Does this look like something you lost?"

My dog's veterinarian, Patricia Peynado-Boyce of New Carrollton Veterinary Hospital, was pointing to an X-ray of my four-pound toy poodle's stomach. Or, actually, to the almost perfect outline of a safety pin lodged therein.

For three days, Sage had been sick. He couldn't keep down his meals or water. I figured he had a stomach bug or had eaten litter from his box. (Yes, he's one of those dogs, the kind that do their business in a litter box.) One-year-old Sage always seemed wise enough to live up to his name, but now it appeared that he was dumb enough to gobble down a shiny metal object that would wreak havoc on his stomach -- not to mention my wallet. Sage's surgery was going to set me back $1,300, prompting my mom to ask: "Did you ask how much it would be to put him to sleep?"

Honestly, the thought had crossed my mind. But once I accepted that I was paying big bucks for IV fluids, antibiotics, pain medication and more for a dog, my brain starting buzzing with another question: Aren't animals supposed to know better than to eat things that make them sick?

A bit of research revealed that Sage's penchant for eating non-food items isn't unusual. The medical term for eating strange objects -- rocks, rubber bands, string, clothing, socks and even feces -- is pica, according to a fact sheet from the Humane Society of the United States and the Dumb Friends League, a Denver-based animal welfare organization. The consequences can be fatal if the animal's intestines become blocked or damaged.

Sage's micro size meant he couldn't digest the safety pin, according to Peynado-Boyce. (Thank goodness it wasn't a 13-inch knife, like the one swallowed recently by a Saint Bernard pup.) I don't know if he has a chronic obsession with strange objects, but I suspect there's a pattern, given his recent near-misses. Since his May surgery, I've caught him trying to swallow paper, tissue, paper clips, even a beaded lanyard. (Thankfully, none of these canine capers have required repeat treatment.)

Experts don't fully understand pica, but there are ways to help your pup cope with its symptoms (see tips below). Sage, for example, spends a lot more time in his (safety-pin free) crate now. And my apartment is certainly kept cleaner -- that proverbial silver lining, I guess.

It's a lot of work, but when I lose the motivation to move the furniture and lift the throw rugs, I simply look at the small, clear container labeled with his name that sits on a shelf in my home office. It contains a gift from his vet -- a now-rusty object that she called the "$1,000 pin."

January W. Payne


Pica is a potentially life-threatening condition that involves the craving, eating and digestion of non-food items. Young dogs -- up to 2 years old -- are just as curious as human toddlers and may experiment by chewing and eating things they shouldn't.

In most cases, puppies grow out of pica behavior, said veterinarian Daniel Aja, president of the American Animal Hospital Association. Older dogs who suddenly begin eating strange objects should be promptly evaluated by a veterinarian for health problems, such as diabetes and intestinal cancer, which can cause pica.

Stopping pica may require the aid of an animal behavior specialist, as about 90 percent of pica episodes result from behavioral issues and not from underlying health problems, said Aja. Pica may result from a pet's need for attention, frustration or anxiety. Experts suspect it can also be a way animals attempt to make up for nutrients lacking in their diet.

The following tips -- from Aja and a fact sheet from the Humane Society of the United States and the Dumb Friends League, a Denver-based animal welfare organization -- may help you and your pet deal with pica:

* Make it bitter. Give objects an unpleasant taste by spraying them with solutions that contain ingredients such as cayenne pepper or Bitter Apple.

* Puppy-proof. Owners should regularly check that non-food items haven't dropped to the floor or accidentally been placed where a pet with pica could reach them.

* Switch diets. Talk to your vet about changing to low-calorie, high-fiber meals, which may decrease the urge for pica by making your pet feel more full. Aja suggests asking whether you can give your pet snacks such as green beans and carrots.

* Find time. Plan 10 to 15 minutes per day to spend with your pet to prevent attention-seeking pica episodes, and provide lots of toys for him to play with.

* Startle him. Distract your dog from unwanted behavior with a clap of your hands, a spray of water or loud noise, but try not to let him know the sound, noise or spray came from you. If your pet knows a command such as "leave it," say that instead. Praise him when he drops the item, and give him an alternative item to chew.

* Avoid punishment. Verbal scoldings and other forms of punishment usually don't work because your pet might interpret it as attention.

The author shows the pin that nearly felled Sage, thanks to the poodle's penchant for eating shiny, inedible objects.