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  • UC Davis Vet School

Abnormal Eating Habits of Dogs

Some animals develop unusual eating habits, consuming objects such as rocks, wood, plastic, strings, rubber bands, and other non-food items. This problem, called pica, is defined as the persistent chewing and consumption of non-nutritional substances that provide no physical benefit to the animal. While many of our dogs chew on a variety of objects, only a subset actually consumes the objects. This behavior can be a symptom of an underlying medical problem, such as nutritional deficiencies, or a behavioral problem, such as anxiety, boredom, or true compulsive behavior. Pica can lead to medical problems including poisoning, dental problems, and gastrointestinal obstructions.

Causes

Nutritional deficiency or other medical problem

It is important to rule out an underlying medical problem as the cause of pica. For example, some animals eat soil when they have mineral deficiencies.

Boredom/Lack of enrichment

When not provided with adequate exercise, mental stimulation, interactive toys, and/or social interaction, dogs seek out their own activities and toys. For example, dogs not given appropriate chew toys may chew rocks or wood, which can wear down their teeth.

Anxiety

Dogs that are anxious, such as those suffering from separation anxiety, may redirect their stress to abnormal eating behaviors.

Teething

When puppies are teething, it is normal for them to want to chew on objects to massage their gums. If appropriate chew toys are not provided, they will chew inappropriate objects. While most dogs do not consume the objects they chew, some do. If the behavior is not redirected to appropriate toys, dogs may develop a continued preference and habit for an object.

Treatment

Seek veterinary help

Talk to your veterinarian if you have concerns about your pet’s nutritional needs and abnormal eating habits. If your pet’s behavior stems from a nutritional deficiency, it is important to choose a commercial diet that will provide complete nutrition. Ask your veterinarian for a close nutritional analysis and advice on good commercial diets.

Avoidance

This technique involves removing the animal from the environment where the behavior is performed. For example, placing a muzzle on your dog will prevent him from eating inappropriate objects. However, these techniques by themselves don’t address the underlying problem.

Address the underlying cause of anxiety or stress

In some cases, the abnormal consumption of nonfood objects may stem from underlying stress or anxiety. Trying to determine the cause of your pet’s angst is an important step in eliminating the behavior. To determine the source, careful observation of the behavior, including its frequency, duration, and time of occurrence are important. In many cases, the behavior may occur only while the animal is not under your supervision. In this instance, the use of a video camera may be used to capture the act. Understanding the circumstances in which your pet feels driven to perform the behavior is important to work towards elimination.

Another important point to keep in mind is how you interact with your pet on a daily basis. Setting proper boundaries helps your pet respect you as the leader. Being conscientious about the use of rewards when interacting with your pet is important to let your pet know that he must be behaving properly and actively participating in maintaining proper behavior to gain attention and rewards from you.

Enrichment

You can help reduce this behavior by increasing environmental enrichment. Giving your pet toys that are breed and size appropriate may decrease unwanted behavior by increasing positive stimuli. Redirecting your pet’s energy towards an acceptable outlet is a good alternative.

Exercise

With our busy lives, it can be hard to find time to help our pets get sufficient exercise. However, a physical outlet can be an excellent alternative to reduce abnormal eating habits by increasing the level of neurotransmitters that support healthy brain function.

Counter-conditioning and Remote Punishment

This technique involves retraining an animal to avoid certain behaviors that they previously sought. Placing a discouraging taste or smell on the object of desire will help them avoid eating that object in the future. For example, you can put hot sauce on the object that you want your pet to avoid. Alternatively, association of a negative stimulus, such as turning on a vacuum cleaner at time of the pica, can lead to stopping the behavior. However, these techniques by themselves will not address the underlying problem.

Medication

As an adjunct to behavior therapy, medication MAY be used to reduce anxiety if the pica is induced by stress.

Pica is a complex behavior with many possible underlying causes. It is always important to seek professional advice from your veterinarian when determining the cause of your pet’s motivations.

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