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We all seem to have that one friend who can eat anything. But what if that “anything” included things that didn’t actually qualify as food?
Pica is a surprisingly common type of eating disorder that causes pets to compulsively crave and eat non-food items, and it can affect both dogs and cats. Pets with pica develop an appetite for some pretty bizarre things, including rocks, dirt, clothing, cat litter, plastic bags, rubber bands, hair ties, even electrical cords and drywall!
Some develop a fondness for one particular item, while others will swallow a wide variety of objects. Items that carry their human’s scent, like socks, underwear, and hosiery, tend to be particular favorites.
Two items that don’t fall into the pica category? Trash and poop. These delicacies, which are mostly popular with dogs, are attractive to them because they often simply just enjoy the taste. Poop-eating even has its own medical term, “coprophagia” – and it can be a very hard habit to break.
Anything else deemed “non-edible” that is sought out and eaten more than once by a pet is considered to fall into the pica category.
What Causes Pica?
Pica can be caused by many different things, but there are usually 2 main categories: medical and behavioral.
Medical causes of pica can include:
- Dietary and nutritional deficiencies
- Parasitic infection
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease and other gastrointestinal disorders
- Dental Disease
- Neurological Disease
- Teething in puppies
- Endocrine disorders, such as Cushing’s Disease
- Brain tumors
- FELV or FIV viruses in cats
- Side effects of corticosteroids or anti-seizure medication
Psychological causes of pica can include:
- Anxiety, especially separation anxiety
- Lack of exercise
- Lack of mental or physical stimulation
- Lack of socialization
There may even be a genetic predisposition for pica in some breeds of dogs and cats. Labrador Retrievers and Siamese and Birman cats seem to experience pica more frequently than other breeds.
Why Pica Is So Dangerous
Pica can be extremely dangerous for pets. Swallowed objects not only pose a choking hazard, they can become lodged in the esophagus, stomach, or intestine, causing life-threatening blockages that require surgery to remove. If items are toxic, they can cause poisoning. Some objects, like plastic bags, can also cause blockages in the respiratory tract, leading to suffocation and death.
Less tragic, but still serious, consequences of pica include:
- Stomach ulcers
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Black, tarry stools
- Dental problems, such as broken teeth
- Sneezing or coughing
- Straining, or being unable to defecate
- Infections from contaminated objects
Fortunately, pica is one medical condition that is fairly easy to diagnose by pet parents! However, it’s not always easy to tell if the cause is medical or behavioral. To rule out medical causes, a thorough exam and testing should be done by a veterinarian.
Testing can include a fecal exam to check for parasites, blood work to rule out diabetes, anemia, liver disease, or disease of the pancreas, and a urinalysis. If the veterinarian suspects a nutritional deficiency or problems with the pet’s gastrointestinal tract not properly absorbing nutrients, more specific blood tests can be done that check folate and Vitamin B-12 levels.
And if the pet has a history of pica, it’s always a good idea to grab a quick x-ray to make sure there’s nothing in the GI tract that shouldn’t be there!
Immediate treatment of pica depends on the cause. If the pica is caused by a nutritional deficiency, switching to a different food, adding probiotics to the pet’s diet, or using a digestive enzyme supplement may help. If parasites are found, they are easily treated with medication.
If the suspected cause is behavioral, reducing stress and anxiety and providing a more enriching environment is key. Herbal remedies like Rescue Remedy can be helpful for dogs, while cats may benefit from plug-in feline pheromone diffusers.
Preventing Future Occurrences of Pica
Once a pet has been diagnosed and treated for pica and is out of danger, there are many options pet parents have to prevent future problems.
If your dog or cat suffers from pica, first make sure they are on a nutritious, high-quality diet. Next, limit their access at all times to the items they love to swallow! This may involve using a crate for your dog whenever you’re away from home. If your dog eats rocks, monitor him at all times while on walks or at the park. In some cases, dogs are just too quick in scooping things up off the ground while they’re walking, so in extreme cases, you may want to invest in a basket muzzle while outside so that your dog physically cannot eat anything while wearing the muzzle (just be sure the muzzle doesn’t restrict his ability to breathe). For cats, do a walk-through of your home and remove access to items like yarn, shoelaces, plastic bags, hair ties, or anything else your cat could swallow. Cover exposed electrical cords with plastic tubing, and make sure that any cat toys you have aren’t small enough to be swallowed.
Next, examine both your pet’s environment and their daily routine for psychological stressors. Is there anything causing stress that can be eliminated? Is your pet bored or lonely? Are they getting enough exercise, attention, and mental stimulation, including daily play time?
Other tips include:
Provide a regular schedule for your pet. Animals feel safest with a predictable routine. Regular feeding times, bedtime, walks, and play sessions can help decrease anxiety.
Increase environmental enrichment to keep pets from getting bored. For dogs, focus their attention with durable chew toys or treat dispensing toys to keep them from chewing on inappropriate items. For cats, make sure they have scratching posts, safe toys, puzzle feeders, and a cat tree near a window to give them a view of the outdoors. You can also provide cat grass to give them something more appropriate to chew on.
Never punish or yell at your pet for eating inappropriate things. This will only increase their anxiety, stress, and frustration, which can backfire and actually lead to an increase in pica behavior.
If your pet’s pica is associated with severe anxiety, there are some medications prescribed by your veterinarian that may help. However, these medications are not a magic bullet. They should be used in conjunction with behavioral training, regular exercise, and a familiar routine to reduce stress. In very severe cases, a professional veterinary behaviorist may be able to help when conventional treatments don’t seem to be working.
Most of all, be patient! Changing behavior doesn’t happen overnight.
Pica – An Appetite For Destruction
Not every pet who eats something odd from time to time has pica. However, if your pet has been diagnosed with pica, don’t despair! In most cases, although pica can be a lifelong condition, it can also be managed.
If you are aren’t able to pinpoint what might be triggering pica in your pet, or have been unable to redirect them away from the behavior, be sure to ask your veterinarian for a referral to a certified veterinary behavior professional.
Have you ever had a pet with pica? Please share your story with us in the comments below!