A Doberman pinscher named Zeus will no longer be fetching golf balls that his people have been chipping in the back yard, because 26 of them ended up in his stomach! Zeus’s x-ray won first place in the annual “They ate WHAT?” contest featured in Veterinary Practice News magazine. Second and third place went to – surprise! – Labrador puppies.
The second-place winner presented with his head stretched out and was retching. When Dr. Mike Jones of Tulsa, Okla., x-rayed him, his response was “Holy cow!” The pup had swallowed the end of a fishing pole. The little guy was sedated, and the veterinarian was able to pull the object out without invasive surgery by grasping it with forceps.
The list of retrieved objects in this year’s contest was eclectic and included a door hinge, 18 buttons plus a woman’s belt, a spoon, a spray bottle of cologne, 2.6 pounds of stones, and an entire Kong. And this:
Dogs aren’t the only critters to ingest odd things. An honorable mention went to a cat that ate more than 30 hair ties and other string-like items. Another kitty ate 22 coins. A scribbled angelfish had surgery to remove a metal object and a rock. And there was the tragic case of a python that presented with a large swelling. The snake had gotten loose the week before. X-rays revealed a fancy jeweled collar – along with some bones. The python had eaten the neighbors’ Siamese cat.
If you think these types of cases are rare, think again. The sponsor of the contest, Trupanion Pet Insurance, says that foreign body ingestion is the second most common claim it receives for dogs, and the third most common for cats.
I can understand why a dishcloth soaked in food might be tempting, but what possesses a pet to eat 43½ socks (last year’s third-place winner) or this?
It has always fascinated veterinarians that pets willingly gobble up such bizarre things. There are reasonable explanations for some of this behavior.
Just as a small child may put anything he can find in his mouth, so do puppies and kittens; it’s how they explore their environment. Fortunately, most of them outgrow that tendency. Some pets mistake something that tastes like food (such as the above-mentioned dishcloth) for something edible, so they devour the succulent tidbit. And if you’ve ever chewed a piece of gum and swallowed it reflexively, you can understand why a dog or cat, tearing apart a toy or other object, might swallow chunks of it by mistake. Boredom can also drive a pet to eat strange stuff. And eating the inedible is just plain fun for some pets!
There are medical and behavioral causes of this behavior, too. “Pica” is the medical term that refers to a craving for, and purposeful consumption of, a non-food item. A number of conditions, such as digestive or metabolic disorders, parasites, illness, and nutritional deficiency, can cause pica. Some pets have pica due to a compulsive disorder. I’ve had patients that are obsessive about seeking and eating strange things, some of which are very specific. One of my dog patients wolfed down stones from the driveway, although he never ate anything else but his food. It was easy to solve that problem by not allowing the dog access to the stones. But veterinary intervention is necessary in many of these cases.
Here’s how you can decrease the chance that your pet will eat non-food items:
- Monitor puppies and kittens closely. Do the same for offending older pets.
- Keep tempting objects out of reach or behind closed doors.
- If your dog eats junk in your yard, you’ll need to keep him on a leash so you can direct him away from non-comestibles like rocks, leaves, and sticks.
- Keep pets busy with plenty of physical exercise, such as chasing a ball, daily walks, and romps in the dog park. Play with your cat daily.
- Provide mental stimulation by playing games.
- Safe chew toys will help satisfy his need to munch.
- Teach him the “leave it!” command, so he’ll drop whatever he has in his mouth.
- A hard-core junk eater will have to be trained to accept a basket muzzle when he goes outdoors.
- Enlist the guidance of a certified applied animal behaviorist for your dog with compulsive pica behavior.
If, despite your best efforts, your critter ingests a non-food item, don’t feel like a bad pet owner. Some behavior defies explanation, and some pets are connoisseurs of the inedible. Call us immediately if that happens; sometimes we can induce vomiting and prevent a very expensive belly ache!