The original content for this post is below, followed by a major addition we made to update new research and learnings we have come across to help dog owners address this issue.
For most of us, it’s hard to understand why dogs would eat things like rocks, socks or other non-food items. Yet many dogs do. The technical term is PICA. For some, it can result in a hefty vet bill when something dangerous is ingested and needs to be surgically removed.
In evaluating the behavior, we look at what is being eaten and under what circumstances. If the dog is eating rocks or dirt, it is possible the dog is looking to fulfill a nutritional deficiency. A visit to your vet might be worthwhile as well as evaluating your food choices.
If your dog is eating non-food items, look at how the behavior developed and when it’s happening. For example, a dog might start out by finding and playing with or chewing socks, pillows, and anything else around home that looks fun. For some dogs, it is merely an attempt to explore their world – which dogs do primarily through their noses and their mouths. Looking to have some fun or alleviate boredom is a common issue. Some dogs express this through chewing. Some dogs will chew lots of things but not ingest. Others will ingest the items they chew.
In other cases, the dogs end up swallowing items in an attempt to maintain possession if people are constantly taking things away. The attempt to maintain control can display itself in a game of keep away or tug of war. In other dogs, resource guarding will develop and a dog might growl, snap or even bite. And for some dogs, they will swallow the item to prevent someone from taking it away.
One client has a dog who was swallowing socks. While it most likely started out as something fun to play with and chew, she began swallowing them in an effort to keep them from being taken away. The original behavior probably started due to a bit of boredom, but it turned into a resource guarding issue being expressed by swallowing the item.
Another client has a dog who is eating rocks. In our discussion, we determined the rock eating appears to be due primarily to boredom. The dog is looking for something to do, and most likely started out playing with the rocks, but now eats them. In this case, I think resource guarding also plays a part. This dog also has some food aggression issues, so resource guarding rocks is certainly a possibility.
In the case of both clients mentioned above, the approach is similar. First, prevention. Don’t allow the dogs to practice the unwanted (and dangerous) behavior while we’re working to change it.
Next, we work very hard on teaching a reliable “drop it” and “leave it”. Anytime I am working with a client on “drop it” or “leave it” I want to make sure we are making it fun and rewarding for the dog, but it is particularly important in these cases. If there is an element of possessiveness, we need to be careful about perpetuating this perception that we are always taking things away and never giving anything back. Providing worthwhile rewards in exchange for leaving or dropping the items they have is essential. Sounding like you are having fun and playing a game, not scolding or punishing the dog, is also necessary.
In addition, we work at replacing these behaviors with more constructive behaviors. If the dogs are getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation in more constructive ways, they will begin to forget about eating non-food items. Some of these issues are easily resolved, while others will take quite a bit of work. But working to resolve these issues could save the lives of these dogs, so it’s well worth putting in the effort.
Otherwise, eating a little grass and dirt and a stick here and there perhaps isn’t such a bad thing after all.
The content below includes a significant addition to the original post above.
Since we get a lot of traffic and comments to this post, we wanted to update it with research coupled with many things we have learned about dog health, and provide a roadmap for helping dog owners find and treat the root causes for why their dog may be engaging in this activity.
In medical terminology, the two broad areas we want to consider for issues related to this article are:
- PICA, which is the persistent craving and compulsive eating of nonfood substances;
- Coprophagia, which is the eating and ingesting of feces.
Coprophagia may actually be less of an issue than PICA, which we will explain later.
We will start by saying that this may not be an easy issue to solve for many dog owners. As we recommend in our summary, it can take persistent trial and error by the dog owner to start, followed by working with a dog health care practitioner if the issue is still not resolved.
The reason why this may be a difficult issue to solve is because it is merely the symptom manifesting from a deeper problem that could be coming from one or a number of different areas in a dog’s body. It is not something relatively simple like your dog limping on a back leg, which is generally confined to an issues in the foot, leg or back.
That said, let’s dive in.
If your dog engages on a persistent basis the behavior associated with PICA and coprophagia, then you will want to start a dog log to so you can identify where it is occurring, when it is occurring and what else is going on around the dog when it is happening.
A dog log is critically important because you can record details that you would normally forget. But more importantly, the recording of these details will help you be more thorough in documenting the where/when/what else details.
Writing down or typing in the details will also help you become more aware of circumstances that might cause them so that you will be more proactive about keeping them from happening.
The dog log will also help you, through trial and error, to see if and how the problem changes as you do things to help stop it.
