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Why Do Dogs Eat Non-Food Items?

Updated on November 12, 2015
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.


Science Has A Word For It

Eating non food items is known as pica, a term derived from the Latin word for magpie, a bird that has the epicurean discrimination of a goat. Not surprisingly, the term is part of the every day lexicon in veterinary medicine. Surprisingly enough, though, it applies frequently to humans, as well.

No one knows what causes pica in humans. Theories include nutritional, sensory and physiological disorders. There are also psycho-social, and cultural explanations. Most commonly, doctors suspect that emotional disturbances and deficiencies in iron or zinc may lead to the condition.

A veterinary diagnosis of pica also acknowledges a psychological abnormality. Just about all dogs, like just about all children, engage in pica, or consuming non-food items, at some point or another. But simply swallowing something you shouldn't every so often doesn't automatically result in the diagnosis of pica.

The condition frequently is characterized by obsessive behavior on the part of the dogs. They'll pick a certain substance; wood, rubber, or stones, for example, and consume it at every opportunity.

Some materials even have their own sub-terms. If your dog is obsessed with dirt, for example, it's also known as geophagy or geophagia. If he snacks on poop, it's coprophagy or coprophagia.

Obviously there are a number of dangers associated with pica. Chewing on hard objects such as stones can cause chipped or cracked teeth, leading to infection and tooth loss. Stones also present a choking or gastrointestinal blockage threat. In 2011 there was a widely publicized case of the pug in Rhode Island, named Harley, that ate over 100 stones.


The material clogged Harley's entire intestinal tract and filled half his stomach. Because they were small stones, he was given medicine to help him pass them, which he did. Harley fully recovered after a couple of days, but not all such stories have a corresponding happy ending.

The Dangers of Ingesting Non-Food Items

Some items can cause poisoning, either soon after ingestion, or after breaking down over a period of time, the way pennies do. And they don't have to be non-food items to be toxic. Grapes, raisins and onions, for example, can be fatal to dogs when consumed in amounts higher than their respective toxicity thresholds. Keep in mind, too, that there is a range of danger between ingesting harmless amounts and deadly amounts.

What dog doesn't love to chew on sticks, and what owner hasn't played fetch using a stick from the back yard? Wood, in addition to causing blockages, can cause splinters which may become embedded, often resulting in infections.

The fragments of chewed sticks may also cause lacerations in the mouth or anywhere else along the digestive tract. The end result could be internal bleeding and/or secondary infections.

Ingesting non-food items can also cause partial or complete intestinal blockages that require surgery to correct.

There's no magic potion to cure pica. About all you can do is prevent access to your dog’s favorite forbidden treat, and offer digestible alternatives from among the gazillion options available at your pet supply store or vet.

One theory holds that dogs may engage in pica to retain possession of an item. That suggests that they get so used to commands such as "leave it" or "drop it," or to having the item physically taken away from them against their will, that they swallow it so you can't take it away from them.

Many behaviorists suggest that when the dog has a forbidden object in his mouth, you always offer a treat or another chew item that the dog values highly. That way, the dog voluntarily surrenders the item in favor of a treat or toy that he finds more appealing.

Giving him a choice is a positive corrective technique. You just have to be certain that the alternative item you offer will be of greater value to the dog than the item he has in his mouth. You can also muzzle the dog with a basket muzzle, but then you can't leave him unattended for very long.


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    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hello gooddog62 and twilanelson. I assure you that I responded to your comments 9 months ago when you made them. In editing the hub, I noticed that my response wasn't showing. I don't know why, but it has happened before.

      gooddog62, rabbits do it for a different reason though. What they're consuming are called cecal pellets, or night pellets. They're not stool, but nutrient-rich pellets formed in the rabbit's cecum. Thanks for stopping by and commenting...sorry again for the delay.

      twilanelson, I don't believe the antlers would be a sliver hazard. Unlike a dog, which crunches bones with sharp teeth and strong jaws, rabbits gently nibble with those large front incisors.

