We’ve all cringed at some of the things that our dogs seem to find appetizing: garbage, cat litter, and dog poop to name a few, but dirt? You may wonder how could dirt be appealing? At least the other stuff might have interesting smells. Whether your dog is the occasional dirt taster or has really developed an appetite for it, eating dirt may be a cause for concern and something to look into.
Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?
This question may need to be answered by your veterinarian. Pica, or the eating of non-food items, can stem from both physical and mental issues. First of all, you’ll want to determine if your dog treats dirt as a rare delicacy or if he has developed an all-consuming need for it. Some dirt eating maybe by happenstance, while some causes might be medically rooted, which we’ll discuss later.
For those occasional tasters, you may notice that your pup only likes the dirt in certain areas. Where the garbage can sits or where you planted a new tree using blood meal are especially enticing spots. Some dogs might develop a taste for insects and actually eat dirt that is crawling with bugs. In these cases, dogs are most likely trying to get at the tasty bits that are within the dirt, not the dirt itself. Some dogs will Hoover the dirt rather than trying to pick out the tasty additions.
Medical Reasons Dogs Eat Dirt
Occasionally, something can be off in your dog’s body that tells him that he needs to eat dirt. Usually they are trying to replace key components that may be missing for normal bodily functions. Here are a few medical reasons why dogs turn to a dirt diet.
Disappointing Dog Food
Eating dirt could be your dog’s way of telling you that something is missing from his diet. Dirt is rich in minerals and can contain vitamins, so your pup may seek these nutrients out if their diet is lacking. If you’re feeding a commercial dog food that meets AAFCO standards, then you should be alright. AAFCO standards are in place to make sure dog food formulations contain the necessary nutrients to support the average, healthy animal.
However, if you’re feeding a homemade diet, you’ll probably want to check with your veterinarian to make sure that it’s balanced. For example, a boneless, raw meat diet may be low in calcium and phosphorus, both essential nutrients for proper muscle and bone function. Dogs are survivors and quickly find other sources of essential nutrients.
Those more convergent thinker canines may use dirt as a way to self medicate. Dirt can not only soothe an irritated stomach and digestive tract, it can also increase intestinal contractions to move offending substances out of the body more rapidly. Dirt that is heavy in clay can actually detoxify. We know this is true from the various spa treatments that use mud to rid the body of harmful toxins. So your pup’s dirt obsession may stem from an upset tummy…probably from eating last night’s garbage.
Your dog’s body may be craving these dirt snacks secondary to some other chronic illness. Anemia, or a low number of red blood cells, can lead to an iron deficiency. Dogs may gulp down dirt in order to up their iron levels. Anemia can occur due to a primary autoimmune disease or secondary to things like ulcers, intestinal or external parasites, certain cancers, or chronic intestinal inflammation. With all of these conditions there can be continued blood loss that leads to low red cell numbers and iron deficiency.
Other diseases like kidney failure and hypothyroidism can lead to anemia because of lack of red blood cell production. Either way, not enough red blood cells equals not enough iron equals your dog looking for iron in the dirt.
Can Eating Dirt Be A Behavioral Issue?
Puppies will eat absolutely everything. It’s just one of the ways that they explore their world. This is a behavior that most typically grow out of, however. Adult dogs that still eat dirt may be doing so out of boredom. If you can’t imagine a dog being bored, think about a Jack Russell or a working dog breed, one that just exudes energy. Now keep them locked up all day with no where to run, no social interaction or mental stimulation. This could make them turn to dirt eating as a form of entertainment. Working dogs appreciate a job to keep them entertained and stimulated, even if it’s as simple as keeping your yard free from squirrels.
Dogs can exhibit behavioral disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder or neurosis. Much like the person with OCD that has to turn the light switch off and on three times before entering a room, dogs with OCD may turn to eating dirt as a way to relieve their anxiety and stress.
Is Eating Dirt a Problem For Your Dog?
In most cases a little dirt here and there is no big deal. If your dog’s dirt habit becomes more than just the occasional taste, then you should start looking for some reasons. Start with a visit to your veterinarian to rule out any medical causes and talk about behavior modification.
Another thing to think about is that dirt contains more than just dirt. There could be pesticides, herbicides, or other toxins mixed in that can be troublesome for your dog. Also, rocks that get inhaled along with the dirt can cause intestinal obstructions, so don’t let your dog treat your yard like a dirt smorgasbord.
Getting Your Dog to Stop Eating Dirt
To stop your dog’s dirt habit, first try to get to the bottom of why he’s eating it in the first place. Pay attention to how often he’s partaking and if he has some favorite spots. If this doesn’t provide any answers, you’ll want to rule out medical conditions by visiting your veterinarian.
If your dog is eating dirt out of pure boredom, it’s time to spice up his life a bit. First and foremost, make sure your pup gets plenty of exercise. He needs to stretch his legs everyday. For some dogs a trip around the block isn’t going to cut it. They need social interaction and mental stimulation as well. The best way to do this: play! Playing with you and with other dogs is great exercise, and games of fetch or learning new tricks exercises her grey matter as well. Both ways will give her something else to do other than looking for her next dirt snack.
If you can, remove the source. This goes for those dogs that are particularly attracted to certain areas of dirt. If you continually dump your cooking grease in the dirt beside your garage, it’s time to stop. You may have to fence around plants and trees that are enticing as well.
Provide your pup with lots of safe and interactive toys that not only satisfy his need for chewing but also give him some mental stimulation as he tries to get the treat out. It can sometimes be hard to give your dog the time he needs everyday. On those days that you know you’ll be working late and a trip to the dog park just isn’t in the cards, consider sending your friend to a doggy day care. Here he can make new friends and burn some of that endless energy away.
Whatever you do, don’t scold or punish your dog for eating dirt. Much like a toddler, dogs may want to do it more if they think they’re not supposed to or they will just become more secretive about it. Instead, try to distract them with toys or play when they go in for a dirt bite and use positive reinforcement when they listen to you.
Eating dirt may seem like just another one of those crazy things your dog does. In some cases it is, but in some cases it can be indicative of something deeper that needs to be addressed. Dogs choose to snack on dirt for a number of reasons, both medical and behavioral. You can usually resolve your dog’s dirty little secret by exposing the cause and working toward.