Why Do Dogs Eat Dirt?

Wondering why your pup prefers dirt to dog food? Here's the real reason why 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 territories everywhere that they go, and offer their owner a toy—just to rip it frantically away. Usually, we can accept the reasons behind our puppies’ weird behaviors, 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 their holes and begin shoveling dirt into their mouths. In these moments, we’re left asking, “why do dogs eat dirt?!”

Why do dogs eat dirt?

It can be hard for us to understand why dogs eat dirt (or why they eat grass for that matter) for a number of reasons. First of all, 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 importantly, however, dirt is just not food—and even dogs should know that. So, what compels our furry friends, who can recognize a nice filet minion from a mile away, to eat dirt?

According to Dr. Rachel Barrack, DVM, CVA, CVCH and founder of concierge practice, Animal Acupuncture, the answer depends on how often your dog is eating dirt. “If they consume dirt infrequently, it’s likely they’re just exploring their surroundings,” says Dr. Barrack. “However, 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.” 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.

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 are 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 that 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.

What could it mean if a dog is eating a lot of dirt?

Dogs that consume more than a small, exploratory amount of dirt may have a serious health issue that needs to be addressed. “If your dog eats dirt and other non-food items often, they may be suffering from pica: an eating disorder involving the persistent consumption of objects that are not food and provide no nutritional value,” warns Dr. Barrack. After noticing the symptoms of pica, it’s important to call your veterinarian, as “it may cause digestion issues, or more critically lead them to ingest something toxic or choke on small objects,” explains Dr. Barrack. Wondering how a dog develops this disorder? Dr. Barrack says that “pica can be caused by psychological problems, namely anxiety and depression, or medical problems, like anemia, vitamin deficiencies, or diabetes.” In addition to eating dirt, look out for the other signs that your dog is depressed.

Other than having pica, “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. Both of these issues can be addressed by altering your dog’s diet,” says Dr. Barrack. 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, often times dogs are just being curious—crossing another activity off of the amusing agenda that humans can’t understand.

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Carley Lerner
Carley Lerner is a freelance writer and former editorial intern for Reader's Digest. She is a member of the Class of 2021 at Duke University, where she writes for the school newspaper, The Chronicle.