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Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt? What This Weird – and Gross – Habit Means

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Your dog comes bouncing up to you after exploring the yard. And the first thing you notice? A healthy coating of dirt all over their snout. You know what that means. Once again, they’ve dug into the garden and helped themselves to a snack of dirt. WHY? You spent HOURS researching the best dog food on the market. They get plenty of treats throughout the day. You even pretend to look the other way when someone in the family tosses them a pickle from the table. So why this crazy desire to eat DIRT? You’re not alone in your frustration. Dogs eating dirt is one of those mysteries that troubles many owners. It seems bizarre, strange, and disgusting. But, as it turns out, there may be a reason for the habit.


Dogs eating dirt isn’t new. It stems back to the primitive desire to go after anything with a strong scent. This includes everything from trash to goose poop. We may not always understand it, but it’s part of canine nature. Wolves – and dogs – scavenge. They forage through carrion (decaying bodies) and the dirt beneath. We consider both vile and would never approach. But to your pup? It smells wonderful. And they may find the texture appealing in their mouth. It’s different from kibble or canned food. So while we think there’s no possible way soil can taste interesting, dirt appeals to them.

“Dogs like to dig into and consume all kinds of smelly, pungent things, like trash, kitty litter, and toilet paper. For these dogs, dirt is a delicacy, and they are eating it simply because it’s what they like to do.”

~Oscar E Chavez, BVetMed, MRCVS, MBA

When a dog (or anyone, for that matter) consumes non-food items, it’s called pica. This can include anything from grass to sticks to trash. If they narrow their focus to dirt, it gets the specific label of geophagia. (Which sounds much cooler than “my dog eats dirt”) It’s often a phase dogs go through and then grow out of. If you see it happen once and then never again, you probably don’t need to worry.

However, it CAN turn into a habit. And when you see your pup head for that spot in the yard over and over again, it’s time to take notice. Because dogs eating dirt isn’t just strange to us, it has some potential roots in your dog’s health.

Dogs eating dirt has a number of different causes

Causes for Dogs Eating Dirt

“In most cases, geophagia is behavior-driven. It can be as simple as boredom or more compulsive in nature,” says Dr. Kristi Flynn, Assistant Professor at the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine. Maybe dogs eating dirt supplies something new to break up the tedium of the day. It’s different from the usual toys in their toy box. And digging provides a fresh activity to running around the yard. You’re not fond of receiving muddy kisses, but the dirt-eating habit may indicate that your canine lacks mental stimulation in their life.

When was the last time you brought a new toy home? Or participated in a game of fetch? No one likes seeing dogs eating dirt, but the answer is often an easy one to resolve. If you break up the habit early, you prevent the compulsive need to chow down on the soil.

Health Concerns with Dogs Eating Dirt

Unfortunately, behavior isn’t the only reason dogs turn to eating dirt. There ARE underlying health concerns that can prompt the sudden need to devour soil.

  • Anemia: Anemia is low red blood cells or hemoglobin. Many things can cause anemia. And it prompts dogs to eat dirt because you find iron in the soil. They’re trying to replace the deficiency.
  • Hormone Problems: Hypothyroidism is one of several hormone problems that interfere with the uptake of nutrients. Without a functional digestive process, you see dogs eating dirt.
  • Nutritional Imbalance: Dogs on homemade diets often lack critical minerals and nutrients. And what do you find in the dirt? Copper, calcium, phosphorous, selenium (NUTRIENTS!). Their bodies know what they’re missing but not how to get it. So they turn to eating dirt.
  • Upset Stomach: You’re more likely to see dogs eating grass if they feel nauseous, but some dogs turn to dirt.

If your pup starts eating dirt on a routine basis – or if it’s a new thing – head to the vet. They need some lab work to rule out the above concerns. Your dog’s doing their best to rectify the problem, but dirt isn’t going to cut it. It CAN lead to further problems, though.

Consequences to Geophagia

Okay, so it’s really disgusting to see your dog snacking on dirt. And you probably avoid that puppy kiss for a while. But is it THAT bad? You bet! Dirt is…well, it’s dirt. It’s not sanitary. And when you start considering everything IN dirt, you’re going to get a little queasy. (Well, assuming you weren’t already queasy about the whole dogs eating dirt thing)

Dirt often contains pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals. You probably take care to use pet-safe products in your yard. But what is your dog getting into elsewhere? If they consume enough soil, they can end up in trouble FAST. You want to nip the habit in the bud for that reason, alone!

What else comes in your dog’s favorite dirt patch? Rocks, mulch, and sticks. A solid chunk of rock could break a tooth OR lead to a choking hazard. Cocoa bean mulches smell AWESOME, but they produce similar toxicities to chocolate. And sticks can puncture the gums, the esophagus, or the lining of the stomach. Dogs eating dirt often lose themselves in the process, and they don’t pause to set these objects out of the way.

And then there are the things NO ONE can see: parasites. The eggs of these intestinal parasites LIVE in dirt:

  • Hookworms
  • Roundworms
  • Whipworms

Many parasite eggs survive for YEARS. Not to make you squirm, but a recent study of 288 parks throughout the United States found 85% of the parks turned up positive parasite samples. (So, um, always wear your shoes) Dogs eating dirt can have serious consequences.

