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Pica: It’s What’s NOT for Dinner

By Kim Everson, DVM

Have you ever had a stomachache you tried to “feed” into submission? The kind of gnawing abdominal pain that prompts you to nibble your way experimentally throughout the pantry–a chunk of chocolate, a handful of crackers, a bowl of cereal, a piece of fruit–without any food item satisfying that urge? If you have ever experienced this kind of munching you will probably empathize with the dogs in today’s blog.

X-ray showing a padlock in a dog’s stomach

Nearly everyone has heard of a dog or cat having emergency surgery to remove an object lodged in its stomach or intestines. Ribbons, toys, socks and bones are common gastrointestinal foreign bodies. But why does this happen? What drives an animal to ingest something non-nutritious and so harmful?

The eating of non-food items is called pica. Pica happens in people, too. A classic example is the pregnant woman who eats soil due to an iron deficiency. Pica in people and animals may be related to nutritional deficiency, nausea, stress, hunger or other discomfort. In animals, intestinal parasites are another common and probably overlooked cause of an insatiable and inappropriate appetite.

The worst case of pica I ever saw was in a middle-aged Labrador Retriever. Her owner rushed her to the clinic after finding rocks and blood in her vomit. She had eaten so much gravel from the floor of her outdoor dog run that I could feel it crunching in her stomach when I palpated her abdomen. Her x-ray showed a stomach chock-full of gravel with gravel overflowing into her intestines. She was gravely ill and her owner predicted that she would continue this self-destructive behavior even if he elected for her to have surgery, so she was humanely euthanized. This case has troubled me for years. Why did she eat that many rocks? Was it worms? Boredom? Gastric ulcer or cancer?

Recently, I removed a piece of a toy from the stomach of a Saint Bernard puppy named Roulette, who had a recent history of devouring everything in sight. It started innocently enough. The owners worried about Roulette eating a dead vole and later a dead bird before they could intercept these grisly snacks. At the time, I thought little of it. As disgusting as it may seem, dogs of all ages find carrion to be an acceptable food. Because she was being dewormed, there was little harm in her eating the random carcass. But then she deliberately gulped down a plastic squeaker as her owner reached for a stuffed toy she had decimated.

Replica of the toy squeaker surgically
removed from a puppy’s stomach

When the squeaker didn’t get puked up after Roulette began vomiting, we leaped into action. An x-ray of her abdomen showed nothing definitive. Generally only mineral, metal and materials impregnated with radiopaque chemicals show up as foreign body obstructions on an x-ray. Unfortunately most obstructions, such as socks and plastic squeakers, blend in with kibble and organ tissue. A pattern of gas or bunching of intestines may be all that gives away the presence of a foreign body. In some cases, the pet will be fed barium or special radiopaque beads with a series of abdominal x-rays showing the progress of this material through the GI tract. Where it hangs up the culprit lies!

Roulette was rushed into surgery based on the certainty she had eaten the rather large plastic squeaker and was definitely feeling sick from it. Indeed a gory chewed up squeaker was removed from her stomach. Roulette recovered from surgery well. Since transitioning to a new dog food after surgery she has stopped devouring everything in sight making me believe her former food left her stomach unsettled to the point she was trying to fill the void with all things imaginable.

Of course, not all dogs ingest non-food items because of an underlying abdominal complaint. Many dogs eat socks, underwear and sanitary napkins, for example, because frankly these items are downright delicious to dogs. If the dog is fortunate, he will vomit or defecate the strange item out without it causing any real harm. A  Brittany Spaniel puppy patient of mine gobbled up (and then luckily puked up) a tampon he found in the trash. An unusually bad infestation with intestinal worms proved to be the underlying trigger of his pica.

Some obstructions are simply accidents. A friend’s dog had a habit of swiping golf balls off the lawn and was seen to accidentally swallow one as he trotted around with it. In surgery to remove the known golf ball from his stomach, six more were found rolling around in there! Many cats accidentally ingest strings, ribbons and dental floss (extremely dangerous foreign bodies) while playing with them.

Then there was the female Golden Retriever with severe separation anxiety who ate a couch one day when her owner went to work. A large wad of stuffing was removed from her stomach. Fortunately, aggressive treatment for her psychological stress dramatically reduced her pica after that.

While many pets do chew up and ingest strange things, an insatiable appetite for non-food items may actually stem from a medical problem. Before you chalk up your pet’s pica to an annoying behavioral quirk, consult your veterinarian and be prepared to provide a detailed history about your pet’s lifestyle, diet, deworming status and eating habits.

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