Picking up pebbles

24th Jul, 2017

Our new Labrador puppy, Aslan, chews stones almost continuously – actually, he chews just about everything his mouth touches, but mostly stones.

Is this because he’s lacking something in his diet? He has chew toys, a Kong, ball, etc. But he still loves stones. If he can chew them small enough he swallows them. He’s already had a gastric infection for which he needed a course of antibiotics.

Please help!

Dawn Austen – Krugersdorp

Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington TTouch Practitioner, addresses this dog behaviour and what you can do about it…

The main medical reasons that dogs eat stones are:

  • A compromised digestive tract (including internal parasites).
  • A nutritional deficiency: lack of minerals or vitamins in the diet.
  • A medical condition such as diabetes.
  • Genetics may play a part – while not breed-specific, Labradors and Beagles may be susceptible.

The main behavioural reasons may include:

  • Young puppies often eat stones and other items as they explore the new sensations around them. They usually grow out of this.
  • Boredom.
  • Attention-seeking behaviour.
  • Possibility of pica (“depraved appetite”) that falls within the obsessive/compulsive disorder spectrum.

Whatever the cause, the dangers are that the teeth and gums may be affected, requiring dental correction. In the case of digestive problems, the stones will wear down the villi (short finger-like structures in the intestines that aid digestion) and a vicious circle develops whereby the erosion causes limited digestion so the dog feels hungry and eats more stones. Small stones may pass through the digestive tract and be excreted, but larger ones may build up by remaining in the system and require major surgery to correct.

Some of the symptoms that may be an indication of discomfort or pain are a loss of appetite, drooling, whining, lethargy or restlessness.

There are thus various possibilities that cause this behaviour and, without knowing the cause, no one solution can be given. The first step is a visit to your veterinarian who will be able to rule out or correct medical causes.

If the dog has been doing this regularly for a prolonged period (and medical causes have been ruled out), it may be a behavioural issue. The first step is to remove access to stones wherever possible. If the dog picks up a stone on a walk, for example, try offering a really interesting treat to get him to drop it. Teaching the “leave” and “drop it” commands is also helpful.

Should the cause be boredom, ensure that the dog has plenty of toys and chewies such as hooves to occupy him. If it is attention-seeking behaviour, you’ll need to work with positive reinforcement to change the behaviour. As the situation has the likelihood of becoming obsessive/compulsive, early treatment is advised, as is consulting a behaviourist to help you.