Pica in Dogs and Cats – Pet tip 151
You’ve probably heard about a million pet owners claim “my dog eats anything” or “my cat eats everything”. Maybe you’ve even said so yourself. More often than not, when people make these statements, we chock it up to exaggeration. People say things like this when they catch their dog drinking out of the toilet, or when their cat brings home a mouse for dinner. For some owners however, saying their pet eats anything and everything isn’t a stretch.
There is actually a fairly common psychological disorder called pica, which drives cats and dogs to compulsively eat things other than food. Pets with pica are known to ingest things like wool, plastic, rubber, wood, non-digestible plant material, and even their own feces. While ingesting some of these items may have no consequence for your pet, others can cause serious intestinal blockages which can be life threatening. In these cases, surgical removal of the object is generally the only treatment option.
Besides the physical danger associated with pica, many pet owners find it psychologically draining and often embarrassing, when their pet partakes in pica behaviours. For example, coprophagy (when pets eat their own feces) may not cause any health problems, but is usually not something owners want to witness, or even think about. Pets that choose to eat wool or other fibres can cause a lot of damage to carpets, blankets and clothing. Many owners complain of their personal belongings being destroyed as a result of their pet’s pica problem.
For these reasons, it is important for to seek help if you suspect your pet may be affected by pica. While it may seem easy enough to diagnose pica, it is important that you have your veterinarian rule out other possible problems before concluding your pet’s eating habits to be purely psychological. There are other reasons pets might eat unusual objects, including nutrient deficiencies, which might be the real underlying cause of your pet’s behaviour. Fortunately, once diagnosed, there are several steps owners can take towards managing the problem of pica in their pet.
While many puppies and kittens will eat or chew on abnormal items purely out of curiosity, adult pets who partake in such behaviour usually do so out of compulsion. Like in humans, compulsive disorders in pets involve repetitive, non-functional, and non-beneficial behaviours. The cause of these behaviours isn’t clear, but most animal behaviourists believe them to be brought on by stress. Stresses for pets could include moving to a new home, sharing their home with another new pet, prolonged confinement, or simply extreme boredom. In some cases, lack of proper socialization can also cause the onset of compulsive disorders like pica.
Identifying the cause, or stressor, in your pet’s life is the first step in controlling pica. For example, if your pet is bored from being left home alone for long periods of time, you might want to provide more interesting and time consuming toys to keep them busy. If that doesn’t do it, it might be worth hiring somebody (even just a kid from your neighbourhood) to come and visit your pet during the day to break up the monotony. If you are having a hard time identifying the root of the problem, it may be worth consulting with your vet or a behavioural specialist.
It is also crucial that you do not reinforce the pica behaviour in any way. This means that when you catch your pet in the act, you cannot give it any attention. Even scolding your pet can reinforce the behaviour in some cases, as you are essentially still providing your pet with extra attention as a result of their behaviour. Of course, make sure you give them lots of love and attention during those times when they are not engaging in pica.
Simply removing the objects your pet likes to eat is always a good step. This might just mean keeping a tidier household, or taking extra care not to leave out items like string or yarn which are tempting to your pet. For those items which you can’t remove, many owners find it effective to spray objects with citrus, or even put some pepper on them. Many vet clinics and pet stores even sell special sprays which deter pets via their smell or taste.
Finally, if your pet’s pica problem seems uncontrollable and you feel as though their health is at risk, you should consult with your veterinarian about the possibility of drug therapy for your pet. There are medications available that can be used to treat the anxiety or depression which causes your pet to engage in compulsive pica behaviours.
By Alison Norwich – Pets.ca writer