By Gallagher Flinn for HowStuffWorks, via Animal Planet
Our pets have some strange ideas about what counts as food.
While it’s understandable that kibble and canned food every day might motivate a search for a few supplementary delicacies from time to time, their choices never seem well thought out.
We’ll take a look at five weird pet eating habits and the reasons behind them.
No. 5: Dirt
It’s normal to see a dog snuffling and digging in the dirt, but what about when your pooch starts eating it? Last time we checked, dirt wasn’t digestible. It does contain a few minerals dogs can use, such as potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. Sick dogs are often seen eating dirt, and they may be chowing down to correct a nutritional imbalance.
But while a few chomps of soil are probably harmless, making a meal of mud pie on a steady basis can be a dangerous thing. All dirt has the potential to contain traces of fecal matter from other animals, and eating it regularly is a dependable way for your pet to pick up some nasty parasites.
No. 4: Feces
Along with butt-sniffing and toilet bowl-drinking, eating feces, a behavior known as coprophagy, is actually pretty common among dogs. Though it’s no fun to watch, it’s not necessarily a sign that something’s wrong. Many pets will eat poop out of boredom, curiosity or just for fun. If it’s their own poop, it’s most likely harmless. There may also be an instinctual aspect — mother animals in the wild often eat their young’s feces to avoid attracting predators.
Some animals, like rabbits, need to eat their poop. While rabbits generally don’t eat actual feces, they do eat cecotropes, a type of excretory pellet. Digestive tracts in lagomorphs (the biological order that includes rabbits and pikas) produce these cecotropes from a special pouch that nurtures beneficial bacteria and stores nutrients. Just think of it as probiotic rabbit yogurt.
No. 3: Grass
Cats know a lot of weird ways to have fun. Running into the yard to eat grass and then throw it up just happens to be one of them. Fortunately, it isn’t as big a deal for them as it is for us (probably because they never have to clean it up). There’s also substantial evidence that this habit is good for them. Because cats and other carnivores end up eating a lot of indigestible fur, bones and feathers, using fibrous plants like grass to induce vomiting is an effective way to clean out the stomach and keep the intestines safe from blockage and laceration.
Cats who don’t have access to grass will often go after potentially poisonous plants as a substitute. Some common ones include aloe vera, poinsettia and even the rubber plants that people with black thumbs keep around the house. Always make sure houseplants are cat-safe.
No. 2: Pica
Pica, which can be defined as eating non-food objects, is one of the most immediately dangerous weird eating habits in animals. While animals can engage in pica for a variety of reasons, such as anxiety, neurosis or malnutrition, it can also be part of play behavior; for dogs and cats, eating playthings often just feels natural. Puppies especially will eat anything that smells interesting — garbage, underwear and dirty socks. Likewise, kittens will eat rubber bands or tinsel the same way they might eat a mouse or a bug.
Still, even in play, pica can be deadly, resulting in poisonings, bowel obstructions and other intestinal damage. Owners should make sure their pets have plenty of safe toys to play with, but if pica continues, consult a veterinarian.
No. 1: Food Strikes
Some pets are just picky eaters, but anorexia — yes, the term applies to pets, too — can also indicate major health problems. Princess Sparklemittens may consider herself too good for generic canned cat food, but your pet’s refusal to eat also might be because of gastrointestinal issues, neurological diseases or an oral infection that makes eating too painful. When weight loss becomes noticeable, it’s time to call a vet. Pet owners can also keep an eye out for other telling symptoms, like joint pain, wheezing and fever. These may accompany a more serious problem.
On the other hand, the problem might be with the food, not your pet. Dogs and cats hate eating rancid food almost as much as we do, and eating or drinking out of the same old filthy bowl gets unappetizing. Their bowls need to be washed just as often as human dishes.