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It is totally understandable from my perspective why dogs eat items out of the trash. That’s because trash potentially contains food items or wrappers that smell like food — and that’s a powerful incentive for any dog.
There are lots of reasons why a dog may engage in this behavior. Generally, the reasons are pretty benign and explainable. For example, many times the items a dog pulls out of trash may retain some food odors on them. Other times, even though the trash may not contain any edible items, the “trash can” smell on the item may still be enticing enough to interest a dog. Some dogs may have learned that if it smells like “trash,” then it potentially may be edible. Dogs can also develop a preference for chewing on certain textures. Sometimes a dog may pull items out of the trash can just to chew on them but not necessarily ingest them. For example, when my puppy was younger, he loved to chew on the corner of cardboard boxes. As he matured, he retained some of his preference to chew on cardboard boxes if we allowed it. Now that he is older, he does not necessarily knock the trash can over to get at those items but, if he has easy access, such as being able to stick his head into a smaller trash can, I have no doubt he will go in and pull a cardboard item out to chew on.
Sometimes trash-can diving can be a sign that something else is afoot, either behaviorally or medically. When I am dealing with a patient in my practice who is ingesting certain items, I may need to delve into the dog’s history. More information may be needed that will help paint the picture as to why a dog is exhibiting that particular behavior and searching for a particular item. For example, I have had cases in which a dog pulled all items out of the trash and destroyed them, but this behavior only occurred when the owners were absent. When the owners were home, the dog left the trash alone — even if the humans were out of sight in another room. This type of behavior may be a reflection of the dog’s level of anxiety during the owners’ absence, and not a search for specific trash items. There are also some dogs who enjoy pulling items out of the trash whether to chew on, eat or just to throw around the house. They probably see the trash can as a puzzle toy full of surprises!
For a few dogs, however, eating weird things out of the trash can be a sign that something is wrong. There are certain medical conditions or medications that can increase a dog’s appetite or cause an upset stomach. If, as a result, a dog is hungry and it is far from meal time, he may scrounge around and try to retrieve items out of the trash to eat. If he is experiencing gastrointestinal upset, then ingesting an item and having something in his stomach may help ease that uncomfortable feeling. But this can lead to a whole host of medical problems, from foreign-body obstructions to ingestion of toxins. If your dog is frequently ingesting inedible items, have him examined by your veterinarian immediately to rule out an underlying medical issue.
If you have a trash-loving dog, here are a few quick tips to help keep your trash where it belongs. For starters, keep in mind that cans where you step on the pedal or ones with motion-sensor-activated lids generally wind up being simply new puzzle toys for your dog to figure out. For example, I have seen my 110-pound Rottweiler step on the pedal by accident and figure out that the lid magically opens!
More helpful is to get a sturdy can that has a locking lid for your kitchen. Another good idea is to store your trash can in a pull-out cabinet. You will need to purchase child locks to keep the dog from pulling out the cabinet. If you have room in your pantry, that is a good place to place your trash can and close the door. For some persistent dogs, I have had owners place their trash can outside the house or build a bin outside to prevent their dog from knocking over the trash can.
The bottom line is that trash cans are an attractive source of food or great-smelling treats or chewables for most dogs, so do your best to keep your buddy safe and out of the trash!
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