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Living with a dog with Pica (eating non food items)

 I am reeling from the loss of my beautiful old girl Lyka on Friday.  13 years young, and it wasn’t old age that took her, or even disease, but her need to randomly swallow soft items.


Just a bit on Lyka before I talk about the condition itself.  I appreciate she is not a dachshund, but she has raised and helped many dachshunds overcome their issues. Her story is for any breed if it can help I will share it.


The behaviour: She did it as a puppy once, ate a sock, and after a week of misdiagnosis she was x-rayed and a blockage was found, a sock that had stretched and blocked her intestines.  As it had been left so long, despite daily trips back to the vets I used at the time, it had caused significant damage and she had peritonitis.  She was 6 months old and I almost lost her.  Obviously we didn’t, but it was close and a tough recovery.  I put it down to typical puppy behaviour and bad luck.

Over the next 10 years Lyka grew into the most fabulous and bomb proof of dogs, and we pretty much forgot about that event.   And then suddenly she did it again.  She didn’t show the classic symptoms of a blockage, she was a tad tender on her tummy but the big clue was the vomiting of undigested food.  My vets (different ones from the previous one, who are awesome) quickly x rayed and rushed her into surgery.  It was a small towel (whole). Then about a year later, it was a soft toy.  3 weeks later, she tore off the cover off a dog bed and swallowed that.  18 months later, she did it again. 


In the meantime we ran medical tests, I kept a diary, restricted access to things etc etc. There was no pattern. No series of events before she did it.  Usually I didn’t see her do it and only knew she’d snuck one as she’d bring it back up (twice).  Tests were unremarkable. She was fed a good diet and was otherwise fit and healthy.  The vets checked her intestine during one surgery to rule out any obvious reasons she may be doing it.  We spayed her on the next in case it was hormonal.  And despite restricting her access to various rooms around the house, evicting socks, soft toys, small towels, and anything soft and lovely, she would still manage a stealthy swipe and gulp.  I was resigned at the last surgery 12 months ago it was the last surgery.  It may be 3 weeks or it could be a year, we knew it would happen again, as did the vets as we discussed it then. She crashed on the table on that op, and it just wasn’t fair.  The only option to completely prevent it was to muzzle her at home, and for an older girl, who had the most wonderful of natures, this wouldn’t have been fair. She was muzzle trained from a young age, but keeping her muzzled at all times at home, wasn’t in her best interests. I stand by that decision.


Sadly, this time we knew she’d run out of lives, at 13 and being a large breed, who had already had multiple surgeries, we had no other option but to let her go.  Devastated is an understatement, especially as this is so close to losing darling Popi 2 weeks ago.


Pica?


I want to talk about this condition, it’s known as Pica.  The causes of pica remain unexplored. There is a lot of speculation, and in some cases, direct links can be seen between a situation and the behaviour. But, there is nothing conclusive, especially in cases like Lyka. Management is the best approach, but the underlying causes are rarely investigated or mentioned, or known.


Now often Pica is seen in dogs who can be stressy or anxious but Lyka, as many of you may know was the most relaxed, chilled, content dog you could meet. The truth is, whilst there are various possible causes of pica in dogs, there is nothing conclusive.  With Lyka, there wasn’t a pattern, just opportunity which sometimes she took advantage of, no matter how careful we tried to be. Lyka was a wonderful dog, a beautiful soul with only the one vice – Pica!   She worked with many dogs, went to bmx races and comforted children who were upset, and adults too.  She was a remarkable dog. One in a million.

I spoke to vets, behavioural professionals, other owners and in the end we considered the possibility this was a strange manifestation of dementia where she returned to her puppyhood behaviours. 


Do I feel guilty and blame myself? Yes absolutely. Of course I do. All the what if’s, should I have’s, what did I miss? And whilst the vet who helped us send her on her way to the bridge tried to ease my guilt suggesting it could have been adhesions from the previous surgeries, I know the most obvious explanation is she found something that we overlooked.  I have to live with that. She did leave this world peacefully and in my arms, under the kind hands of vet Emily and nurse Jo.  Thank you ladies for helping her leave the world so peacefully.


What is Pica?

Now, more on Pica.  It is characterised by dogs eating things they shouldn’t do, non food items.  It is important to rule out medical issues such as parasites like Giardia where eating things (especially stones) can be a symptom, and dietary issues. Giardia is rife in the environment at the minute and has a huge range of symptoms (from diahorrea, to random bouts of aggression). Trust me, its easier to do that than try to remove the opportunity, as they will always find the thing you miss. To clarify, puppies chewing and eating is not pica, this is a normal part of them growing, however it can develop if owners respond negatively to them swallowing and chewing non food items, so it is important to address it properly irrespective of age. 


