We know that dogs are naturally curious four-legged beings. They are so curious that they are pretty much willing to try out anything and everything that they can get their paws on, sniff with their nose and lick with their tongue. And yes, even dirt seems like a very palatable thing for them. But is dirt-eating merely a sign of a dog’s curiosity? Or is there something else that most of us are not even aware of?
One of the most often-cited reasons why certain dogs are eating dirt or any other non-edible material is poor nutrition. While you may raise your eyebrows with this revelation, it really makes perfect sense.
Under normal conditions, if a dog is getting all the nutrients that it needs from its food, then there really is no point for it to search elsewhere. We know you’re going to say that dirt hardly contains any nutrients. Well, that’s where you are wrong.
Generally speaking, dirt can contain many of the elements that any organism needs such as nitrogen, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, sulfur, and even organic compounds that are typically present in plant residues. These can come in the form of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon in a chemical structure we all call carbohydrates. Even the other elements we cited above such as nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus are important components of proteins. There’s cellulose in the dirt, too.
Of course, there are other substances, too. They can be toxic or harmful chemicals. That is why it is not really a good idea to serve your dog a plate full of dirt.
But given that dirt contains substances that are either important in themselves from a nutrition point of view or as a crucial element in the formation of more nutritionally-important compounds, it makes perfect sense why dogs would want to eat dirt. They somehow know that the food you are giving to them contains nothing but trash and that eating dirt sounds more nutritious and beneficial than some poor quality dog food.
This is just our way of driving home the point that some dogs eat dirt simply because they are not getting the right amounts of nutrients from their current dog food.
We mentioned at the beginning of this article that one of the reasons that dogs eat dirt is because of a condition called pica. We know this among humans as the eating of anything that should never be eaten. For most of us, it is a sign of a psychological problem. However, it is now believed that pica is also associated with a deficiency in zinc and iron as well as other elements.
The general observation is that dogs that are fed cooked or processed food (commercially-available kibbles and wet or semi-moist dog food) have a higher chance of eating dirt than dogs that are fed high-quality raw meat bones, organs, and fresh vegetables and fruits.
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We’re not saying that all commercially-available dog foods are nutritionally deficient. What we are saying is that your dog will have better nutrition if it is fed high-quality, biologically appropriate raw dog food. Not only will you be addressing the dog’s pica and dirt-eating tendencies, but you’re also ensuring better health.
If you do insist on feeding your dog commercially-available food, then it is a must to pay attention to both its ingredient list and its guaranteed analysis. Make sure you understand what the different nutrients listed in the dog food packaging are for and how they can benefit your dog. You’d also want to pay attention to your dog’s breed-specific and breed-appropriate nutrient requirements.
Chronic Health Conditions
There are also instances when, even with the right dog food, some canines will still eat dirt and anything else. Again, while it can be attributed to a nutrient deficiency, it may not be related to the kind of dog food you are feeding your pet. In such cases, you’d have to consider the presence of chronic health problems such as hypothyroidism and inflammatory bowel disease, among others.
When a dog is sick or ill, it will need more nutrients than its usual intake. This is basically to compensate for nutrient losses that may accompany such an illness. Even if you give your dog the same amount of food that contains the right amounts of nutrients, this may not be sufficient to replace the nutrients that are being lost because of the illness. It is also possible that the illness can also disrupt the way the body is able to absorb nutrients.
Take for example the case of inflammatory bowel disease. Dogs with inflammatory bowel disease or IBD have a tendency to show decreased vitamin B levels in the blood. Because the bowels are inflamed, vitamin B is poorly absorbed. And since the major role of the B vitamins is in cellular metabolism or energy production, the dog will also feel quite weak. Naturally, it will try to eat other things – even dirt – in an effort to provide these vitamins in its system. We’re not saying that it works, however, since the problem is in the gut itself.
There’s another issue with IBD that’s also related to decreased vitamin B absorption. Since the bowels are inflamed, it is inadvertent that ulceration or bleeding can occur. If this continues, the dog may develop anemia. Vitamin B12 is important in the formation of erythrocytes or red blood cells. Because Vitamin B12 and the other B vitamins are poorly absorbed, then the production of red blood cells can be reduced, further aggravating anemia.
In the case of hypothyroidism, it should be understood that one of the important functions of thyroid hormones is the stimulation of red blood cell production in the bone marrow. But since there are insufficient amounts of thyroid hormone being produced by the thyroid gland in dogs with hypothyroidism, then the production of red blood cells can also be adversely affected. This, again, leads to anemia in the dog.
Hemangiosarcoma, intestinal parasitism, chronic kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, and ulcerations can also lead to anemia making your dog want to eat dirt to supply its body with the necessary ingredients – elements – needed to produce red blood cells.
The prevailing belief is that dogs that eat dirt have serious behavioral issues stemming from boredom. While it is true that some dogs are bred specifically as lap dogs, this doesn’t automatically mean one should already neglect their need for physical and mental stimulation.
Try staying in your room the whole day doing nothing and you will also feel bored to death. The thing is that organisms – including man and dog – need to move about to help facilitate better circulation and the more efficient use of muscles and joints. More importantly, being able to see, smell, hear, touch, and even taste things such as dirt, poop, and other objects are important for dogs as this gets their brains working full time.
If they are exposed to a variety of activities, dogs will never have the time to think about eating dirt or any other object we consider gross. Boredom is typically seen in dogs that are never let out of their homes, those that are always kept in kennels, dogs that were never socialized properly or trained well, and canines that never get enough playtime.
Dogs need a purpose in their lives. They need something to do. And if you’re not prepared to give them meaning in their lives, then they will be the ones who will look for such purpose. As such, when you do let them out of your house for a stroll in the park, there’s always a chance that they will be doing some of the things we consider nasty and gross such as eating dirt and poop.
There are also dogs that have obsessive-compulsive disorder and part of this is eating almost anything that it can get its tongue on. Of course, it is quite difficult for us ordinary mortals to determine if our dogs have OCD or not. Only an animal behaviorist or someone who truly understands dog psychology and behavior can tell us if our dog has OCD.
It is also possible that dogs eat dirt to try and soothe stomach upset. Some dogs will eat grass in an effort to calm the grumbling tummy. Some dogs will eat dirt to help pacify their stomach and intestines especially if these have parasites in them. As such, one can look at the dirt as a means to cleanse the dog’s gut and colon of unwanted visitors.
If there is something wrong with digestion, dogs will always try to get it out either by vomiting the contents or pushing it through the rectum and anus. Either way, there must be a medium with which it can stimulate the movement of these contents outwards. It just so happened that the easiest and most accessible ‘medium’ is dirt.
If you see your dog eating dirt, it could mean a lot of things. What you can do is to seek your veterinarian’s expertise in determining the exact cause of the behavior so you’ll know what to do.