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Dogs seem to love dirt … and many may find themselves doing more than digging in it. Bon appetit?

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Oh joy. The things dogs eat. Yikes. Of all the things I have seen my own dogs attempt to wolf down (pun intended), dirt is probably one of the least disgusting. The pungent order of who-knows-what on their breath (oh my goodness, poop or vomit kills me!) just as they go in for a big kiss … Ew! You know what I'm talking about. Yep, dirt isn't the worst one when it comes to having to smell it up close and personal.

Dogs wouldn't be dogs if they didn't do all sorts of weird things. It's these strange antics that often make us love them more. But, when you find your dog is enjoying mud pies or cannot seem to remove their nose from your plant bed, it can be concerning. Dirt consumption, or geophagia, can happen for lots of reasons. Luckily, the majority of times your dog chomps on Earth aren't cause for concern. However, when it occurs frequently, or they select soil as much as kibble, it is time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

What Does It Mean When a Dog Eats Dirt?

The consumption of dirt is a relatively common and even normal behavior seen in dogs, especially in puppies or adolescent dogs that are just investigating the world around them. Dogs follow their nose, and often this leads them to digging, sniffing, or nibbling and consuming their discoveries. But when your dog is constantly eating dirt, or other symptoms of illness appear alongside it, your dog may in fact be dealing with a medical issue that needs attention right away.

White terrier close-up with mud-covered face next to What the Fluff logo
Credit: corners74 / Adobe Stock

5 Reasons Why Your Dog May Eat Dirt or Mud

1. Dirt Smells and Tastes Good to Dogs

The nose knows. For a dog, their world is experienced through their nostrils and sometimes they find a patch of dirt that just smells … and tastes … amazing. The soil could be filled with leftovers from a picnic of days past or the scent of another dog they really want to interact with. Just like when a dog enjoys a bite of grass every now and again, the dirt might just be appetizing at that particular spot and moment. 

"I see this behavior in young dogs that are curious and playful—think children making mud pies—which means it is typically a behavior that fades with time," says Alicen Tracey, DVM, veterinarian at Den Herder Veterinary Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa.

2. Your Dog May Have a Nutritional Deficiency

Some dogs may find it appetizing to taste things that are not considered food when their diet is lacking in nutrition their body needs. For example, some dry dog foods lack the vital vitamins and minerals a dog needs to be happy and healthy. Your pooch may also find some brand flavors to be just plain boring or might cause them tummy troubles. It is also possible you are not feeding your dog enough at meal times. If any of these reasons are the case, your dog may find himself hungry all the time and a patch of good-smelling dirt may appear as a fast snack. In serious cases, nutritional deficiencies can be caused by underlying medical concerns. If you suspect something is up, schedule a wellness check with your veterinarian and consider consulting with a veterinary nutritionist to select a new diet that is better suited, and more appealing, to your dog. Your veterinarian may also recommend mineral supplements or vitamins that can be added to your dog's daily diet .

3. Your Pup Is Bored

When their environment leaves much to desire, a dog that's in need of more mental and physical stimulation will find things to do to pass the time. This can include digging up your yard and then chewing on ground matter or taking bites of anything interesting. All dogs, no matter their age, breed, or health status require enrichment. Make sure your canine best friend is getting access to quality enrichment activities that engage both their mind and body. Also make sure to never leave your dog outside unsupervised, since this will enable him to seek out things to do that you prefer he didn't.

4. Your Dog Is Feeling Stressed

Just like us, dogs experience stress. Not all stress is bad but when your dog is in distress, or they feel discomfort, anxiety, or fear, they are more likely to seek an outlet for those uncomfortable feelings. When an animal is in conflict about a situation and not sure what to do, they may engage in displacement behaviors. These are behaviors that appear out of context or just don't seem to "fit" in the current setting, coming on suddenly. Displacement behaviors can include things like excessive sniffing or self-grooming, scratching when not itchy, exaggerated stretching, shaking off when not wet, or even quickly eating things that are not meant to be in their canine diets. Not all displacement behaviors are a sign of extreme fear or stress though, so don't jump to conclusions just yet.

Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB, CPDT-KA, owner and veterinary behaviorist at Behavior Solutions says eating dirt  "is much more likely to be anxiety-based if the dog is showing anxiety in other aspects of its life. But much less likely to be anxiety if the dog is chill in most situations."

If you think your dog does in fact have severe anxiety or appears under distress, make an appointment with your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

5. Other Medical Issues Causing Your Dog to Excessively Eat Dirt

There are a variety of medical concerns that could be underlying factors in dogs that consume dirt regularly or in large amounts. And some of them are serious, including: 

These can all become serious conditions that need treatment. If your dog's dirt eating comes on suddenly and intensifies or is accompanied with other physical or behavioral symptoms such as excessive thirst, diarrhea, excessive urination, vomiting, eating of other non-food items, or seizures, call your veterinarian right away.

"We suspect that dogs that eat dirt (and other things) are suffering from gastrointestinal (GI) distress or lack of absorption like you see in IBD (irritable bowel disease) cases," Sinn says. "Once the GI issues are addressed the behavior usually decreases or resolves."

What You Can Do to Prevent Your Dog Eating Dirt

"First, speak to your veterinarian about the habit to determine if there are any tests or diagnostics that need to be performed to rule out underlying ailments," Tracey says.

Once you have ruled out diseases or illnesses that could cause consumption of dirt, your next step is management. "Do your best to prevent access and to redirect to more appropriate objects (chews, food puzzles, etc.)," Sinn advises. This means you need to prevent access to the dirt piles your dog would enjoy and make sure they are never unsupervised in your yard. 

Incorporate positive reinforcement into scenarios when your dog is more likely to explore the ground or seek out non-food things to taste. This can include encouraging them to take part in other activities they enjoy, like playing with a tug toy, catching a ball, or teaching your dog to do tricks such as roll over or shake on cue. Offer them lots of easy opportunities to earn their favorite treats. This will help them to stay engaged and make doing those things more interesting and enjoyable than eating your garden. A certified positive reinforcement-based dog trainer can help you create an effective training plan.

A change in what your dog eats may be the best way to address concerns surrounding dirt eating in many doggos. This can include selecting a food that is more rich in protein, minerals, and necessary vitamins. There are also many quality supplements available that you can purchase in your local pet food store or online, but before changing your dog's diet or adding any supplements to their food, always make sure you consult with your veterinarian first.