Have you ever watched your dog gorging on a large mouthful of grass in sheer bewilderment?
Don’t worry, you are far from the only confused owner of a pup with seemingly herbivore inclinations. In fact, as any veterinarian can tell you, this phenomenon is pretty common in dogs everywhere. For unsuspecting dog owners, though, their dogs eating grass seems like a sign of illness and a cause for alarm. They may worry that their dog is lacking in some nutrients, or suffers from an upset stomach.
But is it really so? Is eating grass a real physical need for your dog, or just a part of their quirky behavior, and what should you do about it?
Experts claim the possible reasons for this dietary behavior are numerous, and mostly non-pathological.
What does it mean when a dog eats grass?
The habit of eating grass is most easily explained as a variant of pica – the compulsive, persistent disorder that involves eating of substances with no nutrition, or non-food items, such as grass, dirt or paint. Although there can be many reasons for developing pica, iron-deficiency anemia and malnutrition are two of the most common causes.
If you regularly feed your dog with a well-balanced, quality commercial diet, nutrient deficiencies are very unlikely, and your dog is probably eating grass because of something else. And if you don’t, perhaps now is the perfect time to introduce your dog to a more wholesome diet that will provide an optimal amount of essential nutrients. Unlike their wolf ancestors, domestic dogs nowadays need a lot more than just protein to survive and thrive.
Why do dogs eat grass and vomit ?
One long-standing myth in the pet care universe is that dogs eat grass to make themselves sick and throw out something bad they’ve eaten, thereby relieving an upset stomach. While that may be true for some dogs, who consume grass quite enthusiastically only to vomit shortly afterwards, it doesn’t seem to be a general rule.
Dogs are primarily carnivores, meaning they need to eat meat, but they have also evolved the ability to digest some carbs. When it comes to grass though, the stuff mainly passes through the dog’s intestinal tract undigested.
Studies have shown that only 10% of dogs show signs of illness before eating grass, and less than 25% of them vomit after eating the green stuff, which means the vast majority do it for other reasons.
For the need of dietary fiber
As an important nutrient that dogs need to consume regularly, along with vitamins and minerals, fiber gets a lot of love because of the important role it plays in healthy digestion. By basically controlling the transit of food through the GI tract, dietary fiber helps normalize bowel movements and maintain their health, helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and prevents colorectal cancer.
It is often thought that when dogs nibble on grass, they’re instinctively trying to ingest more fiber, and this can be true. A lack of fiber in your dog’s diet will cause some less than pretty effects, such as indigestion, diarrhea and constipation, so they might turn to eating grass in order to meet their fiber needs and relieve digestive problems. There are well-documented cases of dogs who regularly ate grass until they were provided with a fiber-rich diet, which made the grass-eating habit obsolete.
Yet some dogs keep munching on grass despite being on a highly nutritious diet. What gives?
Before you start thinking of your dog as an emotional eater who needs to fill the void inside, let’s remind ourselves that from the perspective of a dog, the main focus of every day of their lives is the whereabouts and activities of their owner. Dogs are incredibly social animals that are well adapted to living in groups and are very good at interpreting human behavior. Day by day, they watch us leave and anxiously anticipate our return, tremendously excited about the prospect of sharing some time together, which is really the pinnacle of their day.
But in the meanwhile, the empty hours can be draining for our interaction-craving furry friends, and nibbling some readily available grass can help them pass time and alleviate loneliness, anxiety and boredom. Grass eating can then become a comfort mechanism for some dogs, who will eat grass much like anxiety-ridden people who chew their finger nails. In others, the behavior can be an attempt to get their neglectful owners’ attention.
The solution here would be to provide your dog with enough stimulation (food puzzles seem to really help), frequent walks, quality playtime and comforting interaction, or perhaps think about investing in doggie day care.
Does grass taste good to dogs ?
Despite all complicated analyses of the canine grass-eating phenomenon, some researchers argue in favor of the simplest explanation of all, claiming dogs are most likely to eat grass because they enjoy the taste, especially during springtime, when the greenery is fresh and lush.
Indeed, it is possible that dogs appreciate the texture and fragrance of newly-emerged grass, which is so delightfully different from the dry kibble they are usually offered. So even if your dog gets the recommended amount and quality of commercial food, they may still find young grass alluring, and frankly, quite tasty. Unless the habit becomes excessive, this behavior is usually harmless.
Is Eating Grass Safe For Dogs?
Grass, by itself, is relatively harmless to dogs. Still, there are a couple of safety risks for dogs that eat grass, caused by substances commonly found in grass.
Once upon a time, dogs in the wild had to rely on a much more versatile diet in order to survive. Even though dogs today don’t have to hunt for their food, their natural instincts are closely tied to the ones of their ancestors, so some of them will eat grass because of their biological need to scavenge. According to research, even the stomach contents of wolves include 2-10% plant material.
The first major problem are pesticides and herbicides, which of course are toxic for dogs. If you suspect your dog has ingested pesticides, immediately seek help from your local veterinary clinic, especially if they show the following symptoms: excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, decreased appetite and diarrhea.
The next offender on the list is fecal material. Grass is easily contaminated by droppings from other animals, and those can make your dog really sick. The deadly parvovirus is one of many illnesses which are transmitted via feces. What’s worse, fecal residue may also contain larvae from intestinal parasites such as hookworms or roundworms that can overburden the dog’s GI tract and cause weight loss and chronic diarrhea, in the least.
Finally, while chomping on grass, your dog may accidentally eat a slug or snail, which can carry a dangerous parasite called lungworm. Infection with this parasite is always a serious threat to a dog’s health, and may even prove to be fatal.
Because of that, any dog that frequently eats grass should receive regular fecal testing for intestinal parasites.
Should I stop my dog from eating grass ?
As we learned by now, most dogs simply like the taste of grass.
But even if your dog’s grazing habit is not a sign of nutrient deficiency, illness or unmet psychosocial needs, grass is not exactly the best snack for them. In itself, grass is harmless, and may even supplement your dog’s diet with loads of necessary fiber, but the same cannot be said for the pesticides, herbicides, fecal material, and parasite-ridden snails and slugs found in it.
How can I stop my dog from eating grass ?
Start by trying to avoid grassy areas. Some dogs can be trained to stop eating grass in exchange for a food treat, which means you need to start bring treats along when you take your dog for walks.
Whenever you notice your dog approaching grass with nibbling on their mind, try to distract them by verbal correction, re-directing the walk and providing petting and treats. In many cases, some calmly enacted positive reinforcement solves the problem. You can also schedule your outings almost immediately after your dog’s meal, relying on their full stomach to prevent an interest in munching on grass.
And if you can’t stop them from craving or eating grass, you can provide controlled access to grass later in the day and make sure that it is not sprayed with harmful chemicals – or even give your dog grass that you have grown yourself.
In any case, you won’t be able to always prevent your dog from eating small amounts of grass, and now you know that you don’t even have to.