Why Your Neighbor and Your Dog Eat Dirt?

Updated on April 18, 2017
Solaras profile image

Barbara Fitzgerald is an AKC Breeder of Merit and author of a column, "Conversations with Champions," for the BCSA magazine, Borderlines.

Hound looking for some good dirt to eat.
Hound looking for some good dirt to eat. | Source

When my dogs started eating dirt in the backyard last summer, I wondered why they suddenly craved clay? Was it harmful to them? Was it a symptom of a nutritional deficiency or parasites? My research on the subject turned up some surprising theories on dirt eating or geophagia, the clinical term for clay eating. (Scroll down for videos of humans and dogs engaged in serious serious geophagia).

Pica - A Southern Tradition

As it turns out, here in the South, there is a long tradition of human clay eating. Aficionados of clay claim that the flavor is a nice mix of bitter and sour. Some augment this taste sensation by toasting the soil and adding salt and vinegar to the baked earth. Southerners with a family tradition of geophagia will even ship bags of soil from favorite dig sites in the hometown area to their displaced relatives up North.

While geophagia has been practiced on all continents at various times in history, clay eating by humans in the United States carries a stigma. In fact the DSM IV categorizes pica as an eating disorder, since excessive clay eating can cause intestinal blockages. Dog owners also cringe to see their pets wolfing down soil in the backyard. However, researchers have found that not only dogs and humans engage in geophagia, but cats, parrots, buffalo, deer, fruit bats, other primates, in addition to a host of other mammals, engage in clay eating at various times in their lifecycles.

Woman Eating Dirt and Loving It - Earthworms Included

3 Theories on Dirt Eating

Pica, the craving to consume something other than food, is typically associated with lower income children and pregnant women in our society. In fact, geophagia in expectant mothers in Nigeria has been relied on for centuries as an indicator of pregnancy. Given that growing children and expectant mothers have considerably greater nutritional needs, it has long been assumed that pica evidenced a nutritional deficiency. For example, expectant mothers in other areas of Africa, where calcium is readily available do not resort to clay eating as their Nigerian counterparts do. Depending on your area, soil may contain nutrients not readily available in the local human and canine diets. Iron, calcium and sodium are found in many areas where clay abounds. But some clay sources have unusual medicinal properties as well.

Kaolin, a white clay found here in Georgia, has the ability to stop diarrhea and stomach upset. It is so effective that it has been used in manufacture of Kaopectate, Rolaids, Maalox and Mylanta. The anti-nausea properties of clay have been cited as a possible reason pregnant women tend to begin or increase their soil consumption. Some researchers theorize that clay soothes the digestive tract and counteracts morning sickness, hence the expectant mothers’ clay diets. But other researchers have begun looking at the origins of morning sickness as key piece of the puzzle of clay cravings.

Southern Clay Digging - The Difference between "Ground Dirt" and Clay for Consumption

Eating Clay as an Adaptive Behavior - Binding Toxins

Clay has the additional, extraordinary ability to bind itself to toxins and help eliminate them from the system unabsorbed. Clay has long been used in health spas and mud baths for external detoxification, and early Greek and Eastern medical practitioners used it internally to detoxify patients. In fact, clay is still in use as a condiment on bitter, slighty toxic potatoes in South America and New Mexico. The toasted clay is sprinkled onto the potato dish where it will bind to the toxins in the potato, allowing the potato dish to become nutritious and nontoxic.

Following this line of reasoning, researchers have suggested that as the expectant mother’s body draws on its internal resources to support the growing baby, it also draws out stored toxins stored in body fat. The toxins then cause nausea, the body’s attempt to rid the system of the toxins by vomiting. Cravings for clay and the subsequent consumption of the clay effectively eliminates the toxins from the system. Additionally, much in the same way the South Americans used dirt to detoxify their potatoes, clay consumption may also serve to bind food born bacteria and viruses that would be harmful to the mother and developing fetus. It appears that clay eating is frequently an adaptive behavior, and perhaps not always an eating disorder, as it has been characterized in the DSM IV.

German Shepherd Dog Eats Dirt and Is Loving it!

Why Dogs Eat Dirt!

Just like humans and other mammals, dogs may eat dirt for several reasons. They may be seeking additional nutrients, need a sedative for intestinal upset or simply enjoy the flavor. It is interesting to note that soil frequently harbors parasites, and clay eating could create a cycle of parasitic infection. The dog or human eats the soil to sooth its intestines and simultaneously infects itself with parasites (whipworms, hookworms and roundworms can be found in soil). If your dog is eating dirt, it’s a good idea to get a fecal exam done to eliminate parasites as the possible cause for soil eating. Of greater concern is the possibility of toxicity in the dog’s environment as a stimulus for dirt eating.

In trying to understand the cause of my dog’s clay eating, I reviewed the geophagia theories with an eye to my pet’s situation. None of them were pregnant, and fecal tests showed no parasites. They are very particular about the clay they eat. Not any old dirt will do; the clay they eat comes from one small hole in the back yard. Interestingly, their clay consumption, like that of many other dogs that appear in research, is seasonal. Their dirt eating begins in early spring and increases into midsummer. By fall, the clay consumption tapers off and through winter there is minimal interest in the clay.

We live in a suburban environment, where neighbors have services that routinely apply pesticides and fertilizer to the lawns throughout the neighborhood from spring until early fall, which appears to coincide with my dogs geophagia. The National Cancer Institute has linked commercial weed killers and pesticides to the increase of certain deadly cancers in canines such as hemangiosarcoma. It could be that my dogs, and other clay eaters in urban and suburban environments, are absorbing toxins from walks through their neighborhood and runoff into their yards. They then resort to clay eating to detoxify in the spring and summer months. Consuming clay under these circumstances would be an adaptive behavior, and one that I hope is successful for all canine clay eaters. Certainly if your dog has recently begun clay eating, investigate any changes you may have made with floor cleansers or in your yard maintenance. As for your neighbor, don’t begrudge her a spoonful or two of soil to finish off the day or spice up her potatoes.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Solaras profile imageAUTHOR

        Solaras 

        5 years ago

        Thanks sgbrown. I am still learning HP ways and just now saw your comment! As delicious as my dogs seem to find the clay here, I must agree with you. It holds no attraction for me.

      • sgbrown profile image

        Sheila Brown 

        5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

        Another very interesting hub! Our soil is very heavy in clay where we live and we have noticed our dogs eating dirt from time to time. I have wondered if there is a mineral in the soil that their body was craving. As of yet, I have not found myself wanting to join in. I found all your information very interesting. Voting up and interesting. :)

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

        5 years ago from USA

        Catchy title! I was intrigued by it and had to stop by and read it. I didn't know kaolin was made of white clay. Voted up~!

      • Solaras profile imageAUTHOR

        Solaras 

        5 years ago

        Thanks peachpurple! Spring is here and my dogs are enjoying the clay a little more!

      • peachpurple profile image

        peachy 

        5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

        really/ I thought doggies were playing with the dirt, you know trying to scrap off ants that bite his snout... Awesome hub! Voted up

      • Solaras profile imageAUTHOR

        Solaras 

        5 years ago

        Thanks Kelly! I'll have some dirt to celebrate - Cheers!

      • KellyG05030 profile image

        Kelly 

        5 years ago from New England

        Very interesting! I voted up!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, pethelpful.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://pethelpful.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)