Q: My Puggle, Lola, eats everything in sight! If I take her for a walk she tries to eat trash, leaves, even cat poop. Her favorite is paper. She eats it whenever she can. What’s wrong with her? Is she missing vitamins in her food?
A: “Pica” is what we call Lola’s condition. That’s the medical term for eating stuff that’s simply not meant to be eaten. Why animals (or humans) do it has been a subject of intense debate for millennia. Is this a traditional biological disorder or is this some sort of mental disease?
Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer. Here’s what we do know: 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. Plastic, rubber, cloth, leather, dirt, kitty litter, etc., are all fair game, among other things.
In the case of pets –– as for small children, who also commonly suffer pica –– this issue is complicated by the inability to communicate readily with the patient. So what’s a veterinarian or pet owner to do?
In the case of our animal patients like Lola, these questions help steer our decision making:
• Is she receiving appropriate nutrition (calories and nutrients)?
• Is she suffering from any discernible biological imbalance?
• Is she allowed sufficient opportunities to display normal chewing behavior?
• Does she display any other behavioral abnormalities that might be relevant to this one?
• Is her health or quality of life imperiled by this behavior?
The approach here is to rule out other conditions –– especially those that are easily treated. But should none be identified, we can then elect between the following two options: 1) Stop the behavior at all costs or 2) live with it.
In Lola’s case, her penchant for paper is unlikely to be the result of any biochemical imbalance, deficiency or disorder (check with your vet to be sure). More than likely (given her breed), Lola’s tremendous appetite and high food drive are responsible for her extreme behavior. What’s more, her habit is unlikely to prove seriously dangerous. That’s because even moderate amounts of paper tend to pass uneventfully through the relatively bulletproof canine GI tract.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the odd item that might accompany a paper product –– not to mention cat poop. Controlling her dietary indiscretion while on walks will therefore be crucial to her continued good health.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.