Pica and Copraphagia (cats and dogs!)
Rocks, $2.15 in change, 20 hair rubber bands, needle and thread, pieces of carpet, yarn, bottle cap, mulch and corn cobs…What do they all have in common? They are just a few of the many things that we have had to surgically remove from some of our patients this past year. This abnormal craving to eat non-food items is known as pica. In addition, another form of pica seen in dogs is known as coprophagy – stool-eating.
The causes of pica are unknown but there are many proposed theories as to why a pet may be driven to eat non-food items. Some of the most common theories are:
- It is an attention-seeking behavior.
- The pet has an anxiety disorder.
- It is a play behavior.
- The pet is lacking some necessary nutrient in the diet, although nutrition studies have never been able to prove this theory.
- In the case of cats that chew or suck on wool, it may be due to premature weaning as a kitten.
No matter what the reason, pica has the potential to cause life-threatening intestinal blockage and, therefore, should never be ignored by pet owners. Below we have listed some suggestions that help to eliminate this behavior.
- Always start with a complete examination with one of our doctors. If there is an underlying medical problem, your efforts will fail no matter what behavior modifying techniques you use.
- If the behavior is anxiety-related, our doctors may be able to determine what the source of the underlying anxiety is so it can be dealt with.
- Restrict access to the objects that your pet is eating.
- Spray an aversive such as cologne or Bitter Apple on the objects to make them unpleasant to smell and taste.
- If your pet eats rocks, mulch and other outdoor materials, do not allow your pet outside unless you are there to supervise.
- Cats are notorious for their love of string, yarn, thread, rubber bands, and tinsel. If your cat’s toysare made of these materials, be sure you supervise their play and remove any toy that begins to show wear. If you sew or knit, restrict your cat’s access to your sewing area and be sure to account of all needles, threads, etc. when you’re through for the day.
- For the pet that is bored and wants to play, keep plenty of safe toys around switching out toys every few days to keep it fun and exciting for your pet.
- Be sure to set aside at least 10-15 minutes (longer is better) twice a day to interact and play with your pet so that he doesn’t have to resort to pica to get your attention.
- Some pets exhibit pica to seek attention. If this is your pet and you catch your pet in the act of ingesting something, startle him with a squirt from a spray bottle or loud noise. It is important to avoid letting your pet know that the noise or spray came from you as we do not want your pet to develop a fear of the owner. Instead, praise him for leaving the items alone.
- Sprinkle Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer on your pet’s food to make it less appealing.
- Sprinkle an aversive such as cayenne pepper or “Bitter Apple” directly on the stool. For this to be effective, you must treat every stool sample that your pet has access to.
- Keep your pet on leash anytime it goes outside.
- Remove the fecal matter as soon as your pet has a bowel movement. Don’t give them the opportunity to go back and eat it later.
- If you see your pet about to eat stool, interrupt him with a squirt bottle or loud noise, then provide a toy to play with instead. Praise him for taking interest in the toy.
- If your dog likes to eat out of the cat’s litterbox (believe us, not an uncommon occurrence in many households), place the litterbox in an area of the home that you can allow easy access for the cat while limiting the dog’s access. This may be a accomplished with baby gates, cat doors, even elevating the litterbox to counter height Whatever you do, DO NOT booby-trap the litterbox as that will frighten your cat as well and that can lead to a whole new set of problems.
As dangerous and disgusting as pica and coprophagia may be, there are some things pet owners should never do in their attempt to discourage this behavior.
- Interactive punishment (punishment that pet perceives as coming directly from you such as verbal scolding or pushing away) may be interpreted by your pet as attention and may reinforce the pica. Many animals will also learn to refrain from the behavior as long as the owner is present but will engage in the problem behavior when the owner is absent. Instead, make loud noises such as pennies in a coffee can or use a spray bottle – but do so without the pet seeing you do so.
- Never punish your pet after the fact. Pets will not make the association with a behavior they performed minutes or hours or even seconds ago. Such punishment may result in fearful or aggressive behavior. Instead, address the behavior as is it happening.
- For the coprophagic dog, never rub your dog’s nose in the feces. This will lead to a fear of the owner and possible protective behavior such as biting or snapping at the owner.