Thankfully, dachshunds have less access to "stuff" due to their size, its more obvious when they try to steal from the laundry basket or a drawer. For once their size is an advantage. You worry less about things 5 foot in the air. And whilst Lyka wasn't one for jumping up (although a freshly barbequed rib of beef proved tempting), the laundry basket was hidden behind a gate and a door and socks were kept in my office (of all places!)

Causes of Pica


Pica can be caused by anemia, liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, neurological issues, by some medications, parasites (which may not be covered by routine treatments)and gastrointestinal issues. There is often a medical cause!


Essentially it is compared to an eating disorder in humans.  Research into pica in humans indicated compulsive disorders, anxiety or impulse control disorder, or nutritional deficiencies.  But there is less information in dogs.  Now, I know a lot of daxies will tear holes in their blankets, which whilst annoying isn’t really a problem. However, eating the blanket is a problem. 


They often favour things that smell of their humans, socks, underwear, towels.  But many do not discriminate and will eat toys, plastic, paper and so on. 

Behavioural Pica, or “stress eating” can be caused by boredom, anxiety, stress, habit.  They may often do it in response to a stressful situation and some may do it to help them settle – “self soothing.”


Symptoms of a blockage. Please note they can be varied so this information does not replace the advice of a veterinary professional!


Before I go further, it is important to mention the symptoms, and raise awareness of the similarities between a blockage and a tummy bug.

Often a dog with a blockage cannot poop or will struggle, they may get small amounts of diarrhea for a partial blockage. But If they are blocked, then nothing will pass, or only small amounts will. A dog with a bug will often have diarrhea. Both warrant a vet trip!


My experience of symptoms from Lyka,

Slightly (only marginally) restless.

Drinking a lot in one go

Occasionally vocal “yip” which was out of character

Nausea (head bowed down, occasional dribbling, little bits of regurg)

Refusal to eat (showed complete distain for food)

Vomiting or regurgitation of undigested food (this is a straight to the vet job especially if your dog has a known history.)

Standing in corners with the head lowered (lyka would paw a hole to puke into)

Vomiting/regurgitation of water

Going off water (later stages, there’s no-where for it to go)

Slight discomfort of the stomach (but not enough in her case to be conclusive that it was more than a sore stomach)

Lethargy and depressed.

Dehydration. 

 

The most common symptoms listed are:

Vomiting, often repeatedly or excessively

Loss of appetite or anorexia

Diarrhea or difficulty defecating

Weakness or lethargy

Drooling or lip smacking

Abdominal pain or tenderness

Bloating or nausea

Dehydration

Aggressive behavior when the abdomen is touched

 

As you can see knowing your dog is the biggest thing. They can get one or several of these symptoms, and they are very similar to a tummy bug.  The yip was what had me at the vets on previous occasions but not all dogs show the same signs.  Your vets input is vital! As are your instincts, you know your dog!


Obviously if you see them swallow something contact your vet promptly, they can give them something to make them vomit which may prevent a need for surgery. Surgery is expensive, especially out of hours, and it is also dangerous for the dogs, they will need to cut into their intestine and explore the 2 feet of loops and turns to find the article.  The risk of contamination and infection is high.  Do not wait it out!


As you can see from my story, it is important to address a potential blockage promptly,  if you suspect a blockage, or if you know your dog has a history of eating things, trust your instincts.  The only reason I managed to save Lyka several times without any of the intestine dying was because I knew she had a history and those really subtle signs, before the first vomit meant I could get her to the vets quickly.  This was aided by my vets knowing her history and getting her in and seen immediately.  It gave us the opportunity to try to get her to bring it up before resorting to surgery and it meant that parts of her intestine did not need removing which reduced complications.


Getting blood tests, urinalysis and stool samples is usually the first step your vet will take.  At home, you will need to manage the situation, or try your best to.  It is important to rule out all medical issues that may be leading to this.


Behavioural Pica is really hard to address.  There are so many variations and apparrent causes its really challenging to live with especiaially if its unpredictable. You can only do your best!

  • Management is always the priority.  It relies on managing the environment and a high level of observation.

  • Can you identify a particular material? Some are easier than others to prevent access.

  • Identifying the trigger will be the main focus. If there is one, but sometimes it evolves into habit. 

  • For dogs that are stressed identify why.  If its separation related, you need to work on that.  If its environmental – for example you and your partner having a row, provide your dog with a place it can retreat to where they can come and go safely and is always a positive place to be.

