Dogs eat dirt for a variety of reasons, including dietary deficiencies, flavor and occasionally health issues. The dirt in your yard is most likely to be attactive to your dog where food or liquid has been spilled. And dirt may be eaten accidentally when dogs eat bones or raw meat outside. Deliberately and persistently eating dirt, stones and other inedible items is known as Pica, and may require veterinary attention.
A small amount of dirt is unlikely to harm your dog, and your dog is unlikely to choke on dirt, but its important to know when to seek veterinary help. Eating dirt regularly or in large quantities can lead to medical issues.
Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?
Dogs eat dirt for a few reasons. As we review each of these, think about which of them seem most likely for your doggie.
Dog mineral deficiences can lead to dirt consumption. By eating dirt, they’re trying to get nutrients from the soil. There’s no hard evidence to support this theory, but it seems reasonable, and it’s certainly worth reviewing the diet of your dog who eats dirt. This is important especially if you are feeding a home cooked diet. Most complete commercial pet foods contain the full range of vitamins and minerals required by your pet.
Swallowing the occasional bit of dirt is unlikely to harm your dog. Regular dirt eating necessitates a checkup with your veterinarian. There are some illnesses that can cause malnutrition and potentially this kind of abnormal eating pattern.
One of such conditions is anemia — a drop in the red blood cells. Dogs with anemia may show any or all of the following signs:
- Pale gums
- Weakness or reduced activity
- Eating dirt
- Weight loss
- Tarry black stools (if they’re anemic from losing blood through a gastrointestinal bleed)
Dog dirt eating can also be a sign of other illnesses such as liver and gastrointestinal issues.
Attention Seeking by Dirt Eating?
Your dirt eating dog gets a lot of attention. Your pup is saying “Look at me, I’m eating dirt! I bet you want to stop me!” Which, of course, you do.
If this is your dog’s problem, you just need to spend a bit more time interacting with him. Dog dirt eating can be completely resolved by giving them a bit more exercise or attention. However, you’ll need to do this when your dog is displaying good behavior. Ignore any dirt eating behavior from your dog.
Something Buried in the Soil
Dog dirt eating can just be a result of a strongly flavored area of soil. Perhaps something tasty (to your dog) has been spilled there, or is buried in that patch of soil? It might help just to wait them out and see if they return with anything specific or interesting.
This option is especially worth considering if your dog keeps digging and snacking in the same place.
Why Do Puppies Eat Stones?
Dirt eating in dogs is bad enough, but it can be the tip of the iceberg. Eating stones is a very common activity among puppies. In many cases, it probably starts with the puppy just exploring a pebble or two with his mouth. Puppies are similar to toddlers in that way; they use their mouths to explore new sensations.
However, if left alone with the small stone/coin/plastic toy or whatever he has in his mouth, most puppies will simply spit it out when they get bored with it. But of course, we worry that the puppy will choke or swallow the thing, and we try to get it off him. The puppy then does swallow it, simply because if it’s in his tummy, no one else can take it. For this reason it is always best to “swap” items you don’t want your puppy to have, for a tasty bit of food. It helps to avoid the swallowing habit getting started.
Puppies often grow out of eating rubbish. But, if your dog eating stones or rocks persists into adulthood it can be much more serious.
Why Do Dogs Eat Sticks?
Many dogs that appear to be eating sticks are actually just chewing them up. It’s an activity that many dogs really enjoy. For Labs, this chewing is often born from their retriever instincts. Still, stress, boredom, and anxiety exacerbates these chewing tendencies.
Most of the tiny bits that the stick breaks down into, are spat out. You’ll often find them in a pile around the dog. But if your dog is actually eating and swallowing wood, then you should be worried. In this case again, we’ll do what we did with the puppy and stones. Swapping the stick for something tasty makes it less likely that your dog will swallow what is in his mouth, or run off with it.
However, for some dogs, eating everything and anything is a real psychological problem and health risk. These dogs often consume items of clothing such as socks, dishcloths and cleaning rags, toys, batteries, sticks and pretty much anything they find lying around.
