Ask the Vet: Rock-eating “Pica” Pup
We have a 7-week-old Rottie/Dobie mix puppy. He was gotten from a rescue organization that was pretty shabby looking. He came to us with ticks, terrible diarrhea (which we are managing) and a terrible behavior: compulsive rock eating. He doesn't randomly pick up rocks, he eats them as fast as he can scoop them into his mouth - he seems desperate to eat rocks. In his last stool, I counted 45 rocks (and those were the ones I could see). We try to keep him confined to our grassy area when he's outside, but he still manages to find rocks. We have to keep him on a leash in our yard to keep him out of the gardening beds (that have rocks). I want him to be able to run and play - but he makes a bee-line for the rocks and starts devouring them. He's just a little guy. I'm afraid this behavior could really make him sick. I "googled" this behavior and it was suggested that he might have a vitamin deficiency. We have him on a multiple vitamin with iron. Any other suggestions?
Janet Goldman, Tucson, AZ
Congratulations on your recent family addition; it sounds to me as though he has found a loving home. Your little guy’s rock eating is called “pica” and is usually a behavioral problem. However, the fact that he also has terrible diarrhea concerns me. A checkup with your regular veterinarian is in order to make sure he does not have an underlying disorder such as anemia, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or a portosystemic shunt that may be causing the compulsive rock eating.
If he gets a clean bill of health then we need to focus on changing his behavior and his motivation for rock eating. Prior to his adoption, he may have been confined to a barren yard with little environmental stimulation. Since a puppy uses his mouth as an instrument to explore his world, if the only thing he had to chew on were rocks then that might explain his compulsion for them.
The first order of business is a step you have already started working on which is to limit his access to rocks. Fencing off a small grassy area and combing the area with a garden rake should eliminate most if not all of the rocks. You can then use the grassy area as a safe training zone to help change his motivation.
Now the fun part! Take a variety of toys and simply play with him so he learns there are alternatives to rocks. Simple environmental enrichment can sometimes make them forget all about their old habits.
After a couple weeks, we need to see if it will be safe to allow him to have access to places where rocks are available. To do this, add a rock to the grassy area that is too large to pick up or swallow but still has sides where he can mouth it. If he makes a beeline for the rock, make sure he knows this is not acceptable behavior, but reward and praise him whenever he picks up a favorite toy instead. He will gradually lose interest in the rock. If he needs extra encouragement, then spraying the rock with bitter apple or a similar noxious but non-toxic product can also help discourage the behavior during this period.
You are correct that this behavior can make him sick; I have had to perform gastrotomies on dogs that have ingested rocks too big to pass through. Fortunately with time, patience and plenty of play this behavior can go away.