We keep our own health log for our dogs that varies in how often we post to it.
For things like vet visits, tests performed, changes in diet, physical issues that might come up (like limps, skin scratches or knicks, etc), we record.
We might get more frequent and specific if there is a specific health issue we are trying to fix. But if not, then we keep it general and high level.
Even general or high level helps us when we go to the vet for an annual checkup. This information is readily available for us to review with our vet.
But for an issue like PICA, you will want to be very detailed.
We keep ours in Google Docs because we can share it amongst the family members to maintain it and it works across mobile devices as well as notebooks and PC. The convenience of being able to use any device to add to it and that everyone can use at anytime makes it a no-brainer.
We have a template dog log we created specifically around documenting the circumstances around PICA, here. You can save that to your own google account or download it for use in other applications, or you can print it out and use it that way. You can download it at the end of this article.
After you have a dog log in place, let's give you a framework to think about possibly solving this issue for your dog.
The Functional Medicine Approach To Health
We already said that PICA is potentially a difficult issue to solve because it is merely the symptom manifesting from a deeper problem that could be coming from one or a number of different areas in a dog’s body. It is not something relatively simple like your dog limping on a back leg, which is generally confined to an issues in the foot, leg or back.
As a result, we need a framework to help solve this issue.
Ed adapted this framework to fix his own chronic health issues. It is still relatively new but being used in human health by more progressive health care practitioners.
It is something you can use not just for your dog but your own health and the health of your family members. We are using it to help identify any health issues with our own dogs and to help keep them healthy. It is a very powerful and useful framework.
Let’s start from the top white boxes and work across.
All health issues can manifest as a result of any one of these 5 areas:
- Consummables: what we eat is being recognized as the biggest effect on our health, and health conditions and diseases mostly come as a result of the consummables we put into our bodies.
- Environmental: the chemicals we breathe or put on our bodies through cosmetics, and the electromagnetic radiation we get exposed to through airplane travel, WIFI, mobile phone signals, microwaves for cooking, bluetooth, IoT devices, etc.
- Pathogens: any virus or bacteria that takes up residence in our bodies. It can include beneficial bacteria that overgrows to levels where it is no longer beneficial.
- The brain is its own area because effects from the previous three areas can affect the brain and diminish its function, and even if issues are fixed in the other three areas, the brain can remain in a compromised state. This area would also include psychological issues, which as we are learning in humans, is enormously affected by what goes on in the above three areas.
- The last area is physiology. Physical imperfections, like a defective heart valve, just plain wear and tear on the joints or colds, flues, or other seasonal sicknesses. Health issues that can be readily seen or identified are lumped into this category.
And that is it. You can classify any condition or disease or health issue that manifests from any one of these five areas. It is not any more complicated than that.
Next let's discuss the colored boxes, working from the bottom, up.
- All health issues end in symptoms that are seen and/or felt.
- Before that is a diagnosed disease or condition.
- And, before that is the pathology, or underlying mechanisms causing the disease or condition. This box is where testing is done, if possible, that would then lead to a disease or condition diagnosis.
- And before that is epigenetic factors that cause the pathology. Epigenetics is the environmental effects on DNA that cause the DNA to express itself in a certain way. Epigenetics is our lifestyle, what we do, how we live, what we put in, on and to which we subject our bodies. In humans, it is estimated that 90% of the cause of health disease and conditions is due to epigenetics.
- And finally, before that is genetic factors that predispose one to a specific pathology.
In a nutshell, all you are doing is working backwards from what is seen or felt till you get to the root cause of the health issue or symptom so that you know how to properly treat it.
Sounds easy and logical, but western medicine is not taught this way. In our experience, with all the human and veterinary doctors we have seen over the years, it does not go beyond pathology to treating health. Even alternative pet medical providers do not use this approach.
They will throw supplements, prescription drugs, procedures or operations to treat the issues and symptoms, but they rarely ask what is the root cause of these issues or symptoms.
Without finding out the root cause in epigenetic or genetics, you may never fix the issue, and it keeps reoccurring or manifests elsewhere as other conditions or diseases.
Many times health issues have nothing to do with genetics, but epigenetics. If you are a smoker, then you are inflicting epigenetic effects on your lungs that increase the chances for the cancer genes to take hold.
But if you are predisposed to lung cancer already due to a certain genetic makeup, then you will have increased chances to lung cancer if you smoke.
But some people smoke all their lives and live to old age without lung cancer. It is possible these people have a genetic makeup that decreases their chances for contracting lung cancer.