  • Restrict their access to places when they are unsupervised.

  • Make sure the washing baskets are behind a gate, and the kids don’t leave their things lying around.  Easier said I know, but you soon get into the habit of micromanaging things.

  • Ensure they are getting enough sleep.  This has been found to contribute to pica. Generally dogs need about 16 hours sleep in a 24 hour period.  Remember this will likely be in short chunks through the day rather than a big block of time.

Even with all the protocols, mistakes happen, but act quickly.

 

Behavioural process- get a professional involved.

  • Note the location and the situation surrounding the eating behaviour. 

  • Note what causes their anxiety or excitement to increase.  Can you address this? Can you find a safe alternative for them to do? A safe alternative like a healthy chew or item they can lick?

  • Muzzle training – particularly if this is happening on walks.  It can help you prevent them snaffling something you don’t see, and whilst none of us like to use a muzzle, if you teach it properly it is no different than them wearing a collar.  It will mean you can relax on walks whilst you address things, and if the behaviour is habit it can help ‘break’ the cycle.

  • Restrict access to areas unsupervised.  If the are eating stones in the garden, use a lead. If they are raiding the bin, put it out of reach (or if a large breed in a cupboard).

  • Increase mental stimulation.  Often dogs that are bored might look for other forms of entertainment.  This will also help increase the relationship between yourselves and your dogs and provide confidence.  Beneficial for any dog.

  • Be understanding and calm.  Whilst I genuinely appreciate the frustration when they grab something. Shouting and running after them can compound the issue.  For some dogs they may grab items for attention, and get that they do.  If this is your dog, look at other ways to give your dog attention for behaviours you like.  Chasing the dogs or being intimidating is also a sure fire way to increase the chances of them swallowing an item quickly or potentially lead to resource guarding behaviours.  Instead teach them to bring it back and give it to you.

  • Sleep – Creating an environment where they are able to rest, this doesn’t mean locking them in a crate. But ensuring they have somewhere to relax. Making sure high energy toys are saved for high energy environments rather than the living room.  Create a calm space where you can create an expectation of calmness, rather than fetch or tug.

  • Address the anxiety or excitement – look at what leads to it, and head it off at the source.  Start working on this from the basics, slowly and compassionately.

 

Sadly in some cases, like with Lyka, there are no obvious patterns or causes, they can go months without showing any interest and suddenly do it again. I am highly suspicious of an underlying medical cause in Lyka's case, but tests proved unremarkable.  I’ve seen her grab a huge toy and literally appear to inhale it.  Thankfully I managed to pull it out in time.  I have seen her grab what was once her favourite toy to carry around – duck duck- and inhale it so quickly I couldn’t get it, but thankfully bring it up shortly afterwards. 


There were occasions inbetween the surgeries where she did indeed get something but fast movement by myself or the item being too large meant we avoided an issue. No obvious patterns to the behaviour, other than the material……sometimes.  We removed all soft toys (of any size), towels, cleaning cloths, socks, cushions and beds with fleecy materials.  We did our best.  And that’s all we can do.


Thoughts.

 

Just quickly on dementia, dogs do get it, otherwise known as Canine Cognitive Decline.  The symptoms vary as they do with humans.  It is a possible contributor in Lyka’s case, although I remain convinced there was something else.  The bizarre reoccurrence of the behaviour later in life certainly suggests a change internally.  I wrote a blog here: https://www.perfectlypolitedachshunds.com/post/do-dogs-get-dementia

 

In terms of Pica, as a professional, have I failed in that ultimately it let to my own dogs untimely death.  In some respects I feel I failed her, yes. My journey with her has helped me help many people who have dogs with Pica, and I hope it will continue to.  Without my researching for her, I’d never have learned the depth of knowledge I have now on the topic. 


However experiencing the difficulty of managing the condition I will never be dismissive of any owner faced with this situation and will do everything I can to give the best advice I can.

I did everything I could to give her a full quality of life and tried to keep her safe. As with anything I do, if something causes me loss, stress or sadness I seek to control that feeling through knowledge.  My aim, will be researching this awful condition and scouring the earth to try and pool together as much information as possible to try and find a solution beyond what is out there. Maybe one day the loss of Lyka will lead to the prevention of others feeling the same pain.


For anyone who is struggling with a dog with Pica, I truly understand and sympathise with the challenges you face.  I hope the advice I have given above helps, and please reach out to a professional to help you address the cause be it medical or behavioural.

 

Run free my beautiful girl, it was an honor to love you and be loved by you.


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