Does Your Dog Exhibit Obsessive or Compulsive Behavior? Here’s How to Fix It
Michael is an avid pet-lover and content writer on topical themes related to dog care, training and behavioral development.
Coping With a Behavioral Disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a state in which a dog becomes fixated or obsessed with something in its present surroundings, a spot on its body, or even by imaginary things. The behavior does not serve any central role in the survival of the animal, but rather leads to negative consequences.
It has been debated whether or not the term OCD is suitable in reference to dogs. The grounds for this argument center on the word obsession, questioning if a canine can really obsess in the same way a human would. This is why it has been deemed preferable to use CCD (canine compulsive disorder) instead when referring to dogs. As will be covered shortly, studying the way the condition works in canines has helped scientists understand how to treat it in humans.
In dogs, this behavior manifests itself in different ways, depending on factors that include the type of breed. For example, Doberman pinschers tend to suck their flanks, bull terriers and German shepherds typically chase their tails, while Labrador retrievers collect and ingest random things.
The problem typically starts when the dog is between one and two years of age. It is not always a long-term condition though, there are instances where it is temporal, as in a case where there has been a recent change like a transition into a new environment. When the behavior persists and becomes acute, there is cause for concern and remedial action is required.
As with humans, the actions of the dog can be completely normal. It is usually the manner in which they are excessively and obsessively repeated that makes them compulsive. Even when the behavior is at a minimal level, the persistence can be such that it interferes with the relationship between you and your pet.
Here are six steps you can take to deal with a dog that is suspected of having canine compulsive disorder.
- Recognize the signs
- Consider the genetic link
- Identify the cause
- Understand the effects
- Avoid enabling responses
- Take remedial action
1. Recognize the Signs
As stated previously, CCD is manifested by a pattern of behavior that keeps recurring. In humans, OCD is detected through such observable actions as obsessively washing one’s hands, locking and unlocking doors, or arranging everything in symmetrical order.
With dogs, it may not be possible to tell immediately because what is considered normal in terms of canine mannerisms is distinct from humans. However, though the details may be different, the inappropriate, excessive and repetitive features are the same.
Some dogs repeatedly suck at their flanks, lick their paws or mutilate themselves. Others run after shadows or reflections. Some will keep collecting non-food items while others will bark or chew incessantly. There are also canines that will keep pouncing or chasing after imaginary rivals.
The approach used in dealing with CCD is similar to how separation anxiety is treated. For instance, after being given something edible some dogs have a habit of running off in order to consume it alone in a hidden spot.
This is a sign of food guarding, which stems from anxiety. It could be that the dog had a history of food scarcity, hence the compulsion to protect anything it receives even when there is no visible threat involved. The insecurity that triggers overprotectiveness has to be reversed first before the pet can be free from the compulsive behavior.
2. Consider the Genetic Link
According to a study conducted by Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, there is a major similarity between the brain structure of humans with OCD and canines with CCD. The similarity is also manifested in the way afflicted members of each species respond to treatment.
Breakthrough research reveals a connection between canine compulsive disorder (CCD) and canine chromosome 7. Just as with the case in humans suffering from OCD, the chromosome is observed in the brain’s hippocampus. The response activity of the brain, the symptoms and remedial effects are similar in both species. Other studies have shown similarities in receptor bindings and how quantities of dopamine are transported in the striatum in humans and canines.
The genetic connection goes further. For instance, the habit of sucking the flank observable in Dobermans is caused by a gene similar to the one that causes autism in humans.
Understanding parallels such as these helps dog owners and behaviorists alike come to grips with what exactly they are dealing with. Though canines with CCD are not likely to transfer the disorder to other pets in the household, it is best not to breed such dogs because of the potential they have of giving rise to non-viable offspring.
3. Identify the Cause
CCD behaviors are ways through which a dog tries to comfort itself. It is their coping mechanism. To resolve the problem, the underlying causes need to be identified.
Aside from genetics, one reason why a dog develops CCD (just as with humans), is past trauma. This can be due to how they were treated by their former owner.
Dogs that have been mistreated, abused or starved can start manifesting CCD behavior. These signs can also begin to show in a dog suffering from separation anxiety due to the emotional challenge of being cut off from its mother and siblings.
Further, such behaviors can be triggered by conflict, isolation, serious accidents, unpredictable happenings, or sudden changes in the normal routine the pet is used to.
Each case is different, so it is best to consult with a professional when interpreting the effects and analyzing the root cause. In some cases, there could be underlying neurological, nutritional, gastric, or dermatological reasons.
For example, a dog that does not receive a balanced supply of nutrients may contract pica, which is a condition where a canine compulsively consumes non-food items. Likewise, excessive licking can result from a lack of Vitamin E and other nutrients.
Some behaviors such as a canine pressing its head against a flat surface, pacing about, or going round in circles may not have anything to do with CCD. It could be due to an abnormal medical condition that needs to be handled by a specialist.
Breakthrough research reveals a connection between Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD) and Canine Chromosome 7. Just as with the case in humans suffering from OCD, the chromosome is observed in the brain’s hippocampus. The response activity of the brain, the symptoms, and remedial effects are similar.
4. Understand the Effects
Excessive sucking and licking could harm the skin and lead to bacterial infections. The affected part of the skin becomes sore and afterward ruptures to form a wound or lesion. If the habit is not curbed, the dog could go through a painful experience.