Getting to the root cause of health issues through epigenetic and genetic factors will help you understand and treat the underlying causes. Do as much as you can to understand your genetics and how they are influenced by epigenetics, and if you adjust your lifestyle accordingly, then you may have a dramatically improved chance for better health.
Now, with all that said, medical research and knowledge is far more advanced in humans than it is in dogs. The study of epigenetics and genetics in humans is still very early but has already shown huge benefits.
But genetic testing it is still very early in pets. There are some general rules of thumb for each breed that most veterinary doctors can help you with, but it gets fuzzy after that if you want to do specific testing for your dog. As we learn more in working with our pet health practitioners and what we read and learn about in the field of pet health, we will do our best to report here on our website and via our subscriber emails.
Using the Functional Medicine Framework to Help Solve PICA and Coprophagia
Let's use the Framework to help understand and offer solutions to this issue. We will discuss what you can do on your own and when you may need the help from a pet health practitioner.
This area is proving to be the biggest determining factor in health. And fortunately, it is an area that we may be able to do on our own without the need for a pet health practitioner. As a result, start here to see if you can fix PICA/Coprophagia issues.
We recommend you use the following scale, which ranks dog food in order from healthiest to least or unhealthy. Move your dog up levels as far as you can to the top level to improve their diet to see if that solves the issue. This scale is from our resource guide, How to Make Healthy Food Choices For Your Dog, a 40-page document that we researched, wrote and keep updated about how to make healthy food choices for your dog. We also include the text directly from the resource guide adding some explanations about the items in this scale.
The best foods choices to feed your dog are ordered as follows. We will provide additional explanation about these food categories after this list.
However, this list is only as good as the ingredients used. For example, if you purchase canned dog food with corn or soy in it, but purchase a dry dog food product with neither, then the dry dog food might be a better choice.
Homemade raw is the best diet for our dogs, but only if you are careful to give them the appropriate percentages of ingredients and supplements so that they eat balanced meals. Dogs that are sick or with compromised health may do better with cooked food.
Irradiation is a process whereby food is subjected to ionizing radiation to attack bacteria by breaking chemical bonds in molecules that are vital for cell growth. It does not result in radioactive food, but it does increase the free radicals and has shown to reduce nutritional values of food in the same way that cooking does.
HPP is a process whereby food is subjected to intense pressure, which kills pathogens. But HPP also breaks apart protein just like cooking, so in our opinion, based on the information we have seen about HPP, we don’t think there is much difference between food treated with HPP and cooked food.
You will have to contact manufacturers to find out if they use HPP. Some provide that information on their website, but many don’t.
If they do not use HPP, you should ask what they use to control pathogens. By law, dog food manufacturers are required to produce product free of pathogens, unlike human food. They are doing something to control pathogens, so you should ask and find out to be sure you are comfortable with their process.
Another process that at least one manufacturer we know of uses is electrolyzed water, a relatively new process in the U.S. that uses a special water whose chemical composition has been changed through the use of electricity. The ingredients are soaked in this water to eliminate pathogens. This seems like a viable solution to us, but we have not seen studies comparing electrolyzed food to raw food, so we are not 100% sure.
But raw meats, especially chicken, may naturally contain the salmonella pathogen. And that is normally not a problem for humans because we cook our meat, and it is also normally not a problem for healthy dogs because they can digest salmonella. So if you purchase raw dog food with chicken, then it has to be processed somehow to remove the salmonella, which means that whatever process the company uses, the end product is not as healthy. You need to find out what that company is doing.
It is not recommended to feed kibble with raw in the same meal because raw digests faster than kibble. The end result will be kibble in the digestive track that is fermenting and could be causing gas. Try feeding kibble in one meal and raw in another.
Freeze dried food is very convenient, but it’s shelf-stability may be far less than indicated by best-use-by dates on packaging. Studies show that fats can oxidize quickly, even if there are preservatives in the product. It requires a great deal of energy to produce, which increases costs and carbon footprint. But as solar energy becomes more widespread, those costs will go down and the carbon footprint will be much less.
While freeze dried weighs a lot less to transport, with reduced shipping costs, if you buy locally produced dog food from small retailers, there really is not much, if any savings on logistics costs. Sure, if you are shipping freeze dried halfway across the country, then there are some savings in logistics costs, but does it outweigh the energy cost to produce? We don’t know. Regardless, just try to buy from local or regional dog food companies to reduce the carbon footprint to get food to you.