Why Do Dogs Eat Trash?
Many dogs love a good trash rummage. There are a few reasons why your dog loves to snoop in the trash. And no, it’s not because one man’s trash is another (doggie)’s treasure.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as the fact that something in the trash smells like food to your dog. Other times, it’s because your trash can seems like an exciting gadget for your dog. Perhaps he’s noticed that pushing a lever magically opens this trove of food. Dogs also love weird smells.
Still, trash-loving dogs have serious issues too. Maybe your dog’s appetite is skyrocketing because of an undiagnosed illness? Either way, if you find it happening too often or your instincts tell you there might be more to it, see your vet.
Why Do Dogs Eat Dead Animals and Poop?
Eating organic waste such as rotting animals or animal waste products is natural behavior for your dog. Still, it doesn’t make it any less disgusting to us. I can reassure you a little, though, on your dog’s safety with this particular habit. You might think that carrion and animal waste are dangerous, but the dog’s stomach is a vastly environment from ours.
Dead seagulls, horse manure and his own poop, are actually substances your Labrador can digest. At least, for the most part, with no ill effects — however disgusting we find his behavior. But, perhaps the most common source of anxiety for new owners, is the dog that eats poop, whether his or that of other dogs.
Still, take comfort from the fact that unless your dog has developed a taste for poisonous mushrooms (it happens), for the most part he will probably come to no harm from eating organic material. Unfortunately, this is not the case with dogs that consume inorganic objects.
The Risks of Foreign Body Ingestion
Dog dirt eating is not a huge risk. With a few dogs, however, regardless of how it started, eating everything becomes a dangerous habit resulting in repeated foreign body ingestion. Indeed, a few dogs do seem hellbent on getting themselves onto an operating table. These are dogs that eat stones, nails, plastic bags, and the contents of your washing line.
We are not talking about the puppy who once swallowed a pebble that you tried to take out of his mouth. Or the dog who eats the rotten dead squirrel he finds on a walk. We are talking about regular, compulsive eating of inappropriate and inedible items. And if your Labrador falls into this category, it can be very upsetting and frustrating — not to mention expensive.
I have known two dogs like this. One was a Labrador of my own who compulsively ate clothing. And another was a flat-coated retriever who ate dangerous quantities of vegetation. He eventually needed an operation to remove a large spiked piece of pyracanthus (a prickly shrub) from his stomach. Several dogs have had to undergo major surgery after eating a stomach full of pebbles on the beach, or swallowing cutlery or laundry.
How to Stop Your Dog from Eating Inedible Items
Foreign body ingestion can be stopped through preventative techniques and training.
- Use a trash can with a locking lid. See some of our favorite dog-proof trash cans here. This will keep your dog out of the trash at home, at least.
- Get your dog checked at the vet. If your dog keeps eating dirt ravenously, get them checked for anemia or any medical conditions that could cause pica. Pica/depraved appetite is the condition of eating inedible materials.
- Distract your dog from dirt, stones, and other trash by swapping. If you’re out walking, try to have a treat to distract them, At home, it may help to buy them a chew toy. You can see some of our favorites here.
- Don’t rush at your dog when you see them playing with a stone or stick. This may cause them to swallow it. Gently approach and try to swap the harmful object.
- Make sure your dog gets enough exercise everyday. This reduces boredom and the desire to dig.
- Provide lots of supervision. You’ll need to be very attentive about not leaving clothing, or linen lying around, for example.
- If all else fails, see a behaviorist.
Do your best. But, if your dog does manage to consume something he shouldn’t, you’ll need to let your vet know what your dog has eaten. If the dogs seems well and happy, the vet will usually advise a wait and watch policy to see if it emerges through the normal channels.
Symptoms to Watch out For
Keep a close eye on your dog during this time and don’t hesitate to get him to the vet if he shows signs of being unwell or in pain Watch out for drooling, whining, loss of appetite, lethargy, restlessness or any other abnormal behavior. Then, talk to your vet by phone if you are not sure whether to take the dog into his office.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website