By Maureen Tay
Also known as compulsive eating disorder, compulsive eating is a disorder where a dog tends to eat everything – from food items to non-food items. The specific practice of eating non-food, non-nutritive substances, such as wool or paper, is known as pica. Stool eating (coprophagia) can also be categorized under pica.
Common among Puppies
Puppies are curious animals. They eat just about anything they can find, including things that are inedible. Puppies love to investigate their surroundings. An excellent way to do this is for a puppy to put unfamiliar items into his mouth.
Puppies will chew and quite possibly swallow anything, purely out of curiosity. At six months of age (this differs from dog to dog), most puppies will grow out of this investigative behavior phase. Others may stop because of discouragement from the owners.
Some dogs, however, may continue to consume inedible items after the puppy investigation stage. This may be the first sign of a compulsive eating disorder, or pica.
Recognizing the Symptoms
You will notice that your dog seems intensely excited to seek out and eat inedible objects, such as rocks, plastic bags, wood, clothing, leaves, paper and stool. If the dog swallows things that are not really food, you will need to help him overcome the problem. Compulsive behaviors are unlikely to go away without intervention.
There are two main reasons why adult dogs eat items that are non-consumable. It is either a physical issue or a behavioral one.
1. Physical Issues
These may include a lack of nutrients in the dog’s diet. Illness, such as digestive disorders or parasitic infections, can also cause the problem.
2. Behavioral Issues
Boredom is often the biggest factor in the behavioral aspect of compulsive behaviors. Your dog may have been left alone all day and managed to find joy in chewing and eating the rug or the newspaper. Or he may have learned that going outdoors gives him the opportunity to eat a variety of items which he has started to find reinforcing.
1. Medical Issues
Always consult a veterinarian to rule out medical issues. A digestive disorder or parasitic infection may be at the root of the behavior.
2. Mental Stimulation
Once medical causes or nutritional deficiencies are ruled out, stock up on chew and feeding toys such as Kongs, Nylabones and antler chews to keep your dog occupied. Toys made of a harder material are not easy to disintegrate and are in turn less likely to be swallowed. Engage in fun activities such as fetching, tugging and even agility.
These activities help to burn off that excess energy, engage the brain and decrease boredom. It goes without saying there is no place for punishing the dog for the compulsive behavior. Here, as in any other case, this risks making the problem worse.
Another strategy is using a kibble/treat dispenser. This also helps with mental stimulation and it gives the dog a job to do. If the dog is mentally tired, he will be much less emotionally reactive and will no longer have all that energy to look for something to do, or even feel the need to.
A bored dog will most likely be up to no good. There are many brands of treat dispenser available. Some even have a wifi function so you can control the feeding even if you are not at home.
Teach your dog to “leave it,” as well as a reliable “recall.” This is so that, if the dog is off leash and manages to find an object to chew on, you can easily call him to you and away from the item. Should you be walking your dog and you spot him eyeing some tasty leaves or rocks, you can also use the “leave it” cue.
You can also teach your dog the “watch” cue so he will learn to check in with you from time to time on walks. If your dog focuses on you, he will not be able to stick his nose to the ground the whole time. It is either this or that. Substitute the undesirable behavior with an alternative, incompatible, preferably more attractive, behavior.
I also like to train dogs to love wearing a basket muzzle. If you teach your dog to positively accept wearing one, it can be a very effective and humane tool for managing problems, especially if you have a dog who loves picking up anything he encounters during a walk. A basket muzzle will still allow the dog to pant to regulate his body temperature and to drink water.
There are coprophagia deterrent products on the market that can stop your dog from eating the stool by making it taste bad.
However, I have personally experienced some dogs that have learned to accept the taste of the deterrents and they continued to eat inappropriate things. The best solution for stool eating is to remove the waste as soon as your dog defecates. The same applies if he likes to raid the cat litter tray. I do not recommend deterrents.
As a last resort, speak to your veterinarian about the possibility of using medication to decrease the dog’s levels of stress and/or compulsive behavior.
My best advice is to manage the behavior. Other than modifying the dog’s behavior by keeping him occupied, you can also modify your own.
For example, if you are not around to supervise your dog, keeping him confined in one room or crated can prevent him from eating things he is not supposed to. By doing this, you set him up for success, which is always the goal in training. Just remember to give him plenty of chew toys so he will not be left bored in his confined area.
Also, instead of putting letters or important documents on the table where your dog can access them, put them elsewhere. Instead of leaving shoes on the floor, keep them in a cupboard or shoe rack. You get the idea.
Prevention is key. If you can prevent and manage the behavior, and at the same time give your dog something else to do, you are actually slowly removing the unwanted behavior. It is well worth it. Compulsive eating and pica can be life threatening, not to mention expensive. There are countless vet reports regarding dogs who have had to undergo surgery to remove rocks, safety pins and the like. It goes without saying that this is best avoided, at all costs.
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, September 2015, pp.30-31
Maureen Tay is the chief trainer at KasPup UniFURsity and a licensed Family Paws Parent Education educator, a certified canine first responder and an accredited dog trainer recognized by the Panel for Accreditation of Dog Trainers, Singapore. She is currently studying to be a service dog trainer at the International College of Canine Studies.