as well; separation anxiety, barks back at you when you correct him… Sorry do long…

    1. Katarina Köster says:

      Thank you for saving and rescuing a shelter dog!! Your dog’s behavior is very typical of stray “feral” shelter dogs. You’ll need to restrict his access to your apt by crating him when he is home alone every single time even though it’s hard to do, and keep him confined in whatever room your in by closing doors or using baby gates. That’s the first step to break the cycle of destruction fir your own sanity, then contact an experienced licensed canine behaviorist for training help, and finally, get an RX from your vet for Prozac, it may help your dog tremendously! It will ease his anxiety so he can relax and if working correctly, stop his OCD pica to chew and destroy. Some dogs are so damaged that no amount of security, safety, confidence, and love can cure their pica, and there’s no “waiting it out” either, they need an SSRI. Don’t feel weird about it, on the contrary, if right for your dog, you’ll be a responsible and kind dog owner by investing in your dog’s health and well-being, doing the right thing. Your vet will tell you!

  11. My husband and I own a small dog daycare. We have several dogs who will find and consume small rocks. About half of the main dog yard is grass, and other half small gravel. These dogs are probably not too bored, they run, race, wrestle, play hard, swim, then lay around in the afternoon eating rocks. We don’t put toys down due to resource guarding issues; the dogs play with each other. The dogs won’t give us the rocks. We can’t spray the whole yard with Bitter Apple or Yuck. What can we do?

    1. Katarina Köster says:

      Since you own and operate a doggy day care, I think you’d want to invest in a ground cover that works for all dogs, or you need say no to clients with dogs who have pica. If a dog eats rocks on your watch and has to have emergency surgery, you’re on the hook. You should also inform the owners of the dogs who do this so they can take action to train and/or medicate their dogs. It’s a serious problem, dogs die.

  12. Beatriz ibarra says:

    My puppy may have pica she chews everything in her path!! There is no cure for pica? I love my puppy but i can only take so much it has become to expensive to deal with

    1. Katarina Köster says:

      Has your puppy grown out of the chewing/eating everything behavior by now?

      1. My puppy is 5 &1/2. Months and literally eats everything, she ate a good 3 cups of dog food then saw a pipecleaner my daughter dropped and she started to eat that… I couldn’t believe she ate that much dog food in one sitting but to eat the fuzz covered metal right after was an even bigger surprise… She eats deer poop, clothes pins, and literally anything else she sees… Not sure what exactly to do with her cuz as soon as I let her outside to go potty she starts digging to find treasures to eat (we just bought this house and the entire back yard seems to be a burn pit covered by dirt and I never would have known if the dog didn’t keep digging up more and more burned stuff for her to eat)
        Ugh I’m frustrated please help

  13. ERIN HANKE says:

    Can you recommend any specific hard chew toys to curb this pica behavior that hold up longer/better? I have two dobermans that manage to devour through any toy and/or object in their path within hours to days, which gets expensive. I love my sweet babies to death, but they will not stop chewing or devouring everything in front of their noses – any article of clothing, any kind of toy, plastic soda bottles, sticks or blocks of wood, tile floors, dry wall, wires, paper, cardboard, carpet, fluff, really anything on the floor/ground, etc….ugh it’s a nightmare. They are only 8 months old, but very big dogs already. In this case would you recommend us trying your recommendations at home first or would you suggest a trainer? I just feel so exhausted trying to figure out what to do. Please help 🙁

  14. Rose King says:

    My dog eats sticks and leaves, hats and socks, slippers. The most difficult is preventing him from eating sticks/wood while he is out for his daily run/walk in the woods. I can’t spray in this case. Any suggestions?

  15. Kelli Huey says:

    My dog is a rescue I found. I believe he was very badly abused since he coward from me at first and still cowars a lot. He eats everything, including the Kong chew toys that are supposedly strong (I buy the ones for the huge dogs even though he is medium 21lb). I am at my wits end. I am afraid he will kill himself. Tonight he ate an entire toy and then vomited and urinated all over my bed from the thrust of vomiting. Please help.

  16. Sue says:

    My 3-year-old lab has had compulsive pica since the moment we adopted him at 7 weeks old. At first we thought it was normal puppy behavior, to be chewing shoes and clothing. BUT it got worse, much worse. Bones, rawhide, chew toys and bitter apple spray didn’t stop him from going after inedible objects, CONSTANTLY. He has eaten: plastic toys, containers, magnets, batteries, shards of glass, rocks, marbles, a wood table, every wall corner in our house, wooden chairs, sofas, tv remotes, balloons. Well, everything pretty much. We’re lucky our dog has survived this long. He gets plenty of exercise and attention. He is well-fed and well cared for. I have always believed his pica is an anxiety disorder or other chemical/brain imbalance that requires medication. But no one has supported me on this and we continue to try diet changes and behavioral plans created by professionals, to no avail. It all makes me cry in frustration.

  17. Thank you very much for the article. I faced the problem a year ago when my rotty was a puppy and had a lot of behavior problems. Dogs are very interested in everything they see around and as little kids they tend to try all strange objects with their teeth. Another good article that helped me was Dog pick up from the ground – how to break this habit at
    I hope it will help you, Brie, and may be other dog owners as well!

  18. Brie says:

    I have a 10 1/2 month Golden retriever puppy with compulsive pica! Walking her is a disaster..she eats anything and everything on the ground… Dirt, leaves, twigs, Pennies, plastic…you name it, she's probably eaten it!

    The other day it was her plastic bath mitt and the top of my sink plug.. I didn't realize it until she threw them up 🙁

    It's frustrating to be a new mom..and have to watch a puppy like a hawk as well

  19. I knew about that in humans but not in this was an eye opener. How is Bella?

  20. Brian says:

    WOW! A case of the munchies fur sure. That was interesting and I had not heard that term before.