PICA- when it is not food they eat…

Pica is a scientific term defining ingestion of non-food items. It usually refers to pathologic conditions in animals and humans that induce compulsive material ingestion. In some cases, material ingestion is simply a behavioral trend, habit, or even a normal occurrence.

  Some diseases such as Rabies are known to cause pica. Rabid animals have encephalitis (brain infection) that alters their brain and induces biting and ingesting objects indiscriminately. Lead poisoning can also have similar effects on the brain.

  Cats with liver problems tend to lick bricks and walls. Iron deficiency anemia and mal-digestion/mal-absorption secondary to pancreas failure are other diseases known to cause pica. Many animals with some degree of indigestion or even normal animals will eat grass (all healthy felines will ingest grass if it is available to them).

Most animals do not have organic diseases but rather a compulsive or a stereotypic behavior. Chewing and sometimes swallowing objects is normal in puppies. Every dog owner goes through the growing pains of puppy rearing. It is a daily experience for puppy parents to return home and find that the young dog chewed up the house, shoes, clothes and even the walls.

During its exploratory period, the normal dog uses the mouth to feel and taste its environment. Garbage, of course, is always attractive...even to older dogs. Some cats, especially oriental breeds like Siamese and Burmese, will constantly chew on plastic bags, shower curtains, shoe laces, phone cords, wool and other fabrics. Many kittens will play with fishing rods and swallow fish-hooks and artificial bait.

Pets may develop bad eating habits, which can be interpreted as eating disorders rather then true pica.

Coprophagia is one the most disturbing habits in pet dogs. Many dogs share beds and have close loving relationships with their owners. Licking and kissing becomes a little problematic when the dog has the habit of eating feces...their own, their canine room mates, the cat's litter or the occasional visitor in the yard.

Mother dogs normally eat their offspring's feces as a hygienic and defensive mechanism. Some puppies learn this behavior and retain it beyond weaning. Dogs learn and develop this dreadful habit from other dogs, even at adulthood, and it may become a joyful form of entertainment. As disgusting as it is, they may even just like the taste.

Some dogs seem to like playing with stones when bored, which they end up chewing and ingesting (lithophagia). Small stones may pass through uneventfully, but larger stones may lacerate the intestines or obstruct passage of food, resulting in severe, often fatal consequences.

Phytophagia, or plant eating, is normal in many cases. Plants may be an occasional and normal part of a pet's diet. Pets may be attracted to both indoor and outdoor plants. Oral investigation (tasting, chewing and possibly swallowing) is common in young cats and dogs. Cats normally eat plants and grass, even in the wild. Plant ingestion may be induced by nausea and other digestive problems; however it is not a specific sign of intestinal parasitism or worms.

Pets with worms do not necessarily eat grass or anything strange. Pets can destroy ornamental plants, or even ingest poisonous plants both in and out doors.

How is Pica treated? 

The first and the most important thing you can do is have your pet checked by the veterinarian. The problem and its origin need to be diagnosed. Once different health issues are explored, a treatment plan can be formulated. 

Bad habits, including puppy/young dog or other pet destructive behavior, need not be encouraged. Pet-proofing the house is the first step. Keep various objects, such as garbage, shoes, bags and sewing/knitting material out of reach in secured places. Pets are smart and can learn how to open cabinets and zipped bags. Sometimes you need to limit access to objects by keeping the pet confined to a crate or a certain area when not supervised, or using a comfortable and safe muzzle.   

Making the pet's experience unpleasant by coating or spraying objects with bitter apple, chew-guard and other oral irritants available on the market, might work in some cases. In other cases a loud noise or a spray bottle will do the job.  

Any undesirable behavior should be discouraged. Be on top of things and act promptly, or else the pet will not make a cause-and-effect connection. If you let things happen, you are reinforcing that behavior and the problem will get worse. 

'No Means No'- it does not mean 'usually no' or 'just occasional chewing'. Give your pet attention and play/exercise time. Pets may develop bad habits out of boredom or attention deficit. Sometimes a pet companion or social pet play time will help. Offer acceptable substitutes, treats, food and chew toys as a replacement to the object in question. Many pets will convert and adopt the acceptable/edible replacement. 

Outdoors issues such as stone/wood ingestion and coprophagia (feces eating) are prevented by leash confinement and quick removal of the object. Pick up the feces right away. This is a good habit every pet owner should develop. Feces may contain worm eggs and parasites, which are hazardous to animals and people. They also attract flies and smell bad. In some cases, coprophagia can be curbed by adding meat tenderizer, MSG, or a product called 4-bid to the food.

Offer grass and edible fiber to cats to prevent from chewing on plastic bags and strings. Keep poisonous plants out of rich or replace them with edible ones.

Some cases need medical management with behavior modifying drugs. Your veterinarian may incorporate such drugs in the treatment plan together with any necessary medical management.

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