Pet Care Blog

Pica in Dogs: Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Ricky Walther, DVM
Dr. Ricky Walther
Associate Veterinarian - Petco
Dog steals clothes from laundry

Is your dog eating dirt, rocks, or something they aren’t supposed to? Maybe they like to indulge in the garbage, grass, or even poop? When it comes to eating, our canine companions can have somewhat strange, even disgusting habits and will happily gulp down items that seem inedible. If your dog is one of them, they might have a condition called pica.

But what exactly is pica disorder? Should you be worried if your dog has pica, and are there ways to stop them from eating things they shouldn’t?

Read on to find out more about pica in dogs, including the causes, symptoms, treatment options, and more.

Table of Contents

Pro Tip: You can never eliminate the risk of foreign body ingestion, but by getting pet insurance before a problem occurs, you can protect yourself and your dog should the unimaginable happen.

What is pica in dogs?

Pica is an eating disorder characterized by the urge to eat objects that are not food. Some pups might only eat one type of item, whereas others will eat a variety of different objects, like dirt, rocks, books, balls wet wipes, and more. In general, dogs with pica tend to favor items that carry their owner’s scent, such as underwear, socks, towels, and pantyhose.

Pica can be dangerous to your dog’s health because the items they swallow can be toxic or get lodged in their throat and intestinal tract.

Pica is different from coprophagia, or the ingestion of feces. This habit is more common in nursing dogs who tend to eat their puppies' excrement, but often carries over into adult dogs and is particularly hard to break.

Some dog breeds are more prone to pica, such as Labrador Retrievers. The disorder is also more common in female dogs.

What causes pica in dogs?

The cause of pica disorder can be either physiological (due to an underlying medical condition) or psychological (purely behavioral).

The most common medical conditions that trigger pica in canines include:

  • Endocrine diseases (like diabetes and thyroid disease)
  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Parasitic infections (such as tapeworms and hookworms)
  • Diseases of maldigestion and malabsorption

Pica can also be a result of anemia, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, stomach tumors, neurological issues, and teething (in puppies). In some cases, pica can be a side effect of medications, such as anti-seizure drugs and steroids.

Behavioral pica, also called stress eating, is most often caused by boredom, anxiety (especially separation anxiety), and stress. Other common reasons include depression, lack of physical or mental stimulation, and attention-seeking.

Dog eating toilet paper

Pica symptoms in dogs

The classic sign of pica in dogs is eating non-food objects. However, there’s a number of secondary symptoms that may be caused by the disorder, which can vary depending on the item consumed.

Ingestion of a foreign object can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) irritation with symptoms such as:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite

More serious health complications include a blockage of the intestines and internal ulcerations, which symtpoms can include:

  • Intractable vomiting
  • Straining or inability to defecate
  • Dark or tarry stools
  • Excessive drooling
  • Abdominal pain
  • Burping

If the object is blocking the respiratory tract, your pet might cough or sneeze frequently. In severe cases, pica can result in infection — especially if the ingested items are dirty or contaminated (such as feces) — or poisoning if they were to consume something toxic.

Diagnosing pica disorder in dogs

In general, pica is diagnosed through the behavior itself. Although it may be easy to confirm that your dog has pica, determining the disorder's underlying cause is more challenging.

To figure out if the condition is caused by a medical issue, your veterinarian may need to perform bloodwork, urinalysis, and test samples of your dog’s stool in order to check for liver disease, and the presence of parasites. These tests will also help rule out diseases like anemia, diabetes, and thyroid problems.

Depending on the symptoms your pet displays, more specific bloodwork might be required to test nutrient absorption in the digestive tract. This typically involves checking cobalamin and folate levels and doing a TLI test to check for pancreatic function. Your vet might also perform X-rays to check for a GI obstruction.

Pica in dogs treatment

The treatment for dog pica will mainly depend on what’s causing the condition.

If it’s being caused by an underlying medical issue, treatment for that specific health condition may be enough for your dog to stop eating non-food objects. However, sometimes pica could develop into a bad habit, especially if the pup has been eating non-food objects for a long time. In that case, treating the underlying health issue won’t solve the problem and the pet parent will need to limit the dog’s access to the items they like to eat.

If a nutritional deficiency is a cause, your vet may recommend dietary changes, nutritional supplements, or changes in your dog’s feeding schedule.

Dogs with intestinal blockage will require hospitalization to undergo surgery.

Dog recovering from surgery for pica

Pro Tip: The cost of surgery for an intestinal blockage is expensive. Foreign bodies lodged in the GI tract are considered medical emergencies, and most pet insurance plans will cover treatment and surgery.

Pica caused by psychological issues is usually more difficult to treat. This often requires a combination of behavioral reconditioning, training, reducing stress and anxiety, and keeping the items your dog likes to eat out of their reach.

For dogs suffering from separation anxiety and stress, exercise and training are recommended. Providing toys and chewable items might also be helpful.

Pet parents are also advised to examine their pet’s environment for possible stressors, such as kids that might not be interacting properly with the dog, other pets in the household, and so forth.

Work with your vet to develop a suitable treatment plan for your dog. They can also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, who will be able to address both medical and behavioral issues and recommend anti-anxiety medications if necessary.

Cost of treating pica disorder

Pica treatment costs will depend on what’s causing the condition. For underlying medical issues, expenses can vary widely. In cases of behavioral pica, the fees for behavioral training can reach around $200 or more, and may require ongoing prescription medications.

Dogs that experience an intestinal blockage may require surgery, which can cost up to a few thousand dollars.

Preventing pica in dogs

Prevention is always better than a cure. The best way to prevent the development of pica is to keep your dog from eating non-food objects by putting them away. If your pet is eating wood, rocks, or grass, be sure to keep them on a leash while outdoors.

Some other ways to prevent pica in dogs include ensuring that your pup is getting enough mental and physical stimulation, making sure they eat a diet that meets their nutritional needs, and eliminating any anxiety triggers from their environment.

Key Takeaways

  • Pica is a condition that is characterized by compulsive eating of non-food objects. Dogs with pica might eat plastic, paper, wood, clothes, and rocks.
  • The cause of pica in dogs can be medical or psychological.
  • Treatment will depend on the cause and might include behavioral modification or medications.
  • The best way to prevent pica is to keep your pet from eating non-food objects by putting away the items they want to eat. Physical activity, mental stimulation, and a proper diet are also good ways to prevent pica.

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Ricky Walther, DVM

Dr. Ricky Walther
Associate Veterinarian - Petco

Ricky Walther, DVM, is a small animal general practitioner in the greater Sacramento, California area. Realizing the positive financial and medical impact that pet insurance can provide for pet parents and the profession, he lends support and advice to companies like Pawlicy Advisor "The Pet Insurance Marketplace") that simplify the process of connecting with veterinary financing resources.

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