Are you watching your Maltese dog eat grass and wondering why he or she would choose such a snack? Or have you heard that dogs eat grass because they feel sick, which is making you worry that there is something wrong with your little cotton ball on legs? The good news is that there are multiple possible causes of grass-eating, and gastrointestinal distress is only one of many. To find out which one applies to your Maltese, you will need to spend some time observing when he or she snacks on the lawn and what happens afterward. You are likely to find that the answer to the second question has nothing to do with nausea.
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The Root of the Behavior
In a recent study, which appears in a 2008 issue of the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, recorded observations from dog owners. Two small preliminary studies and a larger web-based study all revealed that while most dogs ate grass at least occasionally, a small percentage appeared ill either before or after. In the larger study, which involved responses from more than 1,500 dog owners, showed that 68 percent of dogs ate grass on a regular basis. Only 22 percent of dogs vomited after eating grass, while just 8 percent often appeared ill or uncomfortable before eating grass. The study did show that dogs who appeared ill before eating grass were more likely to regurgitate afterward. Some believe that grass-eating may be the dog's physical response to a dietary deficiency, but evidence suggests that this may not be true. The University of California team found that dogs who eat grass had a sufficient quantity of plant matter in their diets, which suggests that the behavior is not driven by any dietary deficiency.
What seems to be more likely is that the behavior is an enduring legacy from the free-roaming wolves who were, believe it or not, the ancestors of your fluffy little Maltese. The same researchers investigated this theory by analyzing the stool samples left by wild wolves. They found traces of grass in up to 47 percent of the samples studied, which showed that the wolves may be eating grass in order to clean their systems of intestinal parasites. Although your Maltese is unlikely to have such parasites, the instinctual behavior most likely remains and makes your dog believe that the front lawn is health food. It is also possible that your dog simply likes the taste of grass. Studies conducted on other species have shown that a preferred food, such as the bamboo that pandas seek before all others, increases levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine in the brain. If this is the case in dogs as well, your Maltese may be munching on grass because he is looking for a bit of a natural high.
Encouraging the Behavior
So, if your dog likes eating grass and is genetically pre-disposed to do it, does that mean that it's okay to encourage it? For many veterinarians, the answer is yes. While a dog does not actually process any nutrients from grass, neither do they suffer any harm from the grass itself. Your grass may be an exception to this rule, however, if you tend to treat it with chemical herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. If you absolutely need to use these chemicals, keep your dog away from the treated grass. Otherwise, switch to a non-toxic option.
It may be, of course, that you want to stop your dog's grass-eating behavior for the sake of your lawn, even if it doesn't do any harm to your dog. Some experts say that a dog's taste for grass may abate if the owner increases the amount of fiber in the pup's diet, but that you should check with your vet before you change your dog's diet to see if this will work. Alternatively, it may be that your dog's pleasure in grass-eating stems from boredom rather than a desire for flavor or nutrition. Try wearing the little guy or girl out with some extra play time to see if he or she is too pooped to munch on the lawn.
Other Solutions and Considerations
There is still that small percentage of dogs who appear sick either before or after eating grass. If your Maltese falls into this category, you will want to consult with a veterinarian. Maltese dogs do tend to have a higher incidence of certain gastrointestinal illnesses, including inflammatory bowel disease, which can lead to nausea and vomiting if it affects the upper tract. If your Maltese is throwing up after eating grass, watch what he or she does beforehand. If the dog is licking at the air, trying to swallow, or eating the grass very quickly before throwing it up, the problem may in fact be digestive. In this case, you should seek veterinary attention soon.
You probably see plenty of behaviors in your Maltese that puzzle you, grass eating being only one example. If your little four-legged friend doesn't seem to be “sick as a dog,” you probably don't need to be anything more than puzzled. Remember, your dog may be sitting there wondering why on earth you would think that your candy bar is tasty!