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Dealing with doggy OCD

A dog who won’t stop chasing his tail might seem entertaining. But if chasing his tail becomes an all-consuming behavior and doesn’t seem to serve a purpose, it might be a sign there’s something wrong.

Veterinarian Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, an associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, sees these extreme repetitive behaviors in dogs with canine compulsive disorder.

Dr. Herron treats animals with the compulsive disorders and answered questions about the exaggerated and repeated behaviors in dogs.

What is canine compulsive disorder?

A diagnosis of compulsive disorder is typically when we see a dog with a repetitive behavior that may be in its normal repertoire of behaviors, but it is being displayed out of context.

For example, a dog who is chasing his tail or snapping at a fly — if there’s a fly in front of him and he snaps at it, it’s a normal behavior. If there’s something on his tail, it would be normal for him to circle around and chase it.

But what we’re seeing are these dogs doing these repetitive behaviors without any obvious trigger, and they’re doing it to the extent that it’s interfering with their quality of life. And it’s very difficult to interrupt it.

How do these behaviors start?

Often, these are going to start as a coping mechanism. So, if there’s some particularly stressful event or trigger, such as a thunderstorm, they might circle, they might start to chew on themselves or they might start to air snap, hind-end check or suck on something — just to kind of cope in that moment.

At that point, it’s a displacement behavior. It’s a behavior to cope with the stress of that immediate situation. If it goes on long enough, it can become “emancipated” from the initial trigger. They no longer need the stressful trigger to start the behavior.

There’s probably some natural endorphin release that comes with the repetition of that behavior, and they essentially can become addicted to the behavior.

It helps them feel better, and it can become a habit. When it’s self-soothing without anything causing them to need to soothe themselves, that’s when it really gets to the point of compulsive disorder.

What causes compulsive disorder in dogs?

There’s often a medical reason. These animals can’t talk to us, so we may think they’re chasing their tails for no reason, but what if they’re having some sort of abnormal sensation that they can’t tell us about?

We had a dog who would have actually chewed off her foot if we had let her. It started with a torn toenail that developed into a bone infection, so there was a reason to draw attention to that.

But once we resolved all of that, the behavior continued.

It’s really important to go digging for a medical reason for the behavior, and you have to look at why they’re focusing on that particular part of the body.

Dealing with OCD in animals, The Ohio State University

I see it a lot in very intelligent, working breeds. If they’re not working or given a job ... they start to create work.

Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, On certain breeds' predisposition toward CCD
Are these behaviors generally a product of environmental circumstances or can there be genetic factors as well?

There’s probably a predisposition there. I see it a lot in very intelligent, working breeds. If they’re not working or given a job, there’s this compulsion to work. And if they’re not given enough to do, they start to create work.

That’s a stressor, if they’re not given the mental stimulation, just as social and physical deprivation for a human would be stressful.

Some dogs have a really high need for all of that, and just living in your average home may not provide that. That’s, in essence, a trigger, but it’s more than that. It’s more of a perpetual state of being that’s hard on the animal.

We don’t have MRIs of all of these animals to know neurologically if they're fully sound. So canine compulsion disorder isn’t something we fully understand.

We just basically say we have no medical evidence to explain why the animal is doing the behavior, so we’re assuming it’s behavioral.

If there’s a clear behavioral trigger such as a dog who spins only when the doorbell rings or spins only when it sees another dog, it’s a clear behavioral problem as opposed to a medical reason.

Dog Breed OCD Chart

Infographic Title: More susceptible

Infographic Summary: Veterinarian Meghan Herron says some breeds are more likely to exhibit compulsive behaviors than others. Rottweilers do shadow and light chasing; Schnauzers do hind-end checking; German Shepherds tail-chase; Bull Terriers circle, spin, suck or tail-chase; and Doberman Pinschers flank-suck. Picture: Silhouettes of these different breeds of dogs are provided with each description.

How is it different from OCD in humans?

It’s different in that we can’t ask the dogs to tell us what they’re obsessing about. The classic diagnosis in people is that they explain the thought process for the behavior.

We just know that they’re compelled to do a behavior, and we don’t know what their thought process is.

What are the ways to treat it?

The first step is the medical investigation to make sure there’s no physical reason for the behavior or why they’re focusing on a certain part of their bodies.

The next step is to see if we can identify if there is a way to avoid the animal’s triggers, reduce them or minimize the animal’s exposure to those triggers.

We try to provide other more productive coping mechanisms. So, if it’s an oral displacement behavior, we give them all their food through puzzle toys so they have to work with their mouths in other ways.

If it’s one of those breeds that’s really driven to work, we give them a job. We get them working their brains and exhaust them mentally and physically.

In cases in which it’s severe or we’re not able to avoid the triggers or are unable to identify the triggers, we’ll use medication, typically anti-anxiety medications.

What should pet owners look for in their animals?

When people see these repetitive behaviors and initially think it’s funny, they kind of encourage it.

If you’re seeing your dog do a repetitive behavior completely out of context, you might want to think about not encouraging it. Give him something else to do in that situation.

Try to think about what happened right before it occurred to see if you can identify a trigger.

We recommend against laser pointer games with dogs, particularly puppies in case they have a propensity for that. It can sometimes unleash a demon.

If you’re seeing your pet pay any extra attention to a certain body part, see a veterinarian to make sure there’s not an abnormal pain or sensation that’s triggering it. If it goes on too long, it could become a habit.

We recommend against laser pointer games with dogs, particularly puppies. ... It can sometimes unleash a demon.

Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, On ways to treat and avoid triggering CCD
What should you do if you suspect your dog has canine compulsive disorder?

If you can identify the triggers and stressors, try to minimize them. Then think about how you can provide the most physical, social and mental situations as possible to make sure their needs are met.

Some dogs will have a much higher need than others. Try physical exercise —  running enough to get the tongue hanging out, and they appear physically exhausted, followed by a few minutes of obedience and agility, or something that makes them actually to have to work the brain, as well as one-on-one focused social attention, providing enrichment within the house and different types of toys.

What about other pets? What could these repetitive disorders mean in cats?

We’ll see licking issues in cats. The two most common are over-grooming and licking themselves bald or ingestions of non-food items.

For both those issues, most of the time, there is an underlying medical issue or a reason for it. We still have a few for which we fix all the medical issues and can’t uncover it.

In cats especially, those two problems are medical. They should be seen by a veterinarian if the owners are seeing any of those signs.