Pica: stress eating in dogs

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pica: stress eating in dogs

Pica is a condition in which dogs crave the ingestion of unnatural food sources. While it may seem unusual, it’s actually fairly common.

Lucky, a two-year-old yellow Lab, was repeatedly swallowing cloth and socks. His veterinarian, Dr. Janice Huntingford, knew some investigation was in order. “A dog that age is past the puppy stage, and should know better than to keep going after those objects,” she says. “After tests ruled out any medical issue, we took a look at his lifestyle.”

Discussions with Lucky’s family revealed that the dog ate these objects when he was home alone. He was well cared for, yet lived in a busy household. “We found he was chronically under-stimulated,” says Dr. Huntingford. “The family soon made some changes, such as increasing his daily exercise, and using doggie daycare to break up his hours alone. They put his food in work toys so he’d have to use the toy a bit to get the food out.”

While this was a step in the right direction, it wasn’t an instant solution. “They also had to teach Lucky not to eat these items,” Dr. Huntingford adds. “During the training process, I recommended they use a basket muzzle on him when he had to be left alone, to prevent further problems.”

This combination of changes soon did the trick and Lucky lost his habit of going after non-food objects.

Why eat non-food items?

Pica is a condition in which dogs crave the ingestion of unnatural food sources. While it may seem unusual, it’s actually fairly common.

“Pica may be quite different from a dog that just likes to chew,” explains veterinarian Dr. Rob Butler. “Differentiating between acceptable items to chew and nonacceptable items is a learned behavior and therefore a very important part of early puppy training.”

When a grown dog continues to chew and swallow inappropriate items, you should first consider an underlying physical problem and discuss the situation with a vet, who should rule out any medical or nutritional causes.

“Pica could be related to nutritional deficiencies, metabolic imbalance, intestinal parasites or diseases such as diabetes, Cushing’s, gastritis or inflammatory bowel disease,” says Dr. Butler. “A review of the dog’s diet and blood work may be indicated.”

Behavior and lifestyle

Once medical or nutritional causes have been ruled out, a little digging into the dog’s lifestyle may uncover the cause. “Lack of exercise or stimulation, feelings of anxiety, depression or frustration can result in this problem,” says Dr. Huntingford. “Chewing can be very satisfying, and a dog will chew to relieve anxiety.”

If your dog is a repeat offender, try keeping a “dog log”. Record his daily activities, noting exercise, outings, length of time spent alone, or visitors coming by. Also note outside events such as garbage pickup, children passing to and from a bus stop, and other activities that may stimulate your dog. When a pica incident occurs, this log may help point to a pattern. Another possibility is to set up a video camera to observe the dog when he’s alone.

“I once saw a dog who was kenneled much of the time, and who wanted to get at something outside,” says Dr. Huntingford. “Frustrated, he began swallowing the rocks inside his kennel.”

Training and other tips

• Provide toys and treats – In addition to seeking the cause of the problem, spend some time reminding your dog about chewing do’s and don’ts. Provide a variety of safe and appropriate toys and treats for chewing. When you catch him in the act of chewing the wrong object, take it away with a fi rm “no”, and replace it with one of his toys.

Keep in mind that not much can be done after the deed is done. “If you come home from work and fi nd an object half eaten, you can’t correct the dog then,” says Dr. Huntingford. “All he’ll know is that you came home from work and yelled at him. He won’t make the connection between the yelling and the chewed object.” When you go out, make several safe chew toys or treats available to him so he can transfer his chewing needs to them.

• Increase activity – While working towards a solution, it’s helpful to increase your dog’s activity, both mental and physical. Add some extra time to his walk before you leave for work. Arrange for a visit by a dog walker or neighbor to break up long hours alone. A tired dog is less likely to seek ways of entertaining himself.

• Improve housekeeping – This is a must. Children’s toys, shoes and clothing, food packaging and other items should be cleared away out of reach, and trash cans should have tightly-fi tting lids or be kept in a locked cupboard.

• Crating or confi nement – If the dog is accustomed to and comfortable with crating, use that when he’s alone as long as you won’t be gone too long. Otherwise, confi ne him to a well picked-up room. Use a gate rather than closing the door; feeling “cut off” from the rest of the house may heighten his anxiety.

• Natural remedies – “A number of Chinese herbs will help with anxiety issues,” says Dr. Huntingford. “Flower remedies may also help with issues such as boredom,

These pheromones can be distributed by a diffuser, spray or collar, and will have a calming effect on the dog.” Always seek the advice of a professional before giving your dog any remedy, even a natural one. While it can be frustrating, dogs with pica can learn to curb their chewing.

Safety alert

Swallowed objects present a medical hazard to your dog. “Persistent vomiting,
with an absence of any stool or sometimes small amounts of diarrhea, may indicate your dog has swallowed something,” says Dr. Butler. Contact your vet if you suspect a problem, even if you didn’t catch your dog in the act of swallowing something.

Understanding the cause, making some lifestyle changes, and renewing training efforts prevent further problems and keep your dog’s digestive system free of foreign objects.

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