Having a pet means accepting a few givens: your house and possessions will become covered in pet hair (or drool, depending on your pet), your schedule will revolve around letting your dog out to go potty and your chair or table legs may show the telltale sign of doggie teeth marks.

Gone are the days of leaving snacks out on the counter when guests are over; skilled dogs and cats think nothing of surfing the counters to graze on your appetizers! However, food items aren’t the only things on our pet’s menu. The consumption of non-food items, a behavior called pica, can have devastating consequences for our pets.

Both dogs and cats can exhibit pica, eating oddities such as rocks, plastic bags, fabric, and plants. In fact, Petplan recently paid a pet insurance claim for a 7-month-old mixed breed puppy who ingested a wooden skewer and needed life-saving emergency surgery (resulting in a $4,700 hospital bill, all of which was reimbursed, minus the $100 deductible)!

What causes pica in pets?

There are numerous causes for pica, from underlying medical conditions to plain old boredom. By far, the complaint I hear most often from dog owners whose pooches eat weird things concerns coprophagy, or the unpleasant situation of eating feces.

In general, this condition is not usually dangerous to dogs (though it may lead to transmission of intestinal parasites), but it certainly is disgusting. Especially when your dog’s other favorite past time is to give you kisses! Many theories exist regarding the ingestion of feces, ranging from nutritional deficiencies to instinctive behavior to cover their tracks, but none have been proven.

Other dogs prefer to snack on rocks. Sometimes, this behavior can become compulsive. Eating rocks can present your pup with a dangerous intestinal blockage (and a hefty hospital bill), so vigilance is required to prevent rock eating.

Sometimes there are medical reasons for pica. Primary gastrointestinal disorders, nutritional deficiencies and iron deficiency can all cause pica. Be aware that any condition or medication that causes an increased appetite (like the use of steroids, or endocrine disorders such as Cushing’s disease or diabetes) can also lead to pica.

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Other complications

Cats are especially susceptible to intestinal blockage from pica. Often what starts out as fun playtime can lead to consumption of the intended toy, especially when string or yarn are involved. These items can become lodged and create what is known as a ‚Äúlinear foreign body‚ÄĚ type of blockage. Plastic bags, which some cats prefer to nibble on, can become similarly lodged.

How to stop it

Deterring pica in dogs and cats can be difficult and frustrating. Consider using a basket-type muzzle for a dog who gets into trouble around the house. If feces is a delicacy at your house, you can treat your pet’s food with something to make the feces taste bad. Ask your veterinarian what he or she recommends. Keep yarn, string and plastic bags hidden out of kitty’s sight when you are not there to supervise her play, and as always, keep toxic plants like lilies out of the house completely.

If your pet exhibits pica, especially if it has a sudden onset, please visit your veterinarian to rule out an underlying medical cause.

Jun 15, 2011
Pet Health

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