There is nothing worse than realizing that your dog has eaten something dangerous like clothing or a piece of a toy. It's all too common for puppies and dogs to tear things up but it becomes life threatening when they swallow it causing a bowel obstruction. I feel as if I've had a crash course this past year on living with and helping dogs who are chronic foreign body ingestors otherwise known as PICA.
What I've come to realize is that the problem is more common than most people think. The stories I've heard from Pet Parents about how their dogs regularly eat socks, underwear, wash cloths, towels, is mind boggling. The vast majority of these dogs appear to be ingesting and passing things on a regular basis. Prior to having one of my dogs nearly die from eating a simple black dress sock, I probably would have not sounded an alarm either. But having lived through the heartache of watching her nearly die, losing 3 feet of her intestine, having life long dietary restrictions and paying an ER bill that exceeded $4,000, has forever changed how I think about and handle PICA. It's not something to just write off as 'normal' dog behavior.
What should you do if your dog is eating things? The first step is to discuss this with your Veterinarian. If you know or even suspect that your dog has eaten something DO NOT try to induce vomiting at home without the direction of a Veterinarian. What your dog swallowed MAY NOT come up as easily as it went down and vomiting could cause them to choke. The safest thing to do is contact your Veterinarian and let them direct your next steps. If your dog has a history of eating things and suddenly presents with vomiting or the inability to defecate, a trip the Vet or ER is warranted. The sooner you intervene the more likely you are to prevent a life threatening event.
I've learned that there is still so much we do not understand about why dogs ingest foreign objects. It can be motivated by any number of things and will require your help to keep them safe. Over the years I've consulted with colleagues and a Board Certified Vet Behaviorist to better understand PICA and how to keep our dogs safe. Here are some things to consider:
- Keep your dogs environment free from objects you know they have a history of eating, such as socks, underwear, etc. When you have a pup with PICA, management of the environment is important.
- Keep them crated or confined when they do not have 100% supervision.
- Make sure your dog is eating enough. There are many puppies and dogs who are quite frankly not being fed enough. Hunger can be a motivating factor in PICA and it often develops in puppyhood. While it is important to help our pets maintain a healthy weight, underfeeding can cause them to eat anything and everything in sight. Bulk their meals up with fiber and low fat foods to help them feel satisfied.
- Teach your dog a reliable "Leave It" or "Drop" and always reward them trading with you.
- Use a Basket Muzzle outdoors on bathroom breaks or at night, if they are eating things like rocks, feces, sticks, etc. Muzzles are NOT meant to be a 'fix' but rather a safety tool too keep your pup safe during the behavior modification process. NEVER leave your dog unattended wearing a muzzle and never for extended periods of time.
- Provide your dog with appropriate toys, enrich their environment with food dispensing toys. If your dog always wants to have something in their mouth, they are more likely to keep ingesting things, so meet that need with safe toys.
- Make sure your dog is getting adequate physical and mental activity as boredome can increase this problem.
- Consult with a Behaviorist or Vet if you need assistance and support as this problem can be complex and is not simply a 'training problem'. Many PICA dogs benefit from supplements or medication to reduce anxiety which may be increasing their need to consume dangerous things.
- Rule out any underlying medical condition, specifically GI issues
- Avoid punishment as it will not resolve the problem and will most likely give increase your dogs anxiety and make the problem worse.
- Consider Pet Health Insurance. No one wants to be faced with the decision of whether or not they can afford to treat their dog in the event they need emergency surgery.
PICA is complicated and will not resolve without intervention and treatment. I've have known many dogs who've lost their lives or who suffer life long medical problems from having had multiple surgeries.
The best thing you can do to protect your dog is to NOT ignore the problem.
**Since I wrote this blog 5 years ago I've dramatically changed how I raise my puppies, I take a preventive approach to them developing PICA and I'm happy to report that I've not had a PICA dog since**