Dry kibble is the predominant way people feed their dogs and is among the worst choices. Please see “Image 1: Why dry kibble is bad for dogs”, posted earlier in this resource guide.
The term digestibility coefficient refers to the percentage of a dog food that the dog absorbs into his or her body during the process of digestion.
As a rule of thumb, dry dog foods with digestibility value of 75% or less will be of very poor quality, those with values between 75 and 82 percent are classified as moderate in quality, and foods with digestibility values that are higher than 82% are of high quality.
Dog food companies are not required to obtain or report digestibility and may not disclose it even if asked. But you should ask anyway and if you do feed dry dog foods, try to feed ones with higher digestibility ratings.
We know that you want the best for your dog but that may get too cost prohibitive when you are talking raw, especially when you look for quality ingredients like at the level that we do for our dogs and in our dog food products that we sell.
Just do the best you can. If all you can afford is dry kibble, then try to get the highest quality you can find, which we show you how in our resource guide.
If you want to incorporate some raw, fresh foods into your kibble diet, then check out this post on The Food Stack For Dogs, which is what we do. Pay close attention to adding in some home made or very high quality plain goats-milk yogurt to help their digestive systems, which we talk about in what we do for our dogs.
And don't just throw supplements at the problem. As we mentioned, that is what conventional medicine does and that rarely solves the problem. Dogs were made to extract all the nutrients they need from food. You should only feed supplements if you cannot adjust their diet, if you can only afford to feed dry kibble, if they have some genetic predisposition that can only be remedied with supplements, or you have done everything you and your health practitioner can to try and diagnose the epigenetic and/or genetic factors and you still cannot find the source of the problem.
There is testing you can do to determine which foods your dog has an immune response. This might help, but it can be misleading because in humans, the health of the gut greatly influences our immune response to foods. If you have a healthy gut with good levels of beneficial bacteria, you can tolerate a lot more than if you do not. The same may be true for dogs. That is why it is better to first get your dog on the healthiest diet you can, then work on individual food testing through trial and error.
What if higher quality food does not help?
If moving your dog up the quality scale does not help, then you may need to look specifically at which food ingredients cause an immune or allergic response. In this case, you are actually getting more at potential epigenetic and genetic causes for your pet's issues, but you can still do this on your own by elimination and substitution.
Make sure you feed your dog meat-based proteins, not vegetable. Our read of research tells us that vegetable-based protein does not work for dogs.
Many dogs have issues with poultry (chicken, turkey, duck), so try eliminating them. Or, dogs could have issues with beef, or all red meat, or maybe it is fish. You won't know until you start eliminating and substituting.
It could be dairy. While we see little dairy in dog food products, if you feed yogurt for probiotic supplementation, that could be an issue. Try goats-milk yogurt, which is what we feed.
All grains and legumes/beans can be problematic so eliminate these right off the bat. Substitute with more nutrient dense vegetables. You can go off our our list in our post on The Food Stack For Dogs.
If you are eliminating and substituting meats, then make sure you do the same for fats. The only external source of fat that is added to dog diets might be coconut or olive oil or flax seeds/oil. Your dog may have issues with seeds and nuts, so coconut oil and flax seeds/oil may need to be eliminated.
At the same time that you are working on foods, make sure you try and address environmental toxins that may be poisoning your dog. Dogs, just like humans, are designed to filter out a certain level of toxins. But when exposure increases beyond the body's ability to detoxify, then accumulation occurs, which can lead to health diseases and conditions.
It is possible that if your dog is suffering from food issues, they could go away if you address toxicity from the environment.
The obvious environmental hazards come from a dog being lower to the ground than humans and spending a lot of time sniffing, licking and sitting on the ground. Look at cleaning supplies and laws/garden pesticides.
If you can, try to go greener in your choice of materials used in construction projects in your house.
For cleaning, we stick mostly with vinegar and use Nature's Miracle, an enzymatic cleaner.
Look at how much access they have to synthetic materials via collars, water and food bowls, toys and sleeping beds.
Try to limit the use of plastic, especially with food.
While limiting the use of synthetics is almost impossible for toys, if you can at least do it for their eating and drinking bowls, then that is another way to reduce exposure. We use these bowls because they have rubber on the bottom to reduce slippage and reduce noise.
Unlikely you will completely eliminate exposure to environmental toxins, but reducing exposure to them will allow your dog to hopefully keep up with detoxification on their own.
