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MVA Monthly Mouthful – Take a Bite Outta This; Pica in Pets

By Alyssa Mages, BS, CVT | Development and Education Coordinator

There are occasions when we all eat things that we shouldn’t, but that is typically a conscious choice.  However, there are instances when either we as humans or our furry family members are incapable of this selective choosing and then anything & everything is on the menu.  This condition is called ‘pica’ and is classified as a psychologically compulsive behavior that affects multiple species – cats and dogs included.

The full definition of pica is that it is an eating disorder that encompasses the persistent ingestion of non-nutritious substances for at least one month and occurs at an age at which this behavior is developmentally inappropriate.  For those of you that like a bit of trivia, it’s derived from the Latin for magpie – a bird that is said to eat almost anything it finds.

When affecting our canine and feline companions, this can lead them to ingest metal, plastic, cloth, garbage, rocks, dirt, paper, or even feces. So why does this happen?  Are they hungry?  Lacking nutrients from their diets?  Do they need more enrichment or outlets for chewing?  Is it a full-blown behavioral disorder?  Pica is typically a behavior issue, but it may also result from underlying medical issues or poor nutrition.  The honest answer is we really don’t know what the true cause of this is!

So, what are we as pet parents and veterinary professionals to do?  Taking the following 5 points into and discussing them together is a great place to start.

  1. Is the pet receiving appropriate nutrition (calories, ingredients)?
  2. Is the pet suffering from any biological imbalance (mineral, vitamin deficiencies)?
  3. Is the pet given opportunities for enrichment and/or the option to enact appropriate chewing behaviors?
  4. Does the pet exhibit any additional behavioral abnormalities (overgrooming, disorientation, aggression, etc.) that may be relevant to this one?
  5. Is their health put at risk because of this behavior?

By starting with this investigative approach, we’re able to rule out other conditions, especially those that can be actively treated medically.  If no underlying medical cause is identified, the next course of action is to either stop this behavior, or simply ignore it.  How to make this call?  For example, if your kitty loves to eat hair ties that requires surgical removal this MUST be stopped as this could potentially be fatal.  If, however, your pup has an acquired taste for paper, shreds it before ingesting it, this isn’t as concerning.

Taking all of this into consideration, and if this behavior is truly alarming you and has the potential to harm your pet, we do have a veterinary behaviorist on site to evaluate your pet and discuss additional options for you.  Should it become an emergent concern, please remember we’re here for you 24/7/365.

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