Dogs have some pretty weird eating habits, as anyone who’s ever seen a dog can tell you. It’s just one of the many quirks we dog lovers have learned to accept.
But even for those of us who are most accustomed to our canines’ dietary preferences, some of their food choices leave us wondering if our two species are from the same planet.
One such food choice: dirt.
It’s the kind of thing we tell someone we really don’t like: “Eat dirt!”
But tell that to a dog and, if he could talk, he’d probably say, “Don’t mind if I do!”
What is it about dirt that revs your dog’s appetite up to 100? Is it the texture? The nutrition? Or — unfathomably — the taste?
Hold tight, because we’re about to uncover the dirty truth behind your dog’s dirt-eating habit.
The Top 5 Reasons Why Dogs Eat Dirt
1. It’s Tasty
To our palates, dirt is the opposite of delicious. But to a dog, it’s a delicacy straight from Mother Nature herself — and a lot of it has to do not with taste, but with smell.
It makes sense: smell is a critical part of taste, and without it, food wouldn’t really taste like anything at all. But it’s even more important for dogs, who have fewer taste buds than us and multitudes more scent receptors.
We humans have around 5 million scent receptors, but dogs can have up to 300 million depending on breed. Dogs smell things the way we see things: in crisp, vivid, inexplicable detail.
And that’s not even mentioning the Jacobson’s organ, a special organ inside a dog’s mouth that can smell things that have no odor. That’s right — your dog can smell scentless molecules using his mouth.
Dirt definitely has a smell to us: earthy, musky and, well, dirty. So imagine what it must smell like to a dog, whose nose is magnitudes stronger and who has an entire organ dedicated to smelling undetectable (or even nonexistent) odors.
It would probably smell very, very gross to us. And that’s probably why it appeals to dogs, who absolutely love ingesting disgusting things like garbage, cat poop and their own vomit.
So if your dog eats dirt once in a while and suffers no ill effects, it’s most likely just because he likes the taste.
2. It’s Nutritious
Dogs with nutritional deficiencies instinctively seek out foods that contain the nutrients they’re missing. For instance, a lack of vitamins B or K could compel your dog to seek out rabbit poop, which is high in these vitamins.
Dirt is high in many types of essential dietary minerals, including iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. So it makes sense that dogs with mineral deficiencies can often be seen gobbling down dirt.
Mineral deficiencies are common in dogs that eat homemade food rather than commercial dog food. Homemade food can be healthier in many ways, but unless it’s carefully formulated and supplemented, it simply doesn’t contain all of the minerals your dog’s body needs.
If your dog eats dirt frequently, a vet visit may be in order to test his mineral levels and identify the problem areas. Of particular concern is iron deficiency, which is one of the most common reasons why dogs eat dirt for nutrition.
Prolonged iron deficiency can lead to anemia, a very serious medical condition that’s characterized by a low red blood cell count.
Anemic dogs will display symptoms like weakness, dizziness, pale pink or white gums, decreased appetite, and excessive sleepiness. If you notice these symptoms in your dirt-eating dog, see a vet urgently — anemia can be fatal if not treated.
3. It’s a Compulsion
Dogs and humans alike can suffer from pica, a psychological condition that causes the compulsive ingestion of things that aren’t food.
Pica goes beyond normal curiosity and into uncontrollable compulsion. It’s normal for puppies to eat dirt, socks, toilet paper, and other non-food items just to try it, but they usually don’t make a habit of consuming them once they find tastier alternatives.
But dogs with pica just can’t help themselves. They may even seem to prefer dirt to their normal food, even going so far as to reject their kibble altogether in severe cases.
Pica can be a standalone condition that’s present since puppyhood, but it can also manifest later in life as a result of another medical condition. Liver disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, and even separation anxiety can all feature pica as a symptom.
Treating the underlying condition will typically resolve the pica, but if the pica is not due to another condition, medication could help. Your vet may prescribe an SSRI or anti-anxiety medication to temper the compulsion and help your dog break his dirt-eating habit.
4. It Soothes the Stomach
Notice your dog bounding outside and downing mouthfuls of dirt an hour or two after eating dinner? Does he also display other symptoms of GI stress like constipation, diarrhea, vomiting or reluctance to eat?
If so, eating dirt could be his way of soothing his upset stomach.
Eating dirt would make us queasier, if anything, but it does work wonders on the digestive system. That’s because most dirt contains clay, which is known to remove toxins, cure diarrhea regardless of cause, increase gut flora activity and even relieve IBS-related constipation.
And that goes for both humans and dogs.
If your dog senses that his food isn’t sitting well in his stomach, he may instinctively head for the garden and enjoy some dirt for dessert. This is normal if it only happens once in a while.
But if you notice a pattern of dirt-eating after dinner, talk to a vet. Your dog’s diet may need to be adjusted, or he may have a condition like IBS that causes chronic GI distress.
5. It Relieves Boredom
Boredom can bring about some strange behaviors, including pacing, chewing and, you guessed it, dirt-eating. Without adequate stimulation from social interaction, exercise, play, and affection, your dog may turn to eating dirt to keep himself occupied.
If your dog only seems to eat dirt when you’re not around, or if it’s accompanied by other destructive behaviors like shoe chewing or biting himself, boredom could be to blame.
Consider enrolling your dog in a doggy daycare program if he’s not getting enough stimulation during the workday. Or take a trip to the pet store for some new mentally-stimulating toys.
Is It Safe for Dogs to Eat Dirt?
There’s nothing inherently unsafe about dirt, provided that it comes from a trusted source, like your yard or garden. But many variables could make it dangerous for your dog to eat dirt.
Firstly, never let your dog eat dirt from public areas or untrusted sources. Pesticides, fertilizers, weed killers and various other chemical treatments are all highly toxic to dogs, and you never know what’s been used on any given patch of dirt unless it’s your own.
It’s also important to ensure that any dirt your dog eats is free from rocks, sticks, and other large, hard objects. These objects, if ingested, can become lodged in your dog’s mouth, throat or GI tract, causing choking, lacerations, stomach pain and internal bleeding.
Finally, dirt may contain parasites like worms that will be more than happy to take up residence in your dog’s gut. There, they’ll leech nutrients from him, resulting in weight loss, weakness, diarrhea, and vomiting.
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If possible, discourage your dog from eating dirt before it becomes a habit. The “leave it” command should be mastered early in your dog’s life, and it’s especially handy for getting your dog to stop eating dirt.
And if you suspect that your dog’s dirt-eating is connected to a medical condition, see a vet for diagnosis and treatment. Until the underlying condition is controlled, you’re not likely to make any headway in getting your dog out of the dirt patch.