Dogs rarely hesitate to taste anything that looks vaguely interesting. Whether they are sifting for “treats” in your cat’s litter box or sampling some two-day old garbage at the bottom of the trash can, they’re always popping one thing or another in their mouth.
But while many of these things are unthinkably gross, they are generally organic in nature. They have interesting smells, tastes and textures — it makes some sense (in doggie logic, anyway) that they are interested in these things. But some dogs take this behavior to a whole new level, and start ingesting inorganic objects, like rocks.
This is obviously not a good idea, and it can be very dangerous. You don’t want your dog to eat things that will look the same coming out as they did going in – that means your dog can’t digest them. This in turn, means that if they don’t pass through your dog’s system, they’ll likely remain in his digestive tract for a long time.
As you’d imagine, this isn’t a great strategy for long-term (or even short term) health and happiness!
Why Do Some Dogs Eat Rocks?
Though relatively rare, rock-eating behaviors are well-documented, if poorly understood. Dogs who eat rocks and other non-food items are said to exhibit pica – a condition that has been documented in a variety of breeds, ages and both sexes.
Pica is similar to coprophagy, which is the practice of poop-eating. However, there is one important difference: Pica only involves the eating of inanimate objects that have no nutritional value, such as rocks, sticks, plastic or car keys. Poop (and you’ll want to back away from your breakfast at this point), occasionally contains undigested material, which does provide nutritional value. So…yay?
Both behaviors occur for somewhat similar reasons, but there are a ton of these reasons. Some of the most common include:
Your dog is suffering from some type of nutritional deficiency. In these cases, your dog is trying to obtain calcium, magnesium or some other vitamin or mineral that she is not getting in sufficient quantities. This is somewhat similar to the strange cravings many pregnant humans experience (although hopefully you don’t get a craving for rocks – you might want to call your doctor about that one).
Your pup is bored, frustrated or in need of more attention. If your dog is experiencing mental or emotional stress because she is under stimulated or deficient in vitamin snuggle, she may try to eat rocks in an effort to get more attention or as a form of acting out.
Your pooch is suffering from fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety (which are closely related emotions) can cause animals and people alike to do strange things, including eating rocks. Rock-eating behaviors are often most common among high-strung or traumatized dogs (such as many shelter pets, who’ve had a tough life).
Your poor pup is suffering from some type of neurological disease. Diseases of the nerves and brain (which is really just a big jumble of nerves) can cause dogs to do very strange things, like chowing down on rocks. Accordingly, it is important to have your vet give your pup a proper neurological exam to rule out these types of problems.
Your pup is under-nourished. If your dog isn’t getting enough food, he may be walking around with a perpetually rumbling tummy. Some dogs struggling with this will start swallowing anything they think may help stop the discomfort.
Your pup is suffering from a thyroid problem. Your dog’s thyroid produces hormones that regulate a variety of biological processes; if the hormone levels fall out of whack, your dog may respond in a variety of ways. Thyroid problems are one of the things most vets will investigate when evaluating a dog exhibiting pica.
Your pooch is infested with intestinal parasites. Some intestinal parasites can elicit strange cravings in dogs (and other animals). Fortunately, your vet can easily rule this problem out by performing a fecal analysis. Most common parasites are relatively simple to treat, although the process may take some time.
A Good Plan for Stopping Rock-Eating Behavior and Pica
It is often quite tricky to put an end to rock-eating behavior. There are a number of different causes for the condition, and it can take some considerable detective work (often in conjunction with your vet or a certified trainer) to find a solution.
The road ahead may be long and hard, but it’s definitely worth the effort – your dog’s very life may be at risk. You must be diligent, dedicated and devoted to have a reasonable chance of success.
Utilize a step-by-step plan like the one below to systematically find the answer to your dog’s rock-eating problem.
STEP ONE: Visit your veterinarian promptly.
First of all, it’s important to have your vet take stock of the current situation – your dog may already have rocks in her digestive tract, blocking up the flow. If left unattended this can lead to incredible unpleasantness, with potentially fatal consequences.
After ensuring that she is not full of rocks (or other things) and in immediate danger, your vet can try to determine if any medical conditions are causing the problem. Your vet will likely take a detailed history, including your dog’s diet and general behavior, and have blood samples tested.
If your vet discovers anything of note, follow his or her directions to the letter. After doing so, you can come right back here and take up where you left off (you do have K9ofMine.com bookmarked, don’t you?)
But in a best-case scenario, your dog will not have any rocks in her belly and she’ll be completely physically healthy. This means that you can move on to step two:
STEP TWO: Remove as many rocks (or other inedible but tempting) items as possible from your dog’s turf.
No matter what the cause of the behavior (we can assume it is a behavioral issue because if you are on step two, your vet either found no medical problem or has already helped you solve said medical problem), it makes good sense to eliminate the possibility of your dog ingesting any more.
So, you’ll want to start by cleaning your dog’s kennel area, if she has one, as well as any other areas she frequents. Gardens and patio-type areas are often home to lots of gravel and rocks, so do whatever you can to remove rocks from these places or at least prevent your pup from accessing these areas.
Remove the rocks; remove the problem (mostly). Then it’s time for step three.
STEP THREE: Try to determine and address the root cause of the problem.
This is a tricky step, and it may require you to consult with a certified trainer or behavioral therapist to have the best chances of determining why your dog is slurping up stones. Ask yourself:
Is your dog timid, afraid or nervous? Some dogs are just naturally more high-strung than others (everyone knows a Chihuahua or miniature pinscher that was twitchy enough to combust at any second), but others are nervous or fearful for a reason. If your dog is a member of the latter group, try to make her more secure on a day-to-day basis. Brush up on your dog calming signals to help you better asses what situations or objects are stressing her out.
Is your dog insufficiently stimulated? What does her average day look like? If it consists of minimal human interaction, little exercise and few good toys, you’ll want to correct these issues promptly. Under stimulated dogs are not happy dogs. Walk your dog regularly (or hire a dog walker), play with your pup (how about tossing a Frisbee around at the beach?), and provide your pooch with fun dog puzzle toys when you’re away.
Is your dog frustrated? Does she watch one dog after another pass in front of his world, while she sits trapped on the wrong side of the fence? Does she get enough attention from her puppy parents? Does she exhibit problematic chewing behaviors? These problems can cause dogs to start chewing and swallowing rocks or other inanimate objects.
Have you ever cared for a dog that ate rocks or other inanimate objects? Share your story with others in the comments below! Let everyone know what types of strategies you used to stop the behavior, including what worked and what didn’t.
You never know who you may help, so don’t be shy! Let’s hear your stories.