Pica in Pets: Treat or Ignore?

Patty Khuly
Pica in PetsDoes your pet love to eat non-food items? It could be pica.

Just when I think it's safe to let him out of my sight, my aptly named Pug mix, Slumdog, eats yet another wayward paper product.

When I first started writing about Slumdog's paper habit, it was after he'd eaten a large cardboard box. This was a few years ago and the sights and sounds of what ensued have been forever burned into my memory as something I'm unwilling to relive.

Lest you fail to grasp the significance of this event, let me describe the box: It was approximately nine square feet of heavy-duty corrugated cardboard. By the time I observed the adventure in progress, more than half of its fibrous bulk was already making its way out into the world. (He's very regular.)

Given this feat, you might think Slumdog's bowels were made of some amazing stuff. Indeed, I have to assume they're wholly insensitive to the kind of insult a mere box can offer, seeing as he's consumed entire rolls of toilet paper (once, while sitting in front of the object as if it was spooled for this very purpose), a half-stack of cat-soiled magazines, great swaths of chicken-juicy butcher paper (yummy!), and a large pile of receipts I was attempting to organize in advance of tax day (gee thanks), among other inedibles. (Did I mention the twenty dollar bill?)

What can I say? He's always had a thing for paper. And, thankfully, it's not yet killed him. Nor is it likely to, given that he seems to love chewing it to bits before he swallows it.

But why does he do it? Damned if I know.

"Pica" is the condition he suffers from. That's the medical term for eating stuff that's simply not meant to be eaten. And why animals (or humans) do it has been a subject of intense debate for millennia:

Is he hungry? Is he lacking nutrients in his food? Does he need more outlets for his chewing (teething) drive? Might he be suffering from a behavioral disorder?

The honest truth is that we don't really know. The condition remains a mystery -- a fact that makes more sense when you consider the derivation of the word: Pica is the medieval Latin name for the magpie, a bird that's said to eat almost anything it finds.

Afflicted pets eat more than just paper. Hair ties, plastic, rubber bands, socks, leather, carpeting, dirt, mulch, etc. are all on the list, among many, many more examples of questionably edible items.

In the case of pets — as for the human children who also commonly suffer from it — pica is an issue largely complicated by the inability to easily communicate with the patient. Why they're trying to consume non-comestibles isn't something we can readily fathom without the option of verbal explanation.

So what's a veterinarian or pet owner to do?

In Slumdog's case, as for most animal patients, these five points help guide our veterinary decision making:

  1. Is the animal receiving appropriate nutrition (calories and nutrients)?
  2. Is he suffering from any discernible biological imbalance?
  3. Is he allowed sufficient opportunities to display normal chewing behavior?
  4. Does he display any other behavioral abnormalities that might be relevant to this one?
  5. Is his health threatened by this behavior?

The approach here is to rule out other conditions — especially those that have a readily achieved course of treatment. Once none are identified, we can then decide between the following options:

  • Stop the behavior at all costs or
  • ignore it.

For example, in the case of a recent feline patient who consumed 21 hair ties that had to be surgically extracted, the behavior needed to stop lest the next few ties be the unlucky ones that bind her intestines fatally together.

In Slumdog's case, his penchant for paper has rarely proved dangerous. Though we do our best to keep paper products from hitting the floor, some will invariably slip by (especially in a household saddled with a fifteen year-old human). So, except for the fact that we're occasionally tasked with helping him remove the longer bits of paper towel from his backside, we're lucky enough to be in the clear, health-wise, even if we do choose to ignore it.

As for my hair accessory obsessed patient, the rationale for my little magpie's kooky antics will probably ever elude me. But at least I can console myself with the knowledge that his brand of "foolishness" is way better than others. After all, at least Slumdog's free of the foulest and most common form of pica: poop eating. Thank God for small favors!

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