Do you have a rock-eating dog? I do. In fact, it went beyond rocks – dirt, flowers, and yep poop. Gross, right?
When Creamy first came to us, she would roam the garden and pick up a snack of dirt and pebbles. Soon I noticed that flowers below a few feet high were all gone, Creamy with flower dust on her nose and leaves on her head. On walks it was the same, but yummy poop for dessert. Needless to say, I was concerned, and disgusted. So I asked the Hong Kong Dog Rescue trainer Mark Curran about it.
Pica: (for people) A craving for something not normally regarded as nutritive. For example, dirt. Pica is a classic clue to iron deficiency in children. It also occurs in zinc deficiency. Pica is also seen as a symptom in several neurobiological disorders, including autism and Tourette syndrome, and is sometimes seen during pregnancy. MedicineNet.com
Pica is actually quite common. A dog with this disorder eats non-food items such as rocks, toilet paper, safety pins, and feces (coprophagy).
For puppies, it’s usually boredom, attention-seeking or they are simply exploring the world, as they do with their mouth, and they usually grow out of it. Other triggers are anxiety and frustration. Pica can even develop into an obsessive-compulsive behaviour, which like chasing their tail, usually needs the help of a behavioural specialist or alternative therapy. The cause of Pica is largely unknown but I think the general consensus is that it’s a behavioural issue, rather than a nutritional one.
As you can imagine, rocks and other objects like rubber bands can do major damage in the stomach, which can require surgery. Chewing rocks can wear down the teeth and cut up the inside of the mouth.
Oddly, it sounds like rocks is the choice du jour.
What to do?
First – do not yell, punish, or reprimand your dog in any way. This would only make it worse, with the dog hiding the behaviour from you. (Unless the dog is doing it to get attention). If possible, try to figure out the reason behind his eating pattern.
Positive reinforcement training definitely gets better and lasting results, without having the dog behave out of fear. When you want a dog to stop a behaviour, try clapping your hands or a loud “huh uh” to distract him and praise him for “leave it”, replace the sock he’s chewing with a toy, or quickly take him to an appropriate spot to eliminate. Praise. Praise. Praise.
Clean up! Pica-proof your home. Not always easy but a lot of dogs fixate on one or only a few types of objects, which would make it slightly better. For some reason, dogs really like rocks. If possible, remove them from your garden (always good to let your landscape designer know if you are getting a new garden!) or make sure the rocks are too big for the dog to pick up. If not, then you will have to restrict access to the rocks, supervise time in the garden or completely deny access, unless you want to resort to a muzzle (yowsers).
Play time! If the cause is boredom, exercise your dog more often to provide stimulation. Add games to his day. Try hide-and-seek (with yourself or just treats around the house) or stuffing a toy like the Kong which is hard and indestructible. Just having more toys around will also help.
Make it less tasty. Some people suggest spraying the object of “affection” with cayenne powder, bitter apple, tabasco, or citronella.
For Creamy, we chalked it up to stress. She was undernourished, weighing barely over 20 kg, with a scraggly coat when she first came to us. She spent nearly a month at the kennels and I know she hated every day of it. I often found her by the gate, waiting to get out. Imagine the stress of being a stray, after being abandoned, and then stuck with stranger dogs and people. Her anxiety at the kennels became anxiety at fitting into a new home and a household with another dog. Flower essences really helped her adjust, as did lots of exercise, playtime, toys, good diet, and affection.
Aside from her BARF meals, which helped Creamy regain weight and a beautiful coat, we gave her pineapple, a major source of bromelain (a fruit-based protein digesting enzyme). The theory is that dogs eat feces to supplement with recycled digestive enzymes. With pineapple, they would no longer need to seek it out in a way that is natural to them, but disgusting to us.
Creamy has kicked her habit and sticking to actual food. From time to time I catch her eating soil, but like grass, I think dogs eat it to help with their digestion. Luckily for us, Creamy just loves carrying her tennis balls in her mouth, not in her tummy. Our neighbour’s dog in Discovery Bay had several balls (one being a soccer ball) removed via surgery. I had a friend whose dog swallowed her engagement ring (also a rock! which later passed through). So many stories of crazy x-rays – toys, golf balls, socks, even knives! Check out some of the weirdest things dogs have eaten.