With a little work, you can prevent your dog from snacking on dirt

Breaking the Habit

Now that your skin’s probably crawling, let’s focus on preventing dogs from eating dirt. It IS possible.

First and foremost, make sure you’re doing everything you can to keep your dog happy and active. A canine receiving the proper physical activity and mental stimulation won’t turn to soil snacking to alleviate the boredom. They’ll stay relaxed, with no need to get into trouble or dig in the yard. You can also explore fresh training routes to help stimulate your kiddo’s brain.

Then you need to set up a barrier between your pup and the dirt. This can be a genuine obstacle. Fences or covers prevent access. Or you can walk your dog around the yard on a leash to avoid dirt patches. If that’s not up your alley, provide a distraction when they drift toward the soil. Use a verbal command or hold up a favorite toy to gain their attention. It breaks the habit by running interference.

Oh, and remove any potted plants around the house. You don’t want to provide temptation while you’re working so hard.

If you’re feeding a homemade diet, talk to your vet. They’ll probably refer you to a board-certified nutritionist to help you correct the imbalance. It’s the best option to get your dog’s health on track.

Dirty Habit

Dogs eating dirt drive us up the wall. It seems so – well, it’s disgusting. And it can have risky health consequences. As soon as you see it turning into a habit, make an appointment with your vet to figure out what’s going on. Once you have a better understanding of the big picture, you can start breaking the habit.

Then you’ll never have to wince when you see that puppy snout coming your way.

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria grew up in a pet-friendly household. On weekends, the family made trips to zoos and aquariums in the area. So it wasn’t a surprise when she gravitated toward a career with animals.

After six years working among the background operations at the Philadelphia Zoo, she gained a unique insight into the veterinary world. The vet staff provided her first lessons in terminology, the identification of medical equipment, and glimpses of radiographs (x-rays). She also enjoyed plenty of opportunities to talk with everyone, including the veterinary technicians. And they offered an alternative for someone NOT interested in surgical pathways: Namely, their course of study.

Andria enrolled at Harcum College. Philadelphia boasts two programs for vet techs, but only Harcum works with the Ryan Veterinary Hospital and New Bolton Center (University of Pennsylvania’s small and large animal facilities, respectively). Harcum’s vet tech students receive six months of hands-on teaching and experience alongside Penn’s vet students.

With the opportunities and connections available with one of the top veterinary schools, the decision was easy for her to make.

New Bolton Center: Large Animal Medicine
Andria ended up trudging through snow up to the knee and shivering in subzero temperatures during her winter semester, but she wasn’t disappointed with her choice. New Bolton provided a thorough grounding in large animal medicine. A horse-lover as a child, the experience renewed those old emotions.

And a few memories stood out and remained to this day:

  • Standing alongside a Clydesdale and feeling TINY
  • Holding the reins of a horse galloping at top speed on a treadmill
  • Nursing tiny foals through the first days of their life

Ryan Veterinary Hospital: Small Animal Medicine
Veterinary students can legally work at a practice while studying. Andria took advantage of the opportunity, gaining “real life” experience while attending class. It provided a slight advantage when she entered her three months at the small animal hospital.

However, as Ryan Veterinary Hospital offers treatments unique to the veterinary community, she continued to gain valuable experience. For instance, she spent a day working alongside their Chemo Team. The positivity of everyone she encountered – staff, clients, and patients alike – left a lasting impression.

Additional standout moments included:

  • An afternoon spent with the head of the feline kidney transplant program
  • A day serving as the anesthesia technician in their new radiation unit
  • Recognizing a radiograph of a giant elephant shrew (applying her previous zoo knowledge)

Emergency/ICU Veterinary Technician
Accompanying her Associate of Science in Veterinary Technology, Andria received a passing score on the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). The two led to her certification/license as a veterinary technician – first in Pennsylvania (CVT) and later in Virginia (LVT).

Emergency medicine appealed to her from the beginning. The flux of ailments, injuries, and even species kept her mind sharp at all times. The knowledge required to handle cats, dogs, exotics, and even wildlife is highest in an ICU setting. When a vet tech never knows the patient’s stability coming back to the treatment area, skills and the ability to respond in an instant always stay in peak shape.

With treatments evolving at a constant basis, Andria sought out the best Continuing Education opportunities. She attended the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (IVECCS) Conference whenever possible. This allowed her to discuss the latest wound treatments, medications, and advancements in diet formulations.

Cardiology Veterinary Technician
With the increased knowledge and experience, Andria noticed gaps in her abilities. Her grasp of cardiology remained at the basic level. She wanted to boost her skills and understanding as much as possible, improving her patient care. When an opportunity within the practice arose to move into the cardiology department, she accepted.

She sharpened her ability to read ECGs, recognizing arrhythmias of every type. Speaking with the cardiologist, she learned to read echocardiograms, picking out the most common disease processes. And, courtesy of her position in the department, she took in everything she could regarding the grain-free diet concern.

And throughout her ten-year career, she built her store of client interactions. She learned stories of heartbreak and hope. In the middle of the night, she shared touching and humorous conversations. Every moment taught her to engage with people. And the skill blended into her writing ability, capturing the interest of pet-lovers everywhere.

Check out Andria’s LinkedIn here

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