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Canine Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

puppy laying down

What is Canine Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

Much like human obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), canine obsessive compulsive disorder can appear in many forms – from a seemingly innocuous obsessive swatting at imaginary flies to an insatiable fixation on cleaning or itching a body part. These behaviors might be acceptable if there truly is something present to irritate your dog. However, if the behavior is exhibited when there is no apparent trigger – or if the trigger causes a disproportionate behavioral response – your dog may have a compulsion. For example, swatting at flies is often a normal behavior – but not so much if it has become an obsessive indoor activity. No matter how harmless an obsessive behavior may seem, these “ticks” can easily get out of hand, which can lead to mental aggravation and physical pain. If we can pinpoint what caused the initial compulsion and catch canine OCD early, we have a better chance to train our dogs to avoid these compulsive behaviors before they become a serious problem that can interfere with quality of life.

What are the Symptoms of Canine OCD?

Canine OCD, which affects about two to three percent of dogs, is commonly understood as a disorder that causes “displaced predatory behavior.” This means that, in a different situation, the dog’s compulsive behavior would be useful and acceptable. However, with canine OCD, a dog exhibits this behavior in unnecessary – and often inappropriate – situations. The most common behaviors that indicate canine OCD include:

  • Acral lick dermatitis: Obsessive licking of a body part, sometimes to the point of injury
  • Flank sucking: Obsessive nibbling, sometimes leading to self-mutilation
  • Tail chasing/tail spinning
  • Pacing or circling
  • Incessant or rhythmic barking
  • Obsessive chasing of unseen objects (such as chasing a shadow or snapping at flies
  • Polydipsia (excessive drinking)
  • Obsessive chewing on objects
  • Pica: Obsessive eating of inappropriate objects like rocks

These symptoms of canine OCD are often accompanied by changes to the dog’s energy level and significant weight loss. If you notice your dog is exhibiting any of these physical or behavioral signs, it is time for a visit to your veterinarian.

What Causes Canine OCD?

Canine OCD can be difficult to diagnose and treat because it often involves a combination of “genetic, environmental, and neurochemical/neurophysical elements.” Anything from a physical injury to a stressful incident can cause a dog to develop compulsive tendencies. These compulsions are often coping mechanisms that bring the dog some sort of comfort or relief. The real challenge owners face is discovering that initial trigger of canine OCD. The most common causes of canine OCD include:

Pain

Chronic pain related to a past injury or a specific medical problem can cause dogs to develop obsessive tendencies – they might compulsively gnaw at the irritated area, or they might perform an anxious ritual before an activity that induces pain.  Although it is important to figure out what initially triggered the compulsive behavior, even if the underlying issue is resolved, the coping mechanism may continue. The sooner the trigger can be found, the more likely the obsessive behavior will cease.

Social and Environmental Stressors

Anything from conflicts in the home to an inconsistent or stressful routine can cause dogs to develop canine OCD. Like humans, dogs want consistency; they anticipate their next walk, their next meal, and their next playtime session. Anything that disrupts this consistency can cause your dog to develop anxious and compulsive behaviors. This could be something seemingly minor, such as your daily rush off to work in the morning; if your dog fearfully anticipates the daily disruption, they may develop coping mechanisms in order to deal with their separation anxiety (CSA). The disruption could also be something clearly traumatic, such as being injured by a car. A horrible event like this may cause a dog to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which involves many compulsive behaviors that only bring a fleeting sense of relief.

It is also important that your dog is properly stimulated; this means making sure they have a well-rounded routine that provides the right amount of exercise, socializing, and alone time. Over or under-stimulating your dog can cause a slew of compulsive behaviors – and sometimes debilitating anxiety. For example, it is thought that herding breeds commonly exhibit tail spinning because they “lack appropriate outlets for exercise and activity.” 

The Genetic Component

Although research into canine OCD is still in its early stages, it is believed that there is a genetic component to canine compulsions. Experts point to the consistency in canine OCD symptoms within breeds. For example, Doberman pinschers commonly suffer from acral lick dermatitis and flank sucking, while Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are notorious fly snappers and shadow chasers. It is also thought that some breeds have a predisposition for behavioral issues such as separation anxiety, which can trigger a dog’s obsessive compulsive behavior.

How is Canine OCD Diagnosed?

Canine OCD can be quite difficult to diagnose, because compulsive behavior might indicate a deeper problem or an underlying condition. Therefore, it is vital that you closely observe your dog and speak with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist if you suspect canine OCD – their professional knowledge and experience uniquely qualifies them to make this careful diagnosis!

The first step in diagnosing canine OCD is to rule out underlying medical causes: Is there a neurological or physical reason the dog is exhibiting this obsessive behavior? Pain and anxiety are closely related, so the treatment – or lack thereof – for one issue will often affect the other. For example, tail spinning is sometimes caused by seizures; if the seizures go undiagnosed, it will be impossible to resolve the issue. 

Then, your veterinarian will have you observe your dog’s routine. Make sure you pay close attention to their natural behaviors and what they are drawn to throughout the day. List anything that could be stressing your dog so that you remember to pay close attention to these possible triggers. Ask yourself:

Does my dog’s obsession interfere with their normal behavior?

If it doesn’t, good! Keep an eye on it to make sure you aren’t reinforcing the behavior- and to make sure it doesn’t worsen.

When does my dog exhibit these compulsive behaviors?

Randomly? When they’re bored? Are triggered by an object or event?

What seems to be the purpose of this obsessive behavior? Is there one?

When did the obsessive behavior begin?

