If we weren’t here to manage our dogs’ diets, they’d probably eat just about anything. Oh, who are we kidding — they already do that, from poop and garbage to grass and rocks.
The latter is a particularly vexing craving that’s surprisingly common in dogs. Rocks may not be food, but good luck telling that to some dogs, who happily gobble down gravel as if it were the finest kibble money can buy.
It might not be such a big deal if rocks weren’t so dangerous to eat. A dog’s digestive system can’t break down rocks, so as they move through his GI tract, they can cause blockages, tears, internal bleeding and other damage.
So why, then, do some dogs insist on ingesting rocks? And what can their poor, confused owners do about this worrying and potentially deadly behavior?
We’ve got the answers below.
A Peek at Pica
Rock-eating is a classic example of pica, which is characterized by the ingestion of non-food objects. Sticks, plastic, socks, and poop are also common pica cravings, and dogs with pica may eat them in addition to rocks.
It’s normal for puppies to display pica-like behavior as they explore and learn what they can and can’t eat. A young puppy that eats a couple of pebbles isn’t considered to have pica; in that case, rock-eating is just normal experimentation.
That’s not to say that you should encourage the behavior — quite the opposite — but rather that chances are high that your puppy will grow out of it pretty quickly.
But when pica persists to or appears in adulthood, it’s cause for concern. Ignore it for too long and it could become a habit even if the underlying issue is resolved, so early detection is key.
Rock-Eating Causes and Solutions
Pica is often a symptom of a larger problem rather than a standalone condition. If your dog starts eating rocks suddenly or seems to have developed a habit of it, one of these conditions may be to blame.
Whatever the cause, it’s important to keep your dog away from rocks until the behavior is resolved. Remove as many rocks as possible from your yard and any areas your dog frequents, and practice the “leave it” command to stop him from eating rocks on walks.
Then consult this list to find out what’s causing your dog to eat rocks.
When dogs aren’t getting enough of a certain nutrient, their bodies instinctively seek it out wherever they can find it. And believe it or not, rocks do contain a few different nutrients that are essential for dogs: calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc, among others.
The problem is that dogs can’t digest rocks. Thus, they can’t extract those nutrients, making the whole endeavor pointless — and dangerous.
But dogs don’t know this. All they know is that they’re lacking in a certain mineral, and they use their incredible noses to sniff it out.
And if they happen to detect it in a rock, well, guess what’s getting eaten.
Malnutrition can be caused by a poor diet or by a medical condition like parasite infection. A vet can do some bloodwork to check for specific nutrient deficiencies and test for worms, which steal nutrients from your dog’s digestive system.
Resolving the nutritional deficiency should resolve the pica as well. Once your dog no longer needs extra minerals, his desire to eat rocks should subside.
The thyroid is responsible for producing hormones that regulate various bodily functions, including appetite. When it’s not working properly, the resulting hormonal imbalances can cause strange food-related behaviors, including excessive hunger and pica.
If your dog’s rock-eating is accompanied by increased appetite, weight gain, lethargy, hair loss, ear infections, or skin problems, hypothyroidism may be to blame. This condition is the result of an underactive thyroid, which doesn’t produce enough hormones to regulate hunger and energy.
A vet can test your dog’s thyroid and determine whether it’s the cause of his rock-eating. If it is, don’t worry — hypothyroidism is generally easy to manage with affordable medication, a good diet and regular checkups.
Diseases of the brain and nerves can be responsible for all sorts of bizarre symptoms, including rock-eating. Brain tumors, epilepsy and similar conditions affect the way your dog’s brain works, scrambling signals and prompting him to behave abnormally.
If you notice seizures, confusion, balance issues, mood changes or inappropriate reactions along with rock-eating, see a vet for testing. These conditions are serious and may be fatal if not treated.
Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety makes you do strange things, whether you’re a human or a dog. New environments, people, animals, objects and routines can all prompt your dog to worry about his safety and stability, and rock-eating may be his way of coping.
It’s weird, sure, but it’s nothing to shrug at: anxiety can be debilitating and anxious rock-eating is a sign of real distress.
If you’ve recently moved, had a baby or adopted a new pet, the stress may be temporary and your dog may stop eating rocks on his own. But if it persists, ask a vet about anti-anxiety medication to soothe your dog’s worried mind.