      I suppose when they get whittled down enough they could become a choking hazard if Edward took the whole thing into his mouth. Simply remove it from his cage when it becomes small.

      Edward is a distinguished and noble name for a rabbit. My daughter-in-law named her rabbit Hazel. The jury's still out on that one :)

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Again, I'm sorry about the delay in my response. I really did respond the same day you commented, cross my heart and hope to die!

    • twilanelson profile image

      Twila Nelson 5 years ago from Carmichael, California

      I am considering the large antler chews for our rabbit, Edward or should we stick to wood ( and everything else that does not run from him). The small antler chews seem so small I worry about choking ( as silly as that may seem). Should I be concerned about slivering with either?

    • gooddog62 profile image

      MIchael Farides 5 years ago from Spring Hill

      Intresting story on both fronts, I vividly rember the days of typing class wondering when I would ever use the skill I was being forced to learn lol, in regards to copraphagia most dogs will only eat the first digested waste and not those thate have been digested a second time. This is probably due to the food not being compeletly digested the first time around and the dog can still smell the undigested ingredients. Intereting also is that rabbits will also follow the same practice. Great post

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi, twilanelson, thanks for stopping by. Do you offer your rabbit enrichment options...things to gnaw on? That's important because those two large incisors continually grow and rabbits will gnaw to keep them from becoming overgrown and misshapen.

      If that happens it will impair the rabbit's ability to eat, plus they could ultimately grow into the bottom jaw. Pieces of wood or natural dog bones make good gnaw toys. There are a bunch of gnaw toys at any pet supply store. If you use twigs and branches from trees in the yard, make sure there's no insecticides, etc. on them.

      Rabbits are great pets, aren't they? My daughter-in-law has one, which I looked after when they went on vacation. Her name is Hazel and she is a delight. I'd approach her cage to refresh her food, water and hay, and she'd come right over to me so I could pet her.

      I was instructed to give her one or two treats (yogurt drops are her faves) a day, but I spoiled her a bit. I treated her just like grandchildren...wind 'em up and send 'em home :)

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • twilanelson profile image

      Twila Nelson 5 years ago from Carmichael, California

      Thank you for another well written and useful Hub for dog lovers.

      I have experienced this type of behavior with dogs and I find that I now have to look into this behavior because of a rabbit that will eat anything.

      Have a nice day!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Christine, thanks for stopping by. I'm aware that some women engage in pica during pregnancy, and it does seem strange, doesn't it? If they weren't inclined to eat toothpicks before, why would they during? It must be related to hormonal changes that occur. Thanks for commenting and for the votes. Regards, Bob

      Hi DrMark, great to see you again! Your voice, and that of so many other professionals, is so loud and clear on the value of exercising a dog it's amazing that it falls on so many deaf ears. If people would take your advice there'd be a lot fewer canine behavioral issues and a lot fewer overweight owners.

      I think Harley's episode occurred in August of that year. There's a pet insurance company that created the annual Ham Bone Award a few years ago, and that's how I learned about Harley, even though he lives only about 20 miles from me.

      The award is in honor of a dog that swallowed a ham bone and lived to bark the story. The company takes the strangest claims of the year and has the public vote on a winner. If you Google "Ham Bone Award" it will take you right to it.

      For me, writing titles is the most difficult part of writing. I try to make them a little weird and different to catch the eye of people who browse titles.

      You have to be careful, though. My hub on anal sac disease gave the filters apoplexy and they disabled ads on it. How do I take the word "anal" out of the title and still let the reader know what it's about?

