Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?
Wondering why your pup prefers dirt to dog food? Here's the real reason dogs eat dirt. Hint: It's not because they like the taste!
Dogs are very busy. Despite the limited number of hours in the day, dogs make time to jump on the furniture, have their stomachs rubbed by doting owners, investigate other dogs, mark their territory everywhere they go and offer their owner a toy—just to rip it frantically away. Usually, we can accept the reasons behind our puppies’ weird behavior, no questions asked. After all, we’re suckers for a good tail-wag. However, there are some doggy habits that are especially hard to understand—like when our dogs finish digging a hole and begin shoveling dirt into their mouths. In these moments, we’re left asking, “Why do dogs eat dirt?!”
Turns out, there could be several reasons, so we asked the doggy pros to give us the dirt (ahem) on what motivates dogs to do this.
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Why do dogs eat dirt?
It can be hard for us to understand why dogs eat dirt (and why they eat grass or poop, for that matter), for a number of reasons. First, we often hold our own dogs to a higher standard than other people’s (my dog was raised better than that, thank you very much). More important, however: Dirt is just not food—and even dogs should know that. So what compels our furry friends, who can recognize a nice filet mignon from a mile away, to eat dirt? Well, the answer depends on how often they’re eating it.
1. They’re curious about their environment
“If they consume dirt infrequently, it’s likely they’re just exploring their surroundings,” says Rachel Barrack, DVM, founder of concierge practice Animal Acupuncture. While we might find it difficult to fathom why our furry friends would consume any amount of dirt, it is entirely normal for them to take a tiny taste.
2. They could be bored or anxious
If your dog doesn’t have enough to do, they’ll find something to do—and that includes eating dirt. Sure, it’s not the most sophisticated way to kill time, but hey, it’s still an activity to them. Dogs with anxiety may also eat dirt if they’re feeling stressed.
3. They may have a health issue
“If you find your pet acting abnormally with regard to appetite and/or eating dirt on a regular basis, there may be an underlying health issue that should be addressed by a veterinarian,” Dr. Barrack explains. These issues could include pica, an eating disorder involving the persistent consumption of objects that are not food and provide no nutritional value, nutrient deficiency and/or an upset stomach.
Before jumping to conclusions about your dog’s affection for dirt, make sure to first speak with your veterinarian. While eating a large amount of dirt could signal that something is wrong, oftentimes dogs are just being curious—crossing another activity off an amusing agenda that humans just can’t understand.
Is it dangerous for dogs to eat dirt?
We may have hygiene concerns about our dogs’ dirt diets, but at the end of the day we only really care that they’re healthy. “While eating dirt itself is generally not dangerous for dogs, in excess the behavior can point to an underlying issue that can cause damage to your pet,” Dr. Barrack explains. If you notice your dog is consuming an alarming amount of soil, or experiencing any of these signs that your dog is sick, you should definitely consult your veterinarian.
According to Dr. Barrack, “It can also become dangerous if there are various chemicals or pesticides residing within the dirt, which may cause harm to your pet.” Owners who consistently spray their lawns for bugs or insects should be mindful of the health impacts this dirt can have on their dogs. If you’re unsure whether a park uses pesticides, it’s best to stay on the safe side and keep your dog from eating the public dirt.
How to stop your dog from eating dirt
We talked to Dr. Barrack and celebrity dog trainer Chrissy Joy about how to stop a dog from eating dirt. They provided these tips for encouraging your pup not to nibble on the soil and give your mind—and your dog’s stomach—some much-needed peace.
1. Supervise your dog
First and foremost, Joy says you should always consult a vet if your dog is exhibiting unnatural or concerning odd behaviors. She also says supervision is key when trying to stop your pup from eating dirt, as it allows you to restrict their access and time alone with the stuff. “Your dog can’t be left unattended in an area that would lead them to eat dirt and become ill,” she explains. She recommends walking around your yard to check if it’s safe, or fence off a small area that would limit the behavior from worsening.
2. Provide plenty of mental stimulation and physical activity
If your dog is eating dirt out of boredom, change that behavior by giving them something to do. For mental stimulation, Joy recommends offering your dog a puzzle toy and creating innovative ways to explore outside without encouraging ground gobbling. “One unique option is to fill a baby pool full of crumbled cardboard and newspaper along with some favorite toys and treats hidden below,” she explains. “This can give your dog a truly interactive experience outdoors and associate it with positive behaviors.”
3. Try changing their diet
Now, it’s important to talk to your vet before you follow this tip from Dr. Barrack. If they give the A-OK, try changing your dog’s diet to see if the dirt eating stops. “Dogs can frequently eat dirt or other plants in their environment if they’re lacking the proper nutrients, or if they’re trying to calm an upset stomach,” Dr. Barrack explains. “Both of these issues can be addressed by altering your dog’s diet.”
About the experts
- Rachel Barrack, DVM, CVA, CVCH, is a licensed veterinarian and founder of concierge practice Animal Acupuncture. She uses both eastern and western veterinary medicine to treat furry friends and has worked in a variety of settings, from small clinics to wildlife conservation centers.
- Chrissy Joy is a celebrity dog trainer, live performer and International Trick Dog Champion who has been featured on PIX11 and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, as well as in USA Today. Her goal is to inspire others to develop their bond with their pup through activities like trick training.
Additional reporting by Kelly Kuehn.