Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a well-known phenomenon in humans, but did you know that it affects dogs as well. Some researchers suggest that OCD affects up to 1 in 50 canines.
Before we continue any further, you must be aware that OCD is also the acronym used for Osteochondritis dissecans, a joint disorder affecting cartilage and bone. In this article, all mention of OCD should be taken to refer to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Our understanding of OCD in dogs is largely driven by the study of OCD in humans, primarily because humans can communicate what’s happening to them. The general consensus is that OCD is an anxiety disorder. Individuals have “obsessions” with some aspect of their lives that trigger compulsive behaviors.
A point to note is that these “compulsive” behaviors are actually quite normal behaviors … which have been taken to a repetitive extreme. After a while, the compulsive behaviors can take a life of their own, not requiring the original trigger. Animal behaviorists largely agree that this same model applies to dogs.
Types of OCD behaviors
Dogs can demonstrate OCD behavior of the following kinds.
- Tail chasing: This OCD involves chasing one’s own tail. German Shepherds and Bull Terriers are much more likely than other breeds to exhibit tail chasing.
- Spinning: Similar to tail chasing, this appears to affect Bull Terriers (*) more than other breeds.
- Licking: In this OCD, the dog may obsessively lick its companions or its own body parts. In some cases, this OCD can actually result in lesions like acral lick granuloma. A number of breeds can exhibit this behavior, but Great Danes, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers appear to be
- Excessive drinking: For some dogs, OCDs manifest in excessive drinking. Since what goes in has to come out, the dog also will exhibit excess urination. Caution! Excessive drinking can also be a result of serious medical conditions, so you must immediately investigate this in consultation with your veterinarian.
- Fly snapping: Some dogs — German Shepherds, for example — will repeatedly attempt to catch flies, usually imaginary ones. Some professional are of the opinion that, rather than OCD, these episodes could indicate seizures.
- Shadow chasing: In this OCD, the dog will stare or chase shadows, sometimes even barking at them.
- Flank sucking: This is most often seen in Dobermans. At times, the dog will suck on other objects such as a stuffed toy, clothes or blankets.
- Pica: This is the compulsive eating of non-nutritious substances. Pretty much anything is fair game, including rubber, plastic, wood or clothing.
- Persistent barking, and “hallucinating”: This is a variant of shadow chasing and fly snapping, but mostly manifested in barking.
What causes Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in Dogs
Like most psychological problems, there is no definitive understanding of what causes OCD. Having said that, here’s what the current consensus is.
OCD does appear to have a genetic component to it — as you probably noticed above, some behaviors are associated with specific breeds. High-strung dogs — genetics, again — seems to be more prone to OCD. However, beyond genetics, OCD is caused by a number of other factors.
A variety of research has suggested that experiences, particularly in early life are the primary triggers. Early weaning has been identified as a factor. Similarly, social conflict created by the dog’s companion animals (or owners), too much physical restraint, or an environment that appears unpredictable or uncontrollable to your dog have been shown to result in increased OCD behavior.
Poor or skewed nutrition also appears to be a factor.
Whatever the initial trigger, it is “conditioning” that is critical for the OCD to develop. For example, let’s say a dog was playing in the backyard when a breeze caused shadows to move. At the same time, in this hypothetical situation, imagine that a wasp stung the dog on its nose.
The dog now associates the shadow movement with the pain. The next time shadows move, the dog could well bark in alarm.
At this point, if the owner provides some positive reinforcement to the dog by, possibly, laughing at the dog or even “barking” at the imaginary foe, the behavior could “stick”, slowly developing into an OCD.
Why is OCD a concern?
Occasional OCD behavior poses no serious threat. In fact, some animal behaviorists are of the opinions that some of the harmless OCDs — like an obsession with a stuffed toy or a blanket — should not be discouraged because it could help keep the dog mentally balanced.
However, other OCDs, like tail chasing or licking for instance, can actually result in physical injury to the individual, for example, foot pad wear or tail trauma. Licking, as mentioned above, can lead to granulomas and complete hair loss.
Also, OCDs can reach a stage where the individual hardly ever sleeps or eats and social interaction with their owners is little to none. In some cases — obsessive barking for instance — owners have elected to euthanize their dog.
Dealing with OCDs
Dealing with obsessive compulsive disorders is not easy. Discuss it with a veterinarian so that other causes are ruled out. With OCD, the key is to identify and remove the source of conflict, if possible. Also, the earlier you deal with it, the better your chances of success. Try distracting the animal from the behavior. And, never punish her, since that only increases her anxiety level. Daily exercise and training also appears to help ward of OCDs.
Finally, there are animal behavior specialists who may be able to help.