We call pica the ingestion of objects not fit for consumption, including the ingestion of feces (coprophagia). Although pica is an abnormal behavior, coprophagia is not necessarily.

In reality, coprophagia is considered normal under certain circumstances. For example, females frequently ingest the feces of their babies when they lick the genitalia to stimulate the elimination of their excrement. Furthermore, it is part of the normal behavior of exploring puppies. Dogs particularly like the taste of cat feces because it contains a lot of protein which makes it appetizing. The feces of herbivores is also appetizing for dogs because they contain partially digested plant material. Because the feces are appetizing, when the dog ingests them, he is auto-rewarding which reinforces the behavior… When dogs defecate in the house for whatever reason, they may learn to eat their feces in order to avoid being punished. They may also eat their feces to do the « cleanup of their nest » or to attract attention. They may also act in response to anxiety or a compulsive disorder.

A dog can develop pica to prevent the owner from recuperating an object that he has stolen. Pica may also appear when anxiety causes an animal to destroy an object and then consume it.

The causes

Among the medical causes, we find anemia (reduction in the number of red blood cells in the blood), malnutrition leading to an increase in hunger, hormonal disorders like hyperthyroidism (increase in the production of thyroid hormones) in cats, diabetes and hyperadrenocorticism (increase in the production of cortisone by the adrenal glands), conditions leading to mal-digestion and malabsorption of nutrients like with an endocrine pancreatic insufficiency (reduction in the production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas), inflammatory intestinal disease , an overgrowth of intestinal bacteria, intestinal parasites , a portosytemic shunt ( condition where the nutrients absorbed by the intestine are redirected into the general blood stream without passing through the liver) as well as an illness of the central nervous system. Certain medication can also increase in appetite and cause the animal to start eating anything at all.

Risk factors

There exists risk factors that can lead to the development of pica. For example, dogs confined to a dull yard without environmental stimulation are particularly predisposed to coprophagia.

Oriental breed cats that were severed early and fed a diet low in fiber without access to grass or prey are more at risk to eat wool. Finally, any disease that causes anemia as well as mal-digestion/malabsorption constitutes a risk.


A diagnosis is based on the history presented by the owner. In order to differentiate between a behavioral cause and a medical cause we should proceed with the complete evaluation of the animal first by collecting information about his diet, appetite and the environment in which he lives. Subsequently, we would perform a complete physical exam to identify any underlying disease. Upon presentation, the animal may present digestive signs such as vomiting and/or diarrhea, particularly with a foreign body obstruction or intestinal parasite infestation. With the exam, we may also detect bad breath if the animal is ingesting feces, dental trauma if the dog chews hard objects like rocks, paleness and weakness if he suffers from anemia, weight loss with problems of mal-digestion/malabsorption or even neurological signs when a neurological disorder is responsible for the behavior.

Laboratory tests

Complementary laboratory tests may reveal, among other things, anemia or a reduction in the level of blood protein in the case of mal-digestion/malabsorption.

An increase in the number of eosinophils (a type of inflammatory cell) is often observed with a parasitosis or inflammatory intestinal disease.

The test results may sometimes also suggest other diseases such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, hyperadrenocorticism or a drug induced increase in appetite.

A fecal analysis or a therapeutic trial with an anthelmintic serve to detect the presence of intestinal parasites.

Medical imagery can help to identify a foreign body in the digestive tract or a distension of the esophagus. Intestinal biopsies may prove necessary in order to identify a cellular infiltration in the digestive tract.


Treatment of the condition depends on whether the cause is behavioral or medical. If the cause is medical, the underlying illness must be treated, all appetite increasing medication stopped if this is the case and any nutritional deficiencies be corrected. When the cause is behavioral first, access to non-consumable articles must be limited in order to prevent their ingestion. Next, we must attempt to find a safe substitute for the animal to eat and finally, we aim to change his motivation for ingesting non-consumable objects. More precisely, when the animal does pica because he’s looking for attention, we can put him a mussel to prevent him from ingesting objects while ignoring his attempts at obtaining non- consumable items.

When cats eat fabrics, we can remove plastic objects and clothing made of wool from his environment, apply a bitter tasting substance on the objects in question or offer him catnip to chew.

With copraphagia, we can reduce access to feces by removing them as often as possible or keeping the dog on a leash for walks. We may also use a mussel or a halti (be careful when it is very hot out).

We can offer him a treat to eat when he defecates. This way we will condition him to wait for food rather than look for stool after defecating.

We can also increase the activity level of the animal by elaborating a more regular and predicable schedule of exercise and interactions which can help to reduce his anxiety and consequently the pica and copraphagia. In certain case of coprophagia, providing him with a more digestible food by adding plant based enzyme supplements can sometimes help. When the behavior is due to a compulsive problem or is secondary to anxiety, psychoactive medication may be indicated. When none of these methods have provided a satisfying result, it may be necessary to continue the investigation and/or prescribe other medication. It is primordial to avoid all forms of punishment when the animal has pica or coprophagia because it may increase his level of anxiety and worsen the problem or even result in the appearance of other behavioral problems.