Why Do Dogs Eat Non-Food Items?
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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