Dogs are fascinated by weird things. Let’s see, there’s the garbage … And of course other dogs’ pee and poop … And for some dogs – DIRT!
And like the garbage can raiders (looking for that discarded food) and pooh eaters (gross! – and yes we covered this topic too), there is a reason for your dog’s dirt-eating madness, so it’s not something you want to ignore.
“Some say that it reflects an underlying behavioral problem,” says W Jean Dodds DVM. “This could be due to obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental problems, which developed from painful past experiences, or due to a genetically inherited behavioral problem. More commonly, this behavior is thought to reflect either a minor mineral or vitamin deficiency, a gastric upset or irritation, or even something simple like the animal smelling some food scrap on or in the ground. If it seems compulsive or excessive, take the pet to your veterinarian for a checkup and be sure that the pet’s diet is balanced.”
Clearly there are some good possible reasons why your dog has taken a liking to dirt, some more serious than others.
Let’s look a little closer at the possibilities…
1. Bad Food
Your dog’s dirt eating could actually be a search for minerals, vitamins or even good probiotic bacteria that he isn’t getting in his diet.
Kibble and unbalanced diets could be the culprits.
Pica is defined as a state whereby dogs eat things other than food. For example, eating dirt would be a pica disorder.
This usually occurs when a dog’s body is mineral deficient or is suffering from nutritional deficiency or imbalance. – Carol Osborne DVM
“Dogs’ natural instinctual tendencies help to promote their survival and signs like this should not be overlooked. Should the deranged appetite continue for more than a few days, consider a diet change and seek guidance from your veterinarian,” says integrative veterinarian Osborne.
Laurie S Coger DVM, CVCP says she’s seen dirt eating when owners are feeding poorly designed home diets.
“It usually occurs when they are not feeding bones, so more a problem with cooked diets than raw,” Coger says. “The dog is searching for the minerals that are missing when bones are not fed. It usually resolves quickly once the diet is improved. This is one of the key reasons I advocate for raw diet over cooked. It just becomes too easy for the minerals to be forgotten when cooking.”
So how do you know if your dog is getting the nutrients he needs in his food (and not missing out on essential minerals and vitamins)?
Answer: Know your way around a pet food label.
2. Chronic Health Concerns
That search for vitamins and minerals could also be a sign that your dog has a medical condition like inflammatory bowel disease or hypothyroidism.
“Inflammation in the bowel can lead to bleeding along the bowel or ulceration, which could lead to anemia. In IBD there is decreased absorption of B vitamins. So dogs with IBD could be eating dirt because they are trying to get more minerals to help deal with the anemia,” says Judy Morgan DVM, CVA, CVCP, CVFT. “Thyroid hormone helps stimulate the production of red blood cells by the bone marrow. When there is decreased production of thyroid hormone with hypothyroidism, there is less stimulation of the bone marrow and anemia results.”
Other things that may lead to anemia, include bleeding tumors, parasites, ulcers and chronic kidney disease.
“Some tumors will also bleed (hemangiosarcomas in particular), which will lead to anemia,” Morgan says. “Internal parasites like hookworms cause anemia. They actually attach to the intestinal lining and suck blood. Other intestinal parasites cause decreased absorption of nutrients. External parasites like fleas and ticks suck blood, thereby causing anemia.
“Gastrointestinal ulcers cause blood loss, which causes anemia. Chronic kidney disease causes anemia because the kidneys produce erythropoietin, which is a hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to make red blood cells. Autoimmune diseases where the immune system attacks red blood cells or platelets will cause anemia.”
3. Tasty Dirt
A less serious cause is simply that your dog is going after something tasty, like bacon or hamburger grease under a grill.
“If a dog is eating dirt, the owner should check the area to see if there is something there the dog is trying to get to. This would make sense if the dog keeps going back to a particular area – like under a grill,” says Morgan.
4. Behavior Issues
Humans exhibit strange habits out of stress and boredom – hair twirling, knuckle cracking, overeating, etc. Same goes for our pets who are designed to be active and outdoors, and who don’t always get all the stimulation they require.
Picture a large working dog being stuck home alone all day… He’s probably going to find a way to entertain himself, possibly by eating dirt.
“Some dogs, especially youngsters and puppies may simply eat dirt out of pure boredom,” says Osborne. “This could be from a multitude of reasons such as lack of exercise, being cooped up in a kennel during the day, not enough playtime, or a lack of proper social interaction. Remember, dogs, like people, need a job and a daily purpose, especially when dealing with herding and high-energy breeds. In general, dogs enjoy jobs, so if your canine’s behavior seems out of sorts, give him something to do. Doggie day care facilities offer unlimited opportunities for socialization and human and canine interaction. In addition, they relieve boredom and for most are just plain fun!”
Like humans, dogs can also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. A dog with OCD may start to eat dirt obsessively as part of the disorder. If you suspect OCD or a related behavior disorder, consult with your holistic vet or an animal behaviorist.
5. Stomach Upset
“Eating dirt” sounds so strange, but in fact some clay can be used to soothe digestive problems, help with parasites and for detoxification.
Could it be our dogs are instinctively trying to soothe or detox a digestive issue by eating dirt? It could very well be so.
“My instinct is that the dog is looking to get whatever is in the digestive tract moving out, either by throwing up or by pushing it through,” says Coger. “Dirt could act as mild abrasive to ‘scrub’ clean the inside of the intestines. It could also stimulate more contractions of the intestine, moving material through the digestive tract more quickly.”
What To Do
While there may be therapeutic reasons for your dog’s dirt eating, it doesn’t mean you should let it go unchecked. Mainly because dirt nowadays, is well, dirty. But not in the way you might think.
Dirt can contain toxins, pesticides and poisons,” says Osborne. “Today our environment and land are quite polluted as is most dirt. Avoid internal hazardous health problems and digestive upsets and don’t let your dog eat dirt.
If the problem is boredom, remember to keep your dog working and playing. Consult with an animal behaviorist for more serious behavior issues like OCD.
Look around where he’s eating the dirt to detect any unwanted tasty toppings. For health concerns, you’ll want to work with your holistic vet to figure out the exact cause and treatment.
Now, if the issue is food, a dietary change is in order.
Kibble, similar to human processed food, is far from what nature intended.
In his article, Dr Dobias goes on to say, “Even if it was made from the purest quality ingredients, just the fact that processed food sits in bags for months – and sometimes, years – causes fats to go rancid and nutritional value to decrease.”
Coger says that adding bones may stop the dirt eating in cases where a raw diet is being fed without bones.
“You could use bone meal or other mineral supplements if feeding of meaty bones is not possible,” Coger says. “My preferred nutritional bones are chicken necks, chicken backs, duck necks, chicken thighs or quarters, and chicken wings. The size of the dog will determine which of these are appropriate. For recreational chewing I like beef ribs.”
Remember, dirt eating is something to pay attention to and investigate. It can mean many different things, but you definitely want to know what that is.