DEAR DR. FOX: I have an English springer spaniel of 14 years. He has a great disposition and is loved by all, and the vet says he is in good shape for his age.
However, lately he has started to eat dirt and drink water from potted plants on our porch. At those times, he has access to a bowl of dog food (Purina One dry food) topped with some morsels of our dinner, and plenty of water.
He is starting to feel his age -- arthritis, hearing loss, etc. Is eating dirt also an age problem? How do I solve it? -- C.J.W., Brick, New Jersey
DEAR C.J.W.: Your dog's condition is called pica, an abnormal appetite for almost anything that can be swallowed. When it is dirt and plant vegetation, I suspect chronic gastric irritation, or possibly cancer in an older dog. Pica may help temporarily alleviate the internal discomfort from such a condition and even trigger vomiting, which can feel like a relief. (Vomiting will also rid the dog of any undigested pieces of a toy or other indigestible material, if that turns out to be the source of the trouble.)
But before you take your dog for a full veterinary checkup, I would strongly advise that you consider a possible nutrient deficiency: The dog may be instinctively seeking to remedy this deficiency by eating natural roughage and bacteria-rich soil. This is common in dogs fed the kind of diet yours is being given. For details, see the book "Big Kibble" by Shawn Buckley and veterinarian Dr. Oscar Chavez.
Transition your dog to my home-prepared dog food (posted on my website: drfoxonehealth.com/post/dog-food-recipe), with or without the addition of some better-quality dry dog food, such as Earth Animal's Wisdom dog food -- which my dog relishes! Note that for some dogs, dry food is more palatable after it has been soaked in hot water.
Both dogs and cats will engage in pica and swallow various materials, which could necessitate abdominal surgery to remove blockages and repair damaged intestines. They may do this for many reasons: boredom, curiosity, desire for more dietary roughage, or a need to alleviate oral discomfort (especially teething pups, and adult cats with all-too-common dental problems). Because of their raspy tongues with backward-directed spines, cats have difficulty removing materials like string and dental floss once it gets in their mouths. It is easier for them to swallow the material, which could lead to emergency surgery. Dogs and especially cats are attracted to plastics, so all electrical cords should be kept out of reach to avoid electrocution when chewed, especially with young animals.
DEAR DR. FOX: We have a 6-month-old Australian shepherd who has been eating her poop since we got her at 8 weeks old. Our vet recommended adding a product called For-bid to her food. We tried that for about four weeks with no success. We then tried NaturVet's Coprophagia Stool Eating Deterrent for approximately three weeks with no success. A friend recommended canned pumpkin, which we have been giving her with her food for a month -- again, no success.
We try to pick up her poop and dispose of it before she can get it, but when she sees me approaching, she quickly gobbles it down. Is there a deficiency in her system that causes this? What can we do? -- J.A., via email
DEAR J.A.: I am disappointed with your veterinarian's response in addressing what is called coprophagia. This behavior can be normal for certain animals and in certain situations. For instance, a mother dog will work to keep her den clean, and will eat the poop of her pups to do so. And some species, like rabbits, engage in "refection" -- eating their own poop to get additional nutrients provided by the bacteria in the feces.
Beginning at such a young age, your dog's coprophagia may resemble an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some dogs who are coprophagic are best ignored, as their anxiety is increased by scolding. This behavior could have begun with a diet-related deficiency, which may still need correcting -- especially if your dog's main diet is conventional dog kibble.
She may benefit from a healthful diet, supplemented with prebiotics like unsweetened, shredded coconut; a tablespoon of canned, unsweetened pineapple, which provides digestive enzymes; and a supply of oral canine probiotics (taken from the feces of healthy dogs). For more details, visit AnimalBiome.com or microbiomerestorativetherapy.com.
DEAR DR. FOX: I am amazed at your insight about my 6-year-old Siamese cat's behavioral problem of wanting to suck on her tail and knead and suck on a wool blanket. Sam's veterinarian could do nothing to help except suggest some anti-anxiety medication.
Sam got better when I followed the simple solutions you suggested: evening games of chasing a laser light or a string with feathers on one end, followed by a gentle, full-body massage. It made me wonder if you do "remote sensing"! -- B.K., Washington, D.C.
DEAR B.K.: Sometimes I do feel that I operate at a level of "remote sensing" in that I have been writing this newspaper column and dealing with animal health and behavioral problems for over 50 years! I have learned so much from people and their animals about the most common issues and the most effective treatments. I am glad to see that there is now more emphasis on addressing behavioral and emotional problems in the teaching curriculum of most veterinary colleges around the world. Such emphasis was nonexistent when I graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London in 1962!
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)