Back to Client Info Index


Understanding Your Pet's Medical Diagnosis

What is pica?

Pica is defined as the ingestion of substances that are not considered food. Some commonly ingested substances include rocks, fabric, plastic, and bowel movement. In young puppies, pica is a normal behavior used to explore the environment. Most puppies eventually grow out of this behavior.

What causes pica?

While pica may result from a medical problem, most cases of pica stem from compulsive behavioral disorders. Pica can be caused by a nutritional deficiency. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency associated with pica. However, any disease of the digestive system that impairs the digestion or absorption of dietary nutrients can cause pica.

How is pica diagnosed?

Pica is diagnosed through a good history and physical examination. In the absence of any physical abnormalities, the cause of pica is most likely a behavioral problem. If a medical problem is suspected, the cause may be determined through blood, urine, and fecal tests that assess the animal's overall health status and specific organ function. Additional tests of the liver and pancreas may be needed. Radiographs (X-rays) or an ultrasound examination of the abdomen also may be done if a foreign body is suspected.

How is pica treated?

Pica associated with a behavioral problem may be eliminated through behavioral modification techniques. Some options include the substitution of a safe alternative item that can be ingested and limiting access to non-food items by keeping the pet indoors or on a leash. The animal's motivation to ingest non-food items can be discouraged by the application of a safe, non-toxic, foul-tasting substance to these items. If the pica has not decreased within two weeks, behavioral medications may be required. Generally if pica is caused by a medical condition, the behavior spontaneously resolves once the condition has been treated appropriately.

If the pet eats a foreign object (such as a stone or fabric), the object may pass through the gastrointestinal tract without problems. However, if the object is too large or if it gets stuck, the veterinarian will need to remove the foreign body. This may be done via endoscopy or surgery. Some objects may totally block the gastrointestinal tract while others (such as some pennies) can lead to poisoning, making the removal of the foreign body an emergency.

What is the prognosis for animals with pica?

The prognosis (outcome) for animals with pica will vary depending on the underlying cause, particularly if the pica is related to a medical problem. With proper dietary management and consistent behavioral modification, the prognosis for behavior-related pica is good.


Larry Tilley's Recommended Info site (www.VetMedCenter.com)