When Gabby developed a large swelling on her cheek beneath her left eye, Mick brought her to see me. At first Mick had thought it might be something temporary like an insect bite, but it was a hard swelling, and it had grown bigger and bigger over the previous three days.
a trip to the vet
When I examined her, I knew at once what it was; the swelling, on the left side of her face, was in the classic place for a dental root abscess. When I lifted her upper lip and inspected her back left teeth, I could see that one of them was broken. Infection must have tracked in through the damaged tooth. Treatment was simple: Gabby needed an anaesthetic to have the large tooth removed, and after a short course of antibiotics, the swelling cleared up completely.
We were left with one question: how had she broken her tooth? Dogs’ back teeth are as hard as granite, and it isn’t easy to break them. I asked Mick about common reasons why dogs break their teeth. Did she ever chew stones? Or did he feed her large raw bones?
Mick and his wife Aileen glanced at each other when I said this, then Mick spoke: “We know what it is: she loves eating metal”.
an unusual habit
They then explained that they had taken Gabby on when she was five months old, after things had not worked out for her in her first home. From the start, she liked chewing things around the house, so they soon learned to keep anything chewable (like socks or shoes) out of her way. Mick is a building contractor and the next challenge was his workshop: Gabby learned to pick up anything shiny, such as pieces of metal. She’d chew them, then take them away and hide them in a stash in a corner of the garden. It was like a bear’s lair: she stored all her favourite things here.
Gabby then progressed from chewing metallic objects in the workshop to seeking out anything with metal around the home. She started to grab any pairs of trousers that were left within reach, taking them to her den, then chewing off every piece of metal, including zips and buttons. Aileen had a favourite jacket, and she found it after Gabby had stolen it: every button and zip was missing, from the collars, lapels, sleeves and cuffs.
Gabby never swallowed the metal: she just added the metal objects to the pile of goodies in her den. Anything with metal was under threat: school bags, shoes (the metal eyes were nibbled out), boots with metal zips (she leaves plastic zips alone). If she sees anything with metal in the washing basket, she’ll steal it. She’s been unpopular with the teenage children in the house, stealing their favourite items of clothing and destroying them.
Mick has tried all sorts of tactics to stop her from eating metal: he has offered her a range of chew toys, from rubber Kongs stuffed with food and deep frozen, to artificial bones, to real bones. And while Gabby does sometimes enjoy chewing other objects, they don’t distract her from her real passion in life: chewing metallic objects.
There must be something about the taste and texture of metal that Gabby has learned to love. In theory, she could be trained to stop eating metal, by painting all metal objects with a bitter-tasting spray, or using some similar type of method. In practice, there are always going to be vulnerable metal objects in Mick’s household, and it seems likely that this is a challenge that his family may have to live with until the end of Gabby’s days. Everything metal has to be kept out of Gabby’s reach: there’s no other fix to this unusual problem.