Was there a specific trigger? Was (or is) your dog separated from a loved one? Separation anxiety may be behind compulsive tendencies. If you think your dog has CSA, consider audio or video monitoring your dog when you’re not home so that you can observe their behavior. Was your dog mistreated before their adoption (abused, kept on a leash without much space, etc.)? PTSD may be the culprit. Is there a recurring conflict in your house right now? Anything from dog fighting to a disruption to your routine could cause chronic stress and lead to canine OCD.

Spotting Canine OCD in Puppies: Catch it Early!

Just like human habits, a dog’s habits can be hard to break. Even if the cause of canine OCD is removed, behavior may continue without the trigger- so catch it early! Canine OCD can begin when a dog is six to twelve months old. The sooner owners catch these compulsive behaviors, the easier it will be to curb them! As with human OCD, canine OCD may seem trivial at first – but it is still important to have a watchful eye in case your dog’s behavior gets out of hand.  Always be careful not to reinforce behavior that may seem cute or playful, such as tail chasing!

Treatment Options for Canine OCD

If chronic pain is the crux of your dog’s obsessive behavior, the first step in treating their OCD is to remove that physical pain. Consult your veterinarian in order to pick the proper treatment method – whether it be bandaging and an Elizabethan collar to prevent your pup from nibbling at their wound, or the use of pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories. Once any physical pain is addressed, your veterinarian or behavioral specialist may recommend one – or a combination of – the following treatment options.

Psychotropic Drugs

As with humans, dogs with OCD often find relief by using serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) such as fluoxetine. Your veterinarian may also prescribe clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant commonly used for canine OCD. Although these drugs provide relief, they will need to be used continuously; this may cause side effects such as gastrointestinal disturbance or upset, as well as fatigue. Make sure you work with your veterinarian to determine a safe and effective treatment path for your dog.

Although drugs may provide relief and allow time for any wounds to heal, they will not actually heal your dog’s OCD. In order to give your dog long-term relief, a combination of drugs, behavioral training, and environmental enrichment is often recommended.

Behavioral Training

Behavioral modification and training will not only create a positive bond between you and your dog, it will also help distract your dog from their obsessive activities! Whether you’re new to behavioral training or already have an established training routine, counterconditioning and desensitization will help reduce your dog’s compulsive tendencies.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

The ultimate goal with desensitization and counterconditioning is to treat fear and anxiety by focusing on “achieving both the desired emotional state and the desired behavioral response.” Desensitization involves exposing your pet to whatever is causing their compulsion in a measured way, so as not to trigger their obsessive behavior. By introducing the stressor in a more mild form – a form that is below the threshold where your dog starts exhibiting unwanted behavior – the compulsion will slowly diminish; this will bring your dog to a calmer emotional state.

As this negative association diminishes, counterconditioning will help you take whatever is causing your dog’s compulsive behavior and turn this negative association into a positive one; if your dog is trained to associate the cause of their anxiety with someone positive, their behavior will change as a result. Over time, you’ll be able to “rewire” your dog’s brain so that they no longer have a negative, obsessive association with the object or event.

Counterconditioning doesn’t simply mean rewarding your dog with treats during a stressful situation – it is essential that you use treats sparingly.  Instead, counterconditioning requires creativity; it is a daily commitment to helping your dog find positive associations with their stressor! Work with a certified behavior consultant or dog trainer to create a counterconditioning routine that is right for your dog.

Tips

  • Pick activities that make it impossible for your dog to simultaneously engage in their obsessive behavior
  • If your dog seems to always have pent up energy, consider agility training.
  • Remove reinforcement. Even if your dog’s obsessive behavior seems “cute,” don’t acknowledge or reinforce it.

Environmental Enrichment

Improving your dog’s daily routine and environment is essential in order to make sure they are properly stimulated. Ask yourself:

  • What are my dog’s natural behaviors – what’s their routine like?
  • What do these natural behaviors indicate about what my dog enjoys? Do they point towards anything my dog might dislike?
  • Where is there room for improvement in my dog’s routine?
    • Is my dog’s routine consistent?
    • Is my dog often exhausted (over-stimulated) or do they have pent up energy (under-stimulated)?
    • Does my dog seem to have enough exercise, playtime, and alone time?

Make sure your dog has the proper amount of stimulation, as well as a constant routine. This will help reduce their stress level and provide them with the proper outlets for exercise and relaxation.

Pheromones

Your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist may recommend including calming pheromones such as the Dog Appeasing Pheromone in your dog’s environmental enrichment strategy as a non-pharmaceutical means of further reducing your dog’s anxious response to stimuli. Pheromone products mimic the calming pheromones a dog naturally produces and can help diminish their obsessive response to triggering activities. These products come in multiple forms, including sprays, collars, and diffusers.

Calmer Canine®: A Promising Treatment for OCD

As we continue learning more about canine OCD, new alternative treatments are emerging! Although Calmer Canine® is still in a double blind trial for dogs suffering from separation anxiety with a successfully completed pilot study, countless anecdotal reports have demonstrated the potential Calmer Canine has to help dogs with all kinds of anxiety disorders – including OCD. Certified behavior consultant Angelica Steinker M.Ed., PCBC- A, CDBC, PDBT, CAP2 used the device on her own dog who has severe OCD. Steinker comments, “About a week into Calmer Canine treatments, he got better about riding in the car. What I’m seeing is that anything that is anxiety-related, Calmer Canine appears to work for exceptionally well. And lucky for me, OCD appears to fit that criteria.” Explore these testimonials to learn more about the power of Calmer Canine!

Conclusion

We all have our compulsions – they are what make us unique! As long as we are always working to understand these obsessions and keep them in check, there is no harm in being a little weird. The same is true for our dogs! We love them for their quirks – but we still need to keep an eye on any unusual behaviors, just to make sure they don’t get out of hand and interfere with their quality of life. If you think your dog might have canine OCD, speak with your veterinary behavior specialist or canine anxiety professional!