Visiting Vet: What’s that in your mouth?

When Pecky picks up pica.

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Recently I have had multiple calls about dogs eating things that, unless you’re a dog, are considered inedible. The Brittany spaniel who ripped up a plastic toy, swallowed some, then vomited pieces. The dachshund who worried his mother with his penchant for eating mulch and dirt. Yup, plain old dirt. She wondered about a nutritional deficiency. The corgi pup who eats acorns on walks. The golden retriever who chewed the corduroy wing off a stuffed toy goose, then swallowed the hunk of cloth.

Chewing on nonfood objects can be normal behavior. Young dogs, in particular, chew when they are teething. Remember those expensive shoes your puppy destroyed? Older dogs still have that urge. There’s nothing strange about Fido gnawing sticks, and many owners give relatively safe items, such as rawhide “bones” or “dental” chews, to provide the opportunity to satisfy this instinct. Any dog may inadvertently swallow items not intended for ingestion. Perhaps he swallows by mistake. Perhaps it’s inexperience. The spaniel may not understand that those bits of plastic toy are not the same as bits of rawhide chew. The dog proudly carrying his rock may not plan to swallow it. The rock just gets too far back in his mouth until … gulp … oops.

Then there are dogs like Pecky. He isn’t ingesting things by accident or mistake. He is intentionally, habitually, eating rocks, plastic bags, tennis balls, your underwear. Why does he do that? Pecky has a condition called pica — an abnormal appetite or craving for nonfood substances. Pica can be classified as medical, behavioral, or idiopathic. Let’s look at these one by one.

Although the preponderance of canine pica cases are behavioral or idiopathic, sometimes there are medical explanations. In people, eating dirt has been associated with severe nutritional deficiencies, but this is extremely rare in dogs fed good commercial dog food. Neurological, gastrointestinal, and hormonal disorders are occasionally implicated. Diagnostic tests may be indicated, especially if Pecky has other symptoms such as weight loss, excessive water consumption, vomiting, or diarrhea. Have a discussion with your veterinarian. If Pecky seems perfectly healthy, it’s time to look for behavioral causes, which are far more common.

Boredom. Anxiety. Stress. These things can push a pup to pica. Is your dog getting enough exercise? Enough mental stimulation? Simply increasing physical activity can sometimes solve the problem. A good long hike every day. A vigorous game of fetch. Doggie playdates. I have a client who used to say, “A tired puppy is a good puppy.” She was right. (The same holds true for children, and, I suspect, adults as well. Maybe we need to mandate all politicians take a long walk daily? How about a brisk round of catch in Congress? A tug-of-war match for some folks on Islanders Talk?)

A dog left home alone all day gets bored, and is more likely to eat your socks than a dog who is busy and entertained. Being home alone can also lead to separation anxiety, manifest by destructive behavior, which occasionally includes pica. Dogs often demonstrate a preference for eating things that have their owners’ scent — pantyhose, dentures, dirty towels or socks — suggesting a connection between pica and the emotional relationship with their humans. (Or perhaps, disturbingly, that Pecky thinks things that smell like us should be eaten?) Anxiety and stress may also be caused by fear of punishment, competition with or aggression from other animals, emotional trauma, physical needs not being met, and other anxiety-producing environmental conditions, such as loud noises. Do your best to eliminate anything causing stress. If needed, discuss anti-anxiety medications with your veterinarian. Learn about using the behavioral modification techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning.

Once medical and behavioral causes are ruled out, we are left with a diagnosis of idiopathic pica. Dogs just being dogs. Some breeds, e.g. Labrador retrievers, have a higher incidence. (I think Labradors just love to eat so much they forget to check what is actually food.) Dietary modifications may help. Try feeding three or four smaller meals over the day, rather than just one or two. Increase dietary fiber. You can feed veggies like carrots or green beans, even shredded lettuce. (Skip the romaine for now.)

The main treatment, however, is prevention. You must simply minimize opportunities to eat the inedible. Crate training is important, allowing you to confine Pecky when you can’t be around to supervise. Good housekeeping and organization help. Dirty clothes? Use a hamper with a lid. Garbage? A closed trash can. Don’t forget the bathroom trash. You don’t want to hear my tampon stories. Shoes? In the closet.

What about outside? You can’t rake all the acorns in the forest, no matter what President Trump thinks they do in Finland. Teach Pecky these essential commands. Sit. Come. Drop it (or Leave it.) Google “teaching a dog how to drop something” for techniques, or consult a trainer. Then practice, practice, practice. Until he reliably learns these skills, using a leash gives you more control, especially with devices like the Gentle Leader collar, which can help you redirect his head. You may need to use a “cage” muzzle. I know these look scary, but there are pretty, soft plastic ones available. Pecky can open his mouth, pant, bark, do all his normal doggie behaviors while wearing it, except eating rocks.

Pica. Sometimes it’s just a nuisance. Sometimes it becomes dangerous. Ingested items may cause intestinal obstruction or perforation. They may be toxic. Treatment may involve inducing vomiting, but this is often contraindicated and can cause more damage. Always check with your veterinarian. Radiographs may determine size and location of a foreign body. Pecky might need an object removed immediately via endoscopy, or surgery. If the item is nontoxic and has a good chance of passing through the intestines, I recommend repeated feedings of soft bread followed by lubricant laxative, like kitty hairball medication, then observing Pecky closely. If you’re lucky, inedible objects may go in one end and out the other. But not every dog is lucky. Prevention. Prevention. Prevention.