It is a bit of a pathological cycle. The more the affected spot is licked, the increasingly sore and itchy it becomes. This in turn causes the dog to continue indulging in the habit. It is what leads to conditions such as lick granuloma, or lick dermatitis. Though infections can be treated through antibiotics, it is always best to identify and tackle the root cause of the problem.
Due to the excitable and obsessive nature of CCD, a dog with this condition will tend to have a short attention span. The owner may find themselves struggling to hold the canine’s focus for a meaningful period of time. The disorder can also affect regular eating habits by depriving a dog of its normal appetite.
As is the case with humans suffering from OCD, engaging in the behavior helps reduce the heart rate. This is why a dog will keep reverting to the habit in an effort to manage stress.
If they continue unchecked, behaviors like tail chasing could lead to accidents such as falling down a flight of stairs or collisions with either stationary or moving objects. Similarly, a canine that is constantly chasing its tail could considerably injure it. As it may not have feeling or sensation there, the dog may damage the appendage to the extent of requiring amputation.
5. Avoid Enabling Responses
When the pet is a puppy, chasing the tail can appear to be entertaining and end up being encouraged by human audiences. After all, there’s nothing visibly harmful involved… or so it seems. The reality is that if the reason is CCD, the situation will need prompt remedial action, before it becomes part of the dog’s character.
There are two other ways in which the CCD behavior can be reinforced. One is by an owner trying to control the situation immediately it starts by offering the dog a treat, a toy, or by showing affection as a form of distraction. Such interventions create a chain reaction resulting in the dog concluding that it is being rewarded for the compulsive behavior. If the dog receives a reward while acting out, it conveys an enabling message.
The other extreme is getting irate, raising one’s voice and punishing the dog for its actions. Since anxiety can be a causative principle, inflicting punishment can add to the stress and insecurity, leading to an increase in compulsive activity.
It is recommended not to administer any drug or remedial therapy unless it has been approved and prescribed by a qualified vet. The impact of chemicals varies with each case. Also, two dogs can exhibit the same symptoms yet have completely different reasons. Despite the fact that there is a myriad of solutions available on the market, what has been known to work with one dog may not necessarily be the answer for another. The bottom line is that a dog with CCD needs an effective alternative coping mechanism and cure.
The involvement of an expert prevents misdiagnosis. Repetitive licking, for example, can be caused by fungi or even an allergy. Other habits can also be triggered by brain tumors or Cushing’s disease. In order to make a reliable diagnosis, a number of examinations can be carried out, including urinalysis, blood sample tests, use of radiographs, diagnostic imaging (including CT scans).
If a dog is involved in a compulsive habit like chasing its tail or pouncing on imaginary prey and has already worked up much excitement, engaging it in high-energy level activities can be counterproductive. This is because it takes longer for the dog to unwind and return to normalcy after being so highly stimulated. It’s best to have such playtimes when the dog is in a calm state rather than when it is acting out.
6. Take Remedial Action
CCD is fundamentally linked to the brain. It is therefore essential to engage the dog in cognitive activities like puzzles or games that activate brain centers. Mental stimulation and brain exercises improve intelligence and strengthen problem-solving skills.
As is the case in humans, there is a direct link between the brain and the body such that changes in the one affect the other. CCD can become worse due to insufficient activity and boredom. Problem behaviors such as excessive tail-chasing, chewing or digging could intensify as means of releasing pent-up energy.
So it is essential to keep the dog occupied with behavioral training sessions, or agility training. Other activities like swimming and playing fetch could also be beneficial. Similarly, providing stuffed toys and other play items can help develop positivity and raise the afflicted canine above the problem behavior.
Noise Aversion Therapy can also make a difference. It involves introducing a particular sound such as a jingle to interrupt the compulsive behavior and bring the canine back to reality. The sound waves help create a disassociation. If the behavior is a result of stress or separation anxiety, it is best to leave comforting audio tunes or videos with calming images and sounds when you are absent. An example has been included in this article.
Proper socialization and developmental training coupled with reward conditioning help offset negative effects. The key is to keep the pet involved in activities that lift it out of a self-centered mindset and stretch its cognitive skills beyond inherent insecurities. These help release stress and anxiety.
It is also useful to delve into the dog’s history and confirm when the behavior started. This knowledge could help uncover the trigger event and identify an appropriate solution. Tracking and maintaining an updated record of the dog’s behavior going forward will also be beneficial in veterinary consultations and medical examinations. Moreover, monitoring of this kind will help you establish if progress is being made through treatment and therapy.
Bear in mind that though there are plenty of drugs that can be administered including antidepressants, the optimal path to pursue is behavioral modification. Every drug introduced into the body alters the natural bio-chemical balance and this can have either temporal or long-term consequences. It is best to use prescription intervention as a final resort after other avenues have been exhausted.
Finally, as previously alluded to, make every effort to avoid enabling the behavior. Sometimes a canine will engage in these self-harmful activities to gain the owner’s attention, especially if the latter’s reactions are encouraging rather than corrective. Whenever such is the case, it is best to ignore the dog as it acts out. Similarly, the dog should be kept away from favorite places where it indulges in the behavior until the condition has been reversed.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.