OCD: Obsessive Canine Disorders

By Caroline Squires >>>

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, in humans is characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). It’s also possible to have only obsessions or only compulsions and still have OCD. But the question is, can dogs have OCD? The answer: Not really, but they do get compulsive behaviors. Compulsive behaviors are defined as repetitive sequences of behavior that are fairly consistent in their presentation. Although some argue that they function to reduce a dog’s stress level, they do not appear to serve any obvious purpose.

What are Compulsive Disorders in Dogs?

Veterinarians describe these behaviors as exaggerations of normal dog behaviors. They are exhibited for longer than expected periods of time, are repeated out of context, and in situations in which they would be considered abnormal. One of the first behaviors considered representative of a compulsive disorder in dogs is repetitive licking of the lower extremities of the legs. Other common dog behaviors which can be classified as compulsive include: spinning, tail chasing, shadow chasing, fly snapping, repetitive circling, fence running, pacing, light chasing, barking, chewing, licking, staring into space, sucking on a toy, or sucking on a part of the body may also be manifestations of compulsive behavior.

What Causes Compulsive Disorders in Dogs?

According to Lisa Radosta, DVM,“compulsive disorders are caused by conflict, stress and/or frustration. With each stressful event that a dog encounters, there is a release of neurotransmitters involved with the stress response. When a dog is frustrated or stressed, he may start to perform a normal behavior such as holding a toy in his mouth in order to relieve that stress. If holding the toy in his mouth actually reduces the neurotransmitters involved with the stressful event, the dog is likely to perform that behavior again when he is stressed. For some dogs, this behavior becomes ritualized and repetitive because of the intense reward that is associated with a reduction of the physiologic feeling of stress or frustration.”

She explains, “Over time, compulsive behaviors progress and get worse. Dogs often start to perform the compulsive behavior with any stressful event, not just the original inciting situation. The behavior can take over the dog’s life replacing normal sleep and feeding habits. It can cause injury to the dog as the impulse to perform the particular behavior becomes stronger and stronger. Dogs that chase their tails often end up mutilating the tail requiring amputation, while dogs that suck on themselves frequently cause skin infections.”

However, sometimes what appears to be a compulsive behavior is actually an attention seeking behavior. Even behaviors that start as frustration-related behaviors can be rewarded inadvertently when owners pay attention to the dog when he performs the behavior. For example, if an owner yells No!, that is still regarded by the dog as attention and can perpetuate the behavior.
If you think that your dog exhibits a behavior for your attention, try the following tests. First, videotape your dog when you are not home to see if and when the behavior occurs in your absence. Next, try walking out of the room the next time that your dog performs the behavior. If he does not perform the behavior in your absence, your attention or presence is most probably a part of the problem.

Some dog breeds are predisposed hereditarily to certain compulsive behaviors. For example, Bull Terriers and German Shepherds are commonly seen for tail chasing. Labrador Retrievers exhibit oral compulsive behaviors such as pica , whereby the dog is driven to pick up any object and eat it. Doberman Pinschers are well known for flank sucking, whereby the dog holds and sucks on the skin of the flank for long periods. The best way to know if your dog is predisposed to a certain type of behavior is to speak to your veterinarian about your breed’s genetic predisposition. Then, if possible, speak to the owner of your dog’s parents to learn of their behavior.

How Do You Treat Compulsive Disorders in Dogs?

The first thing to do if you think that your dog has a compulsive disorder is to go to your veterinarian for help. Because medical conditions can cause signs similar to compulsive behaviors in dogs, it is extremely important to rule out medical diseases such as neurologic, endocrine, gastrointestinal, and orthopedic disorders. A complete physical examination by a veterinarian and a consultation with a behavior specialist is recommended to confirm a diagnosis of compulsive behavior. The owner should be prepared to provide a detailed description of the behavior, the duration and frequency of bouts, and situations in which the behavior typically occurs.

If your dog is completely healthy and is free of pain, he may have a compulsive disorder. Compulsive disorders are treated with medications to lower arousal and conflict as well as behavior modification to give the dog an alternate coping strategy outside of the compulsive behavior.Treatment is often prolonged and continues for the life of the dog. If your dog is diagnosed with compulsive disorder, you can expect some ups and downs in treatment and in your dog’s behavior. Often chronic cases are referred to a board certified veterinary behaviorist for treatment.

If the behavior is triggered by conflict the dog is experiencing on a regular basis, try to eliminate the stressor or, if possible, attempt to desensitize the dog to the situation.

Whenever the dog is engaged in the compulsive behavior, he should be ignored. Both mild punishment and reassurance can reward the dog’s unwanted behavior by supplying the owner’s attention. Punishment has the potential to increase the dog’s anxiety and worsen the condition.

Although there are no medications approved to treat compulsive disorders in dogs, some success has been achieved with antidepressants prescribed for similar disorders in humans.

Home Care for Dogs with Compulsive Behaviors

The expression of compulsive behavior is often a manifestation of environmental anxiety or stress. Compulsive behaviors often develop in response to a specific situation but may become generalized to any situation in which the animal experiences conflict. Emotional conflict can arise from environ- mentally induced anxiety as well as inconsistent interactions between the owner and the dog.

When a dog is repeatedly placed in a situation of conflict, the threshold for the performance of the repetitive behavior decreases so that the behavior may be eventually manifested when there is any increase in activity arousal. Eventually a dog with compulsive behavior loses control over the behavior. At this stage, the behavior will occur in non-stressful situations.

Conditions known to trigger anxiety in susceptible dogs include relatively benign experiences that would not have a negative impact on most dogs.

Potential triggers for a susceptible dog include:

Inadequate social interaction with owners
Owners departures and returns
Environmental change (e.g. boarding at kennel)
Changes in social arrangement (introduction or departure of people or pets)
Particular sounds (storms, vacuums, yard machinery, telephones, microwave bells, running water)
Lack of mental and physical stimulation appropriate for the dog’s breed and age

Providing appropriate aerobic exercise, regular daily obedience training, and stimulating toys can help reduce a dog’s inclination to perform a compulsive behavior. Providing a dog with a job that incorporates his breed-specific needs and making sure he receives adequate social stimulation are important. For many dogs, arranging a predictable routine for feeding, exercise and social interaction can reduce their anxiety level.