Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors in Dogs

Tracy Libby

obsessive-compulsive behavior in dogs

Dogs, like humans, can develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors—those seemingly quirky, unexplainable, repetitive behaviors. Some dogs fixate on or chase reflective surfaces or repetitively lick surfaces, such as hardwood or tile floors. Others repetitively groom or lick themselves or suck their own flanks. Some dogs chase their tails or shadows on the ground, while others avoid imaginary objects. And then there’s the popular YouTube clip that features a dog growling and biting at a potential threat to his dog bone. Sadly, the “threat” is actually the dog’s own hind limb.

While these behaviors may seem hilarious to the untrained eye, they are no laughing matter and can present serious and potentially life-threatening complications including mental deterioration and physical injury.

Defining OCD and Its Cause

The term obsessive-compulsive disorder is universally accepted in humans, however, most experts are hesitant to label the canine disorder as “obsessive”—preferring the term canine compulsive disorder (CD)—as there’s no scientific data that dogs “obsess,” as humans do.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not very well understood in people, let alone dogs, and many aspects of the disorder remain a mystery. Compulsive behaviors can develop for a number of reasons, with researchers recently identifying a canine gene that confers a high risk of CD susceptibility. A dog's lifestyle can also be a contributing factor, with possible stressors including:

  • boredom - lack of adequate physical or mental stimulation
  • over-stimulation - fence fighting, chasing other dogs, etc.
  • stress - including a female's heat cycle or an 8-week-old puppy going to a new home
  • frustration - such as chasing a laser pointer that the dog can never catch
  • environment - dogs who are frequently tied up, confined to small areas, or raised in kennels
  • social conflict - such as a long separation from a companion or frequent aggression from other dogs in the family
  • physical abuse - dogs who are physically abused or punished randomly or unpredictably

When the conflict or frustration persist or occur regularly, the behavior can become compulsive, with the CD remaining after the stressful elements in a dog's life have been removed.

Behaviors run the gamut from mild—meaning they pose little interference to the dogs or owners—to completely incapacitating the dog. Dogs may become ill because they neglect to sleep, eat or drink—oftentimes becoming malnourished. Self-mutilating dogs may require medical attention or surgeries. Some breeds spin circles until their pads are bloody. Owners who attempt to interrupt the compulsive behavior may be bitten as a result of the dog’s frustration.

Breed-Specific Behaviors

While any dog can develop CD, clinical studies indicate that some compulsive behaviors are breed specific, such as:

Diagnosis and Treatment

A 2002 study shows the median age of onset is 12 months, yet some experts believe CD occurs before or at puberty in many dogs. Others start around 3 or 4 months. A dog who is displaying CD behaviors at 8 or 10 weeks is most likely genetically predisposed to developing a compulsive behavior.

Diagnosis is based on observation of the behavior, as well as historical data including the dates and times of the behavior, the context in which the behavior is shown, and whether or not the behavior can be interrupted. Equally important is ruling out any existing medical conditions. Neurological disorders, for example, can cause repetitive behavior such as circling or fly snapping. Dermatological conditions, such as lesions or irritations caused by allergies, can cause a dog to pick at himself, lick, or over groom.

Treatment is multi-faceted and consists of environmental and behavioral modification, and, oftentimes, pharmacological intervention, which generally includes medications that alter levels of neurotransmitters in certain regions of the brain.

In addition to avoiding all forms of owner-administered punishment, which exacerbates the situation, and providing sufficient exercise on a consistent schedule, experts recommend identifying the behavior as early as possible and, if known, removing the cause of conflict. The longer a behavior continues, the more it becomes ingrained and subsequently, the harder it becomes to treat.

What You Can Do

Prevention is key, and here's what you can do to help your dog before minor obstacles become enormous stumbling blocks:

  • Thoroughly research to understand the breed you've chosen including its predispositions to CD.
  • Learn the warning signs and how to spot CD behaviors early on.
  • Identify the behavior as early as possible and, if known, remove the cause of the conflict.
  • Avoid all forms of punishment, which exacerbates the situation.

When in doubt, always seek veterinary assistance or consult with an experienced dog trainer or licensed canine behaviorist. 

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