Look at radio frequency radiation emitted from all the wireless devices we have. They are proving to be a problem for some humans and so they could be problematic for our pets. While it may be difficult to remove WIFI and mobile phones from our lives, try to at least shut off at night anything that emits or receives an RF signal. That includes WIFI, mobile phones, bluetooth devices, and any other internet enabled devices like light switches or security cams. That is what we do.
Electromagnetic radiation can also get emitted from the electrical in our homes. We use this Steterizer meter to test each plug and if the level is above 50, then we plugin in these Greenwave Dirty Electricity Filters.
And we retest our plugs every six months with the Steterizer filter and readjust the placement of the Greenwave filters.
Retesting is necessary because what we plug in to our wall outlets changes with the addition or subtraction of appliances and electronics, which can change the dynamics of the electricity running through the house.
A pathogen could be causing nutritional imbalances that could be affecting your dog and causing or contributing to PICA and/or Coprophagia. It may be a good idea while you are working on the consummables and reducing toxicity in your dogs environment to have your health care practitioner perform some standard tests to rule these out.
Pathogens can take hold if there are nutritional issues going on from food or an immune system that is under strain from environmental toxins.
Is your dog getting enough physical activity? They may be bored and picking up other things and eating them gives them something to do.
We have an infographic and article on the benefits of dog sports for non-competitors.
Is your dog getting enough mental activity? Mental stimulation is just as important as physical. Dogs that get plenty of physical activity but little mental may still be bored and looking for something to do.
You can teach your dog the brain workouts listed in this infographic on your own or find dog training classes. Training your dog gives them mental stimulation. Many people go through one or two dog training classes and that is it for the remainder of their dog's life.
But many trainers like us offer a wide variety of classes and we have many clients who consistently take classes not just to keep up with training, but to always be teaching their dogs something new.
If you need some quick tips on how to incorporate quickie training sessions into your dog’s routine, please see this post.
Consider giving your dog more jobs to do, as we profile in this post.
Use interactive toys to feed your dog meals and treats, which makes them work for their food, both physically and mentally. We have a wide variety of toys that we have collected over the years, but here is a list of some of our favorites that we use all the time:
Twist ‘n Treat Dog Toy. This toy makes it easy to put treats in and adjust how difficult you want to make it for your dog to remove the treats.
When you purchase, try to stick with toys in the range of yellows, blues, violets, and grays, which we explain in this post.
If you are looking for more resources to help with mental activity and training, we recommend the following:
JUVENILE DELINQUENT DOGS: The Complete Guide to Saving Your Sanity and Successfully Living with Your Adolescent Dog. This is our own book that we wrote that will help you with an adolescent or energetic dog.
Other mental issues
Other issues causing PICA or Coprophagia can include:
- Separation anxiety;
- Resource guarding;
- Competition for resources from other dogs present in the household;
- Not getting enough attention from you;
- Inconsistency in daily routines, which can cause stress.
Issues related to physiology are usually the easiest for health practitioners to find because they are physical differences that can be directly seen, either through physical inspection or medical scanning technology.
If your efforts in changing foods, limiting environmental toxins, checking for pathogens and working on the various brain related issues we talked about above are not working, then deeper medical testing may be required.
Again, if medical tests reveal something, you need to dig deeper to figure out why. If your dog has thyroid problems, for example, this issue can be caused by food, environmental or pathogen issues. Don't just settle for medication. Medication might be good to temporarily help out, but don't rely on it permanently unless you know what is causing the thyroid problems and you have no other way to fix them other than medication.
The only study we could find with regards to PICA is that it is associated with low hemoglobin (Hb), hematocrit (Hct), or plasma zinc (Zn) concentrations. If that is the case with your dog, supplementation in the short-term to get these values back in line might really help, but you have to ask why they are off to begin with. Look at epigenetic and genetic factors, if you can.
Might Coprophagia be normal for dogs?
Coprophagia may actually be related to a dog's need to help balance the bacteria in its gut. We have no evidence or studies behind this, but have read anecdotally that this may be the case.
We regularly see our dogs eating feces from deer, bunnies or other animals. They do not do it everyday and do not seem to be obsessed about it, so we do not worry too much about it.
PICA and Coprophagia can be tough issues to resolve. But think about solving them in a structured way using a dog log to record your observations and the Functional Medicine Framework to help guide. You may still have a lot of work ahead of you but at least you have some tools and a plan to help walk you through.
Dog Log Template Download
We have embedded it below so you can see it, but you can click this link to open it in a new tab. It is a Google Doc that you can save to your Google Drive or download in a Microsoft Word or PDF format.