As I’ve written in the past, my dog Cami is less than discriminating about what she eats. Much like a human 2-year old, if she can stick something in her mouth, she will. Relatively early in her life, I had to have her x-rayed after it was suspected that she ate a few of the rocks in her kennel. (Figuring that landscape materials cost less than more sets of x-rays, shortly thereafter, we purchased patio blocks for the kennel floor.)
The official term for eating non-food items is pica. Pica isn’t limited to rocks either, it includes habitually eating things other than food, such as shoes, carpet, wood, string, grass or any other weird thing your dog might discover he likes. Unfortunately, pica can be a somewhat dangerous habit. Chewing rocks or other hard objects can break teeth or cause choking or intestinal blockages. As Cami has proven repeatedly, pica can cause vomiting and diarrhea as well.
Pica can be caused by either a medical or behavioral problem. Various digestive disorders may be related to pica, such as difficulty swallowing, or problems related to intestinal absorption. Other problems such as diabetes or a nutrient deficiency may be related as well. If your dog starts eating things he shouldn’t, first you should talk to your veterinarian to rule out these medical problems. The veterinarian may want to run blood tests and urinalysis to check for underlying disease and organ function.
Once medical causes have been eliminated, it’s time to consider the behavioral reasons for pica. Some dogs are so bored or anxious that they need something to do. Some dogs also will chew on things to get your attention. In fact, scolding your dog may actually reinforce the behavior. If the dog is looking for attention, you give it to him by scolding him. To an attention-starved canine, bad attention is better than no attention.
If the problem is behavioral, you have two main approaches. First, give the dog plenty of attention and exercise. A dog can’t chew on weird stuff if he’s asleep, so take him for long walks twice a day. You also can redirect the behavior by encouraging the dog to chew on “approved” chew toys. With retrievers and other dogs that like to “play ball” you can combine the two ideas and exhaust the dog by playing a lot of games of fetch.
The second approach is to just make sure the dog can’t get at the problem objects. For example, we made rocks unavailable to Cami. We also don’t let her off leash or leave her unsupervised in any area where she can get into anything she shouldn’t. Yes it’s more work for us, but her health is worth it.