Pica in Dogs

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
By Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Apr. 3, 2023

In This Article


What Is Pica In Dogs?

Pica is a common condition where a dog consistently eats objects that are not food items. A dog needs to ingest the item—not just chew on it—for it to be considered pica.

Metal, plastic, cloth, garbage, rocks, paper, dirt, and feces are common non-nutritional items that dogs with pica ingest. Due to a dog’s ability to detect their pet parents’ scent, items such as underwear, socks, pantyhose, towels, and wet wipes are particular favorites.

Some dogs will consume any non-food item they come in contact with, but others will choose the same type of item every time. Pica is typically considered a psychological, obsessive-compulsive habit, but it can be the result of a medical condition or poor nutrition.

Ingesting these items can be very dangerous and it puts your dog at risk for toxicity, choking, stomach upset, or even a life-threatening gastrointestinal blockage. If you see or suspect your dog may have eaten a non-food item, contact your veterinary immediately.

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Symptoms of Pica in Dogs

You may catch your dog eating a non-food item, which can be the first sign of pica in dogs. This compulsive ingestion can lead to ulcers and irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, in addition to the possibly of a serious obstruction of the stomach or intestines. Common clinical signs associated with pica (besides ingestion of a non-food item) include:

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhea, loose stool

  • Halitosis (bad breath)

  • Broken teeth

  • Decreased appetite or anorexia

  • Pawing at the mouth/face

  • Gagging or retching

  • Abdominal distension (bloated stomach)

  • Tenesmus (straining to have a bowel movement)

  • Little to no feces produced

  • Dark, black tarry stool

  • Excessive drooling

  • Coughing

  • Blue/purple mucous membranes in the mouth

  • Visible distress or abnormal behavior

Causes of Pica in Dogs

Pica can be the result of an illness, parasites, or a nutritional deficiency, but it is more often due to a mental health condition such as boredom, depression, anxiety, or extreme hunger.

The most common form of pica in dogs is coprophagia, which is the ingestion of feces. In nursing female dogs, pica is common and is considered normal, because the mother will ingest the feces of her puppy when she licks around the anus to stimulate a bowel movement. Coprophagia is also common in young puppies, but it is a behavior they typical grow out of as they age. Dogs with separation anxiety commonly chew and ingest items when their owners are not around.

While certain breeds like Labradors are more naturally prone to pica, dogs that have high energy but do not get enough exercise or stimulation often choose to ingest non-food items. Pica is also considered an attention-seeking behavior and can result from lack of socialization with humans or other dogs. Dogs on steroid medications such as prednisone or anti-seizure medications like phenobarbital often have an insatiable appetite, which can lead to pica.

Both anemia (low iron) and medical conditions can prevent a dog from absorbing nutrients from their food, often causing them to eat soil, clay, and dirt. Pica can occur with the following medical conditions:

How Veterinarians Diagnose Pica in Dogs

Your dog’s veterinarian will do a complete physical examination and will recommend lab work, including a complete blood count (CBC), serum chemistry profile, fecal check, and a urinalysis to assess your dog after ingesting a non-food item. These tests will be able to diagnose some underlying medical conditions.

If inflammatory bowel disease or conditions of the pancreas are suspected, your vet will need to do more blood testing, in addition to an abdominal ultrasound. Most non-food items ingested by a dog can be seen on an x-ray of the abdomen that includes the stomach and intestines.

An X-ray will also help determine if your dog has an obstruction from the object they ingested, and to determine how to remove the item.

Once all medical conditions have been ruled out as the cause of pica, behavioral conditions are then diagnosed as the underlying cause. The cause of pica might be difficult to identify in some dogs, and can be a source of frustration not only for both pet parent and veterinarian.

Treatment of Pica in Dogs

Depending upon the underlying cause of pica, it is possible to cure this condition. Medical conditions causing pica need to be treated thoroughly in order to help your dog. If your dog has an intestinal blockage, they will need to be hospitalized and undergo surgery to have the item removed. And if you suspect you dog is choking from an item stuck in their throat, contact an emergency veterinarian immediately.

If all medical conditions have been ruled out and a compulsive behavior is suspected, it’s often recommended that your dog be seen by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a behavior therapist. These professionals have extensive expertise and can help with intensive behavior modification techniques or by even prescribing medications to help treat your dog’s mental health condition. Pica caused by behavioral issues is usually much more difficult to treat.

Behavior modification can include methods to reduce anxiety and training a dog to keep their mouth occupied with other things that they do not ingest.

Increasing the amount of exercise, such as longer walks or playing fetch, as well as mental stimulation with puzzles or safe chew toys, can be helpful. Make sure to walk your dog on a leash to monitor their behavior and prevent them from eating rocks, dirt, or feces.

Be sure to exercise your dog daily and keep their mind engaged. If your dog tends to ingest items such as socks and underwear, some good practices are to keep a lid on the hamper and close the laundry room door so they can’t get to clothing. In severe cases, a basket muzzle might be needed on your dog most of the time, especially when they are left home alone, in the yard, or on a walk.

Natural Remedies for Pica In Dogs

For pica in dogs, there are some natural or herbal remedies that can help. For those with anxiety, consider using an Adaptil® pheromone diffuser and/or calming collar in addition to a chewable supplement like VetriScience® Composure.

Probiotics promote gut health and can help some dogs with intestinal conditions leading to pica. Supplements are also available to sprinkle on stool—promoting an unfavorable taste—and can help with preventing coprophagia.

Recovery and Management of Pica in Dogs

Unless your dog has a medical condition that can be cured, which eliminates pica, it is often a lifelong condition that needs to be managed. Depending upon the underlying cause, it can take weeks, months, or even years for this compulsive condition to be resolved.

Crate training is a great way to ensure that your dog does not ingest things around the home when they are alone or when you are asleep. Consistent and routine mental and physical stimulation in dogs with pica is of the utmost importance. Toys that can be stuffed with food can be useful, as they will keep your dog occupied, which redirects the behavior to a more appropriate choice. It is critical that dogs are supervised to stop them from destroying the toy and swallowing pieces. Ultimately, the best way to prevent pica is to put away the non-food objects so your dog cannot get at them, while also working to manage or eliminate the underlying condition.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Wavetop

Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri Morrison was born and raised and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She went to University of Florida for her...

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