He Ate What!?!?

That was the tastiest breadknife ever…

In the wake of a huge Christmas dinner, it seems fitting to consider the phrase “dietary indiscretion”, but here we’ll focus on pets, not our gluttonous selves. Why do dogs and cats eat stuff they shouldn’t?

Faced with patients showing gastrointestinal symptoms, vets often write “dietary indiscretion” on their lists of possible causes. It could apply to anything from a lab gobbling down an enormous bowl of dog food to that same fellow ripping into a deer carcass found in the forest. I’ve written it about kitties that cleaned out the butter dish on my table and hounds that nearly killed themselves eating toxic compost.

When the stuff that’s ingested is at least food-like, it’s not hard to understand why our pets might overindulge. We’ve all made one too many trips to the buffet at some point. And, if they unknowingly eat something toxic because it looks like food, well why not? Instincts only go so far to protect us.

But why eat non-food items such as elastics, erasers, knives, cell phones, chains and staples? All of these were found inside pets across the continent last year.

The only thing more bewildering than how a puppy eats a breadknife is why. There are two categories of reasons animals eat foreign objects: medical and behavioural. If they are excessively hungry due to a medical condition such as Cushings disease in dogs or hyperthyroidism in cats, they might eat just about anything. The same applies if they are on prednisone, a drug that increases hunger. True starvation is an obvious cause. And, although troublesome DNA isn’t an illness, some breeds such as Labradors seem hardwired to think they are being starved.

Diseases that cause anemia or low red blood cell counts can create cravings for soil and clay-like substances. I once had a kitty patient with an immune-system disease who licked bricks anytime the condition was out of control. Gastrointestinal pain or illness can also cause animals, particularly cats, to eat non-food items.

But a lot of foreign-body ingestions are sparked by stress and boredom. The animal doesn’t have enough to do and starts chewing on its blankets or is anxious about being left alone and finds a basket of socks pacifying. Whatever the cause, when it’s habitual, the behaviour is called “pica” and it can lead to euthanasia.

Obviously, it’s important to keep tempting foods as well as dangerous and toxic items out of reach of pets, but you shouldn’t have to strip the house bare. If you have a dog or cat that regularly chews weird stuff, see your veterinarian. Once health problems are ruled out, a good trainer can be helpful for dogs at least, providing techniques for managing anxiety and teaching quick response to commands – “leave it” being particularly useful if the breadknife is about to disappear.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Quinte West/Trenton, Ontario
December 2013