Has your dog ever eaten something they shouldn’t have? You’re certainly not alone! Although some of the things dogs eat are surprising to us, often they are instinctively appealing to them. Some of these “weird” things are not usually problematic for your dog to consume in small quantities (grass is a good example). Others can cause stomach upsets, dental problems, and, more worryingly, life-threatening gastrointestinal blockages or poisoning.
Pica is an overarching term for the regular consumption of non-nutritional items. The types of things a dog with pica will eat are wide-ranging and include stones, paper, socks, wood, and plastic. Some dogs may focus on one type of object, and others may eat a wide variety of things. When your dog is obsessively eating things they shouldn’t, this is often a sign of an underlying medical condition or a compulsive behavioral problem.
Understanding more about why dogs eat things you wouldn’t expect can help you recognize when veterinary intervention or additional training, management, or enrichment are beneficial.
You have no doubt heard the term “puppy-proofing the home”, and this is because young dogs are notorious for putting unexpected items in their mouths—it’s a natural part of their neurosensory exploration. They may also want to chew on things to soothe their gums during their teething phase. With appropriate management, training, redirection, and time, thankfully, most puppies grow out of this phase.
Like humans, dogs that are suffering from a heightened state of anxiety can develop compulsive behaviors as a coping method—one of these is pica. Ask yourself if there have been any changes in your dog’s routine that could have triggered the stress, and look out for other signs of anxiety. Things like panting, pacing, obsessive licking, and being unusually withdrawn are common indicators.
If your dog is not getting enough exercise, attention, and mental stimulation, they can seek their own entertainment. Chewing on things like socks, stones, and wood is common in dogs that need additional environmental enrichment.
Polyphagia is the term used when a dog suddenly seems ravenous all of the time, and this increased appetite will often result in a dog developing a pica habit. It invariably indicates an underlying medical issue. Various conditions can cause pica and polyphagia—some more serious than others.
It is helpful to know some of the common medical reasons for pica, but your vet will likely need to run various tests to diagnose the issue.
- Hormonal issues: Conditions that cause a hormonal imbalance such as hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s Disease, and diabetes can increase appetite.
- Nutritional deficiencies: Gastrointestinal problems such as Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a poor quality or imbalanced diet, and cancers that prevent the absorption of food can contribute to problems with nutritional deficiencies.
- Medications: Certain medications result in a marked increase in appetite. Anabolic steroids and thyroid supplements are common examples.
- Intestinal parasites: Parasitic worms are particularly common in untreated puppies.
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI): This condition results in the dog not producing enough pancreatic enzymes to digest fats, carbohydrates, and proteins properly. It causes gastrointestinal problems, weight loss, and an increase in appetite.
Pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) gene mutation
Obesity and pica are particular problems for Labrador Retrievers—they are known for their voracious appetites and are notorious sock eaters!
A 2016 research project identified a pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) gene mutation that occurs in approximately 25% of Labradors Retrievers. It also affects their Flat-coated Retriever relatives. This results in the dogs having an increased appetite and being markedly more food motivated. Although there is no treatment, a carefully managed diet and exercise regime can ensure that obesity does not become a problem. It also means you might have to keep those socks out of reach and provide your Lab with more appropriate treat-dispensing toys instead!
Common weird things dogs eat
Even if your dog is not suffering from compulsive or medical-related pica, they may still be attracted to ingesting things that seem odd to you. There are some common non-food related items that dogs frequently have a proclivity towards eating.
Why does my dog eat grass?
There is very little conclusive evidence to explain why dogs eat grass, but, generally, it isn’t a cause for concern. You may even be surprised by how common it is. The results of a large-scale survey conducted by the UC Davis teaching hospital found that 68% of those surveyed reported their dogs eat grass on a daily or weekly basis.
Thought to be an instinctual behavior, dogs do it for a variety of reasons. The most widely recognized is to induce vomiting, but, actually, in most cases, the dog is likely eating the grass because they enjoy it (especially the fresh spring variety).
Why does my dog eat poop?
The technical term for eating faces is coprophagia. Despite being a habit that grosses out pet parents, this is surprisingly widespread in dogs. In rare instances, this relates to nutritional deficiencies, but most of the time, it is as simple as the dog enjoying the taste. It is prevalent in puppies, and they sometimes grow out of it, but if they have a penchant for poop, it is often a hard habit to break! Aside from the hygiene, especially if there are kids in the home, it is a bigger problem if your dog likes to eat poop other than their own. There is a greater risk of stomach upsets or catching infectious diseases or parasites.
Why does my dog eat dirt?
If you have a prolific digger, they may also enjoy eating a little dirt while they partake of this activity. Occasionally, however, if the dirt-eating is extreme, it could be that your dog is trying to compensate for a mineral deficiency. Sometimes a vet will test a dog’s iron levels to rule out anaemia.
Why does my dog eat socks?
Many dogs see socks as an appealing chew toy—they’re soft, stretchy, smelly, and often left lying out on the floor for easy access! The fact that they have your scent on them can make them even more appealing.
Strategies for stopping your dog from eating weird things
If you suspect an underlying medical reason for your dog’s pica, it is important to seek veterinary support. For extreme stress-related cases, consulting a behaviorist to help resolve the underlying anxieties would be recommended.
If these concerns are both ruled out, management and appropriate enrichment are key. Make sure you keep any risky items out of reach—dirty socks should go in a laundry hamper, and poisonous items need to be out of reach. You may need to introduce additional exercise and more in-house activities to keep boredom at bay and to redirect your dog when required.
Keeping your dog on-leash and introducing a well-fitting muzzle (using positive reinforcement techniques) on walks while you work on breaking a coprophagia or stone eating habit may also be a sensible precautionary measure.
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