      I've got one better though. I recently wrote a hub on feline anorexia. More apoplexy for the filters and more disabled ads. I changed the title to: There's Danger When Cats Don't Eat. It cured the apoplexy and re-enabled the ads. Filters can be so anal! Thanks for stopping by, commenting and tweeting (I'm not there yet). Regards, Bob

      Hi, Sharkye11, nice to meet you. Poop and frogs...a meal fit for a king, and it sure saves on the dog food budget. Your chihuahua sure presented a challenge, didn't he? I hope it was finally resolved satisfactorily. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • Sharkye11 profile image

      Jayme Kinsey 5 years ago from Oklahoma

      Oh yeah. We had a chihuahua. In the country, so plenty of exercise. He preferred feces and dead frogs. When I say preferred I mean it. We took him to several vets and they couldn't figure out why he would not eat dogfood. At all. He would literally starve himself to skin and bones, no matter what diet they recommended. Which was probably why he craved the other stuff.

      I agree. Some dogs need nutrients or entertainment. Some are just whacko!

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 5 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      I think there is a magic potion to cure pica, but as it requires people to get up off the couch and spend time exercising their dogs most of the humans are not willing to accept it. If a dog is exercised adequately she is not going to be digging holes in the yard, barking excessively, or eating the paint chips off the side of your house. She is going to be tired and will be sleeping. (disclaimer: this was written on a keyboard by a person who spends time walking his dog and does not have to deal with any behavioral problems. Well, not many.)

      I had not heard of the case of Harley. Did this happen in the summer when the brachycephalic dog was not able to be walked?

      Interesting hub. Thanks! I tweeted this (despite your weird choice for a title. Where do you come up wiht this stuff?)

    • Christine Miranda profile image

      Christine Miranda 5 years ago from My office.

      Here is another 'pica' fact for you. Many women suffer from pica during pregnancy. Weird huh? Great hub. Voted up.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 5 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Jaye, great to have you stop by. Don't feel like a failure because you couldn't take the coprophagia. There are a lot of folks in that boat. What amuses me is how people say a dog's mouth is cleaner than a human's.

      Although I once read something to the effect that a dog's saliva has certain bacteria fighting agents that kill the bacteria from carrion and other gross victuals. I wasn't too sure of the source, though, so I never took much stock in it. I'll have to pursue that sometime. Thanks for the comments and votes. Regards, Bob

      Hi wetnosedogs, maybe your dogs were trying to learn the rules of the house and didn't know which book they were in :) I'll bet the stress of new sights, sounds and scents had a lot to do with it.

      Nice to have you comment. Thanks for stopping by. Regards, Bob

      Hi Lizzy, dogs who engage in coprophagia may stop for a while and start again. The cat box is a common snack haunt for those dogs.

      Gee, I never thought of the carbon copies. Those were tough, because once you typed on the carbon paper, it took most of the carbon off and sometimes there wasn't enough left to re-type the letter or word. Man, those were the days. This word processing is "all that and a bag of chips."

      Thanks for stopping by, commenting and voting. Regards, Bob

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Yeahh... ick! When my kids were growing up, we had a dog who probably did not have that coprophagia, as it was only an occasional indulgence...and it did not happen out in the yard where he did his business--but it did mean we had to be extremely vigilant about keeping the cat box scooped!

      I had to laugh about the typing intro. I was waiting for the mention of the supreme PITA of trying to correct mistakes when making several carbon paper copies.....

      Voted up, interesting, useful, and yes, funny, for your brilliantly amusing intro.

    • wetnosedogs profile image

      wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

      When I first brought my dogs home, they chewed on my books. I finally put the books up and they quit doing that. I think they even grew out of it cause there is still a book laying around here and there and they won't touch it. I think it had something to do with the idea of getting used to their new home and being alone while I work.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I can recall a dog someone in my family had many years ago that frequently ate pine cones. Maybe he saw squirrels doing it and thought that meant pine cones tasted good.

      I tried to adopt a fur-pal for my dog several years ago, but the new one could not be stopped from copraphagia (a problem it seems many dogs rescued from puppy mills have). I tried everything suggested, but in the end, just couldn't prevent her from the (to me, disgusting) practice, and I couldn't cope with it. She was re-homed to a couple who had dealt with the issue before. (Bless their hearts. I felt like a failure, but there are some things I can't handle, and that is one!)

      Very good hub. Voted Up++. Enjoy your, bowl.