Why Do Dogs and Cats Eat Strange Things?

Recently, a friend’s Labrador Retriever needed surgery to remove a sock from his intestinal tract.

During the surgery, the veterinarian found three additional socks, an oven mitt, and a bandana. My friend had seen her dog swallow the one sock, but had no idea about the other items. No wonder her poor dog had an extreme belly ache. Once her dog was on his way to recovery, though, she asked me, “I give him chew toys to chew on. He gets plenty to eat. Why on earth does he constantly try to steal clothes and why does he eat them?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer as to why some dogs and cats eat non-food items.

The practice of eating things that are not food is called “pica”. Many animals, including dogs, cats, horses, cows, and even humans, have been known to practice pica. Unfortunately, this can be extremely dangerous as my friend found out. Her Lab could have died from the intestinal obstruction. In addition, poisonous or toxic items, such as flakes of lead based paint, some houseplants, or medication, can cause severe illness or death. Cats have been known to consume rubber bands, shoelaces, ribbons, pieces of shower curtains, and chunks of houseplants. Dogs have eaten rubber items, stucco off of houses, pieces of wood, rocks, coins and clothing, to name just a few. There is rarely any rhyme or reason as to why something gets eaten.

The Causes of Pica

Pica is not uncommon in kittens and puppies. Cats who are weaned before they were ready or who have been separated from their mother too early are often driven (sometimes frantically) to nurse. Often it’s a wool blanket or sweater, sometimes anything soft. This sucking can then turn into chewing on and consuming pieces of that item. Doberman Pinschers also share this trait.

It’s certainly not unusual for puppies to chew on anything that will fit in their mouth and, although many will swallow bits and pieces, most do not eat the entire item being chewed. My friend’s Lab, however, isn’t the only Lab who has needed to get items removed from his intestinal tract; this is so common it’s almost a breed trait.

Unfortunately, there are other reasons why animals practice pica. Diabetes, leukemia and brain tumors and disorders have all been linked to eating disorders, including pica. Nutritional deficiencies, including mineral deficiencies, have been linked to pica although no major studies have confirmed this.

Dogs and cats who are bored will look for things to do and can become quite destructive. One dog owner who enrolled in a dog training class confided that she was there because her dog chewed up the rubber bumper on their brand new car and they found pieces in the dog’s feces.

Has anything changed in the household? Has a child left for college? Have work hours changed? Have you moved? Although stress alone rarely causes pica, if a dog or cat with the tendency to practice pica has additional stress, it can trigger an episode of the behavior. Trying to determine why a dog or cat chews and consumes non-food items often requires some detective work.

©istockphoto/kimeveruss

©istockphoto/kimeveruss

Solution 1: Ask Your Veterinarian

Since the causes of pica can be so varied, it should come as no surprise that there is no one suggestion for stopping the behavior. However, most behaviorists recommend that the first thing you should do is consult with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian should perform a complete physical on your pet to find or eliminate any medical reason for the bad habit. Complete blood work is usually in order and will probably include a fasting blood test to check for diabetes. Depending on your pet, your veterinarian may also recommend other tests. If a health problem is discovered, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options and, hopefully with treatment, the pica behavior will lessen or disappear.

Tell your vet what food your pet eats and ask if a change in foods should be considered. Your vet might also recommend a nutritional or mineral supplement.

Solution 2: Removing the Problematic Item

If a health problem is not the cause of the pica, then other solutions need to be considered. The first and easiest solution is to remove the items being eaten if possible. This is, obviously, easiest if your pet is focusing on only one or two small things. A sock-eating dog or rubber band-eating cat can easily be thwarted by removing those items. If you can’t remove the items, can you make sure your pet doesn’t have access to them? A vehicle bumper-eating dog, for example, can be kept out of the garage while other solutions were implemented to reduce his need to chew the bumper. Sometimes, by removing those things or removing access to them, the pattern of behavior can be stopped.

Solution 3: Give New Chewing Options

Providing new and unique toys can catch your pet’s attention. Chewable toys can satisfy the pet’s need to chew. Food-dispensing toys are made for both dogs and cats, and these are attractive to many pets. Feed your pet one or more of his meals in these toys. Since getting his food out of them requires thought, activity, and takes some time; he will be amused, exercised and ready for a nap when he’s done.

Solution 4: Pay Attention to Your Pet’s Stress Level

Increasing your pet’s daily exercise and play time can be beneficial, especially if stress is one aspect of his pica. Quiet time is also something that works for some pets. Just sit with your dog or cat, pet him, brush him, rub his tummy, and give him affection. With some pets, when we get too busy in our daily lives and forget about these quiet moments, the pet will act out in frustration, boredom, and loneliness.

What Doesn’t Work

Although training is often recommended for many canine behavior problems, training alone will not stop pica since this is usually a compulsion rather than a simple behavior. Although training and medication prescribed by your veterinarian may help, training alone rarely does.

Punishment also doesn’t work. Even though it may be frustrating, annoying, and expensive when a pet consumes non-food items, punishment never works to stop the behavior. In addition, when punished, your pet may increase the behavior due to the added stress.

When You Need More Help

If you’ve tried these suggestions and your pet is still having trouble, then it’s time to talk to a dog or cat behaviorist. Before you meet with her, jot down as much as you can remember about your pet’s behavior. When did it start? When does your pet practice it? What does your pet chew and eat? How often does it happen? Has your pet done it to the point of needing veterinary care? If he has, provide the behaviorist with your veterinarian’s information and provide permission so she can consult with your veterinarian. The behaviorist, depending on your individual pet, may talk to your veterinarian